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Production of the South: Incongruities and Loss of Meaning

The half century after the second world war was marked by the division of the world into North and South, with the latter often taking on the politically charged selfidentification of third world. This was paralleled by the divisions of "civilised" and "barbarian" and of development and poverty. This article argues that such division of geopolitical space is no longer valid and there has been a dissolution and blurring of lines which identified one with the other. Through a review of different countries in the South, this article shows how both objective criteria and self-identification often do not follow the North-South binary. Rather, there is now a "South" in the developed world while solvent consumers of the South are increasingly indistinguishable from the North.


Production of the South: Incongruities and Loss of Meaning

Bernard Hours, Monique Selim

The half century after the second world war was marked by the division of the world into North and South, with the latter often taking on the politically charged selfidentification of third world. This was paralleled by the divisions of “civilised” and “barbarian” and of development and poverty. This article argues that such division of geopolitical space is no longer valid and there has been a dissolution and blurring of lines which identified one with the other. Through a review of different countries in the South, this article shows how both objective criteria and self-identification often do not follow the North-South binary. Rather, there is now a “South” in the developed world while solvent consumers of the South are increasingly indistinguishable from the North.

Bernard Hours ( and Monique Selim ( are anthropologists at the Institut de recherche pour le développement, France.

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he colloquial French expression, perdre le Nord (“losing the North”) is usually applied to people who have lost their bearings and, at some point, their reason. Reason and the North go together. North is the direction in which the compass points to enable one to get one’s bearings in terrestrial space. It is the direction that saves the lost wanderer. That is why it is also the symbol of a return to order, to a space that is inhabited, enclosed in boundaries, civilised. It is in space of this sort that one recovers one’s bearings, comes back to one’s senses and returns to familiar surroundings. The West is always situated in the northern hemisphere. This is no coincidence; it is fraught with many meanings. The compass never points South; the South is simply the diametrical opposite of the North. The South is, so to speak, an “anti-bearing”; implicitly, it is defined by opposition; it is basically negative. That is why it is logical to introduce a study of the decline of the South by pointing out the decidedly positive value and normative nature of the geographical and physical notion of North (there is no ready definition of the South; the only explicit one is that of geography). We will examine the South as a representation, a construction, identify its logics and analyse them.

Use of the North/South dichotomy in economic and geopolitical discourse is thus, heavily weighted with hierarchical and ethnocentric connotations. Yet proper reasons are rarely given for use of these concepts, usually their validity is simply taken for granted. They evoke relationships without really examining them. The end of the cold war in the 20th century and the multiple globalisation processes that have emerged in its aftermath, however, have made it necessary to re-examine this intrinsically blurred and reductive coupling. The current situation is no longer that which pertained during the 1960s and the era of decolonisation.

The first part of this article will deal with the context – perfectly relevant in its time – in which the world was divided into a “North” and a “South”; we will examine the logics that underpinned this operation. The second part is to deal with the gradual dissolution of the South that is currently in progress. This will involve an examination of the research fields in which we worked (Cameroon, New Hebrides or present day Vanuatu, Bangladesh) in the course of the 20th century until it closed (in geopolitical terms) in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the fall of the Berlin wall. The new century ushered in a mutation of the globalisation process. This will be studied in other terrains (Vietnam, Laos, China, Uzbekistan). Whereas in the 20th century the terrain of the “South” was still clear enough to warrant study as such, the terrains of the 21st lead one to doubt the pertinence of the notion.

Doubts are not allayed by the adjunction of an “s” that makes the South plural: the current French practice of referring to “Suds” is an implicit admission that there has been a loss of meaning and that dispersal is now taking place. At the same time it is a way of dispensing with analysis.

Colonisation, Decolonisation, Development

The production of the notion of the South showed up throughout an historical and ideological process that lasted for a half century following the second world war. The South is the opposite of the North and its antithesis. Inside Italy and the United States (US), for example, a “South” has been identified and construed as less democratic and more backward than the corresponding North. But apart from this, the genesis of the South should also be analysed as a symbol of otherness, hierarchy and inferiority. This construction is one of the main chapters of the history of Otherness in the 20th century. As there were no longer new geographical worlds to be “discovered” and explored, the nature of otherness became the big concern of the day. Seen in this light, the colonial period is an important moment. The exhibition of a certain “backwardness” at the French Colonial Exhibition in 1930 is symptomatic. The colonial view asserted a certain superiority of the North in terms of civilisation; it also saw the tropics as essentially pathogenic – though nonetheless well worth exploiting. It was during this period that the North took on itself a “duty” to civilise populations and to develop resources. This colonial “tropicalism” was thus associated with unhealthy natural environments, dubious cultures and a degree of barbarity. It confuses “human beings” and their “milieu” in a positivistic style of thinking that is typical of its time. Today the entire construct has outlived its historical relevance.

The end of the second world war marks the beginning of a long period during which the construction of the “South” came to be seen as a political, economic and especially geopolitical necessity. It saw the beginning of decolonisation and the emergence of the concept of socio-economic development – forged by US president Truman, the inventor of development (Rist 1996: 116). The South came into being in the context of decolonisation and development. Both of these latter terms are based on an implicitly evolutionary theory: decolonisation follows colonialism, and development follows “underdevelopment”, in accordance with a supposedly built-in programme. This programme was western in origin; this should be clearly understood. Decolonisation brought into being new sovereign states equipped with the only project conceivable at the time: that of national development. Between independence and development a strong link was established, powering nationalisms (in India, Egypt, Algeria, Vietnam, etc). Former colonial powers launched policies of aid and cooperation in a spirit of benevolent paternalism. In a number of countries, these policies set up durable neocolonial straitjackets while other countries joined the socialist bloc or gravitated within its sphere of influence. During this first phase – neocolonialism following decolonisation, with interruptions (sometimes more symbolic than real) – “overcoming underdevelopment” was, verbally at least, the common aim of all newborn States, whether aligned or non-aligned with one or the other of the major blocs. The notion of “underdevelopment”, conflates colonial inferiority (“under”) and salvation from it (“development”). In the course of the 1960s, the South was constituted as a nascent entity, without as yet being named. The concepts used to characterise it were “underdevelopment” and “the Third World”. The former points to a deficit, to which the development project is linked. It is “underdevelopment” that gives “development” credibility. “Third World” – a term said to have been invented by the economist A lfred Sauvy – is the basis on which the third world ideology was to develop.

“Third-Worldism” is basically a progressive ideology aiming at liberation either of humanity (in the Christian version) or of peoples (in the Marxist one). It is inseparable from the anti-colonial struggle and the nationalisms that ensued from it. Franz Fanon, author of The Damned of the Earth, is an emblematic figure of this thinking. Heads of State such as Nasser, N’Krumah, Nehru, Sukarno and Tito gave political substance to the “Third World” at the conference of non-aligned powers held at Bandung in 1955. Over and above its metaphorical evocation of the third estate, during the cold war the third world was an alternative to the two blocs, a third path: an escape from the binary division of the world, the way to a possible autonomy. The non-aligned powers asserted an interest specific to young nations, preoccupied first and foremost by social and economic development. Heirs to the tradition of emancipation that stemmed from the Enlightenment, third world progressives combined this with a fervent nationalism. Their programme of emancipation drew inspiration from the idea that salvation would come from the poor. This was illustrated by the “liberation theology” developed in Latin America, and by the messianic Marxist revolution of which Che Guevara has remained the prophet and symbol.

Apart from its progressive nature, and in accordance with the now defunct concept of progressiveness, third worldism also contained an explicit “developmentalism”. It placed development at the heart of global issues. It did this in terms that – in comparison with current approaches dominated by the phraseology used by multilateral institutions such as the World Bank

– can be described as “non-technocratic”. It was during this p eriod – the 1960s and 1970s – that the first non-governmental organisations (NGOs) began to develop: in France, Frères de Hommes, Terre des Hommes, CIMADE and CCFD, and in Britain Oxfam and Save the Children. All proclaimed the ideology we have just described: a progressive and developmental approach to non-industrial non-western countries. In the name of “fair trade” (or “equal exchange”, as it is put in French), these organisations tried to stop the “rich man’s cattle from eating the poor man’s grain”, as Frères des Hommes expressed it. Development was seen as a flow that would restore the balance of justice in trade and of trade. In Tanzania, Nyerere launched the Ujamaa communes and auto-centric development. These beliefs and representations – which in today’s altered world can seem, at least, partly dated – were shared by an overwhelming consensus in these organisations. After this brief reminder, we would like to stress that “the Third World” can now be seen as the ancestor of “the South”, determining its origins. However, though descent is explicit, mutations have taken place. Most of these

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were brought about by the collapse of the USSR and the end of the cold war at the conclusion of the 20th century.

Proponents of this ideology – both Christian and Marxist – have always opposed capitalism, holding the laws of the market to be iniquitous. Unsurprisingly, the anti-third-world movement that emerged in France in 1985, Liberté sans frontiers, was financed (this has been clearly established today) by American foundations, among others the neoconservative Heritage Foundation. The 1980s were the decade of anti-totalitarianism aimed at the USSR, of Pascal Bruckner’s attack on the “White man’s snivelling”, of Reagan, Thatcher, and the neoconservative offensive that brought down, inter alia, the USSR. It was also the decade that saw the blossoming of humanitarian action that, for some time, replaced development with emergency relief (Hours 1998). At that juncture the idea of the third world lost relevance, while development morphed into structural adjustment and the struggle against poverty. In the course of the ideological cleansing that ensued, older beliefs weakened in the general disarray. The major non-aligned leaders had disappeared, nationalisms gradually ran out of steam and eventually, unwilling or unable to keep their promises, collapsed. Fidel Castro could not hold the stage all on his own. During the 1990s, the third world movement quietened down. The very notion of a third world lost most of its meaning, as it no longer proposed practical and credible political alternatives. The third world became plural. This change corresponded to a reduced pertinence of the notion, a suspension of its validity, a gradual fall into abeyance. “The South” gradually replaced it, implying a return to geography and to nature, after two decades dominated by history – political and social. The shift in referents coincided with the end of the cold war – and also that of the E nlightenment that had lasted since the 18th century. It was the moment when the 20th century ran aground and globalisation began to take shape.

Although “the South” is clearly a sequel to “the third world”, its derivation cannot be firmly established, as qualitative transformations took place during the transition. The South is part of a global dichotomy that can potentially be de-politicised and rendered merely descriptive, by occulting its messianic and r evolutionary facets. Historically, “third world” and “development” go together; one wonders whether today displacement and modification of meanings – or possibly even identifiable m utations – have replaced this couple with the “South” and “poverty”. The second pair seems more concise, clearer, better attuned to the media – in a nutshell, more intelligible. What lies behind the change is perhaps also an attempt to put across as continuity in the paternal western view of things a multiplicity of actual breaks. This leads us to question the validity and relevance of the notion itself of the “South”, destabilised by a number of occurrences apparently springing from globalisation. Examining the construction of the third world and then that of its a vatar, the South, looking through the lens of “development”, one comes to the conclusion that the third world was seen as part of the former tripartite world, more varied than today’s b inary one. The third world was a void to be filled, a lack to be supplied, its unfair trade a balance to be restored. The South, in contrast, is merely the Other corresponding to the North, a

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symbol of otherness and of difference, rather than of flow and communication. As a notion it is a far more static, non- dialectical antithesis between the poles of the compass – but it is also the reverse of the North when some putatively “Southern” countries (e g, North Korea, Iran) reject multilateral discipline and become a danger. When “Northern” countries behave like this, things go much more smoothly.

Projecting the North/South Dichotomy

We will now try to show how the notion of the South is received in the societies that are putatively “southern”, and how inadequate it can prove to be when seen from inside these societies. We will distinguish between terrains that are still involved in the 20th century, and those that are already moving into the 21st. The break between the two periods comes at the end of the cold war, with the collapse of the USSR and of communism as a viable alternative, leaving capitalism as the only available mode of e conomic organisation.


To begin, let us take Bangladesh between 1985 and 1990. During these years two developments remodelled the internal structure of the country and changed its articulation to the outside world. The implantation and growth of Islamist politics at the local level resonated, at first, with the widespread perception of Islam as a tool that could be used to challenge established arrangements and lay claim to a different future. The fatwa pronounced against Salman Rushdie was gradually sinking into people’s minds when in Bangladesh the humanitarian market – subsequently to be globalised – was tested for the first time. These two social phenomena are contradictory only in appearance: both, in fact, are symptoms of the ongoing globalisation, encapsulating its central analytical categories. The floods that affected Bangladesh every year – drawing in crowds of well-meaning aid workers – established in the western media that the country was part of the afflicted South that was being saved by the generous, technically and scientifically more advanced, North. This representation was broadcast and eventually made self-evident. Yet it was rejected by all sections of the Bangladeshi population, from top to bottom of the social hierarchy. A multitude of local NGOs – the same organisations as had contributed to the struggle for national independence from the southern occupant, Pakistan – mobilised the elite and the middle classes that favoured reform. Intellectuals saw the influx of western humanitarians first and foremost as a disguised – and bungled – attempt at domination, completely out of synch with the local situation. In 1989, for example, on Fridays (the day of rest), children of educated families would go with their parents to the site in the city centre where ultraléger-motorisé or ultralight planes (ULMs) sent by Médecins du Monde were parked. Obliged by regulation to carry a soldier to escort the pilot, these contraptions could carry only 60 kgs of rice on each trip. People laughed – amazed at the naivety and the arrogance of these foreigners who had not even thought about the actual c onditions under which they were going to operate. Bangladeshi society – self-confident and hierarchical – distanced itself from initiatives like this that put it a position of inferiority (“Southern”), maintaining that it was perfectly willing and able to cope with the recurrent floods, which it has come to treat as a ritual. On another level, the floods were an internal political event enabling the population to strengthen its opposition to the military dictatorship led by general H M Ershad (1982-1900). Affluent and impoverished competed alike in frustrating the state: by means of protracted strikes and, when dramatic events such as the floods caused thousands of deaths among the poor peasantry and shantytown dwellers, by showing up the government’s disregard for the people. Seen from outside the country as a spectacle – powerless people flooded out, waters devastating cities and countryside – from within the situation was seen in a very different light. Sweet are the uses of adversity. People showed extraordinary resourcefulness in keeping up normal activities and the rate of production. Their clean clothes wrapped up in neat packets on their heads, men and women waded to work and to meeting points, sometimes up to their necks in the muddy water, and changed into clean clothes once they got there. Anxiety was contained; interest groups formed, but without dissolving the intrinsic violence of social relationships in an unrealistic dream of solidarity. This is a far cry indeed from the vision of an incompetent South, defeated and crushed. The anthropologist notes in these activities, played out year after year, a fine-tuning of specific logics to deal with awkward recurrences.

Fierce resistance to potentially humiliating humanitarian aid follows the same rules that apply to the integration of foreigners in general, it does not vary according to the local people’s social or economic capital. Integration is based on the notion of the visitor as a debtor, assigned to a position of inferiority by his local hosts; he is beholden to them, and by treating him generously they raise their own status. This scenario is identical in the shanty towns and the sumptuous mansions of the corrupt ruling elite.

Apart from this particular form of resistance, political Islamism – formerly a weapon used by Pakistani “colonialism” that was defeated in the war of liberation – regained strength during the decade we are dealing with. It helped boost political power through the 1982 decree that made Islam the official religion. This engendered a creeping Islamisation of society, eventually giving Islam the universal dimension to which it had always aspired, secreting Islamic categories of hierarchy and status, and marginalising recalcitrant outsiders. Determinedly, Bangladesh decided that it wanted no part of the South to which foreigners had tried to assign it. Moreover Islamism, by replacing communism as the arch-enemy of the ontologised “West”, makes, by its very nature, the idea of a “South” irrelevant. Islam sets up new, globalised modes of identification, not only in imagery and politics, but also in economics and finance; these dissipate the notion of a “South”. The North is no longer the exclusive enemy; many Southern regimes also come in for attack; the Islamist project is a global one. The community of Moslems – the Umma – is essentially transnational (Haenni 2005).


Apropos this dissolving of the South, we could briefly compare the Bangladeshi situation to that in Cameroon, an excellent e xample of a politico-economic neocolonialism that has given an identity to its subjects. In Cameroon the foreigner is inserted – willy-nilly, in many cases – into a hierarchical relationship in which he occupies a superior position stemming from that of the former colonial masters; in the streets he is addressed as patron (“master” or “boss”). Enormous demands are made on him, and he is duty-bound to respond to them; but the void he is called upon to fill is an abyss. In this case, reality is a caricature of the hypothetical South. An uncontrollable effort to outbid leaves the local people no other option than to beg manna from the former colonial masters, who still happen to be there – among other roles, as advisers to the current regime.

In the early 1980s Cameroon was emerging from the authoritarian rule of Ahmadou Ahidjo and entering into the long (Paul) Biya era without knowing how long it was going to last. A lot of hope was placed on this “renewal”. In Francophone African countries (former French colonies) – this was a period of authoritarian political power – power inherited from independence and subsequently misappropriated. In a way, it was by no means obvious that these countries were completely part of the South. Except for Tanzania under Nyerere, Ghana under N’Krumah, and the Congo, with its the emblematic Lumumba, most African countries were only minor players in the third world and, subsequently, the South. Guerrillas such as those in Angola came after independence; they were part of the cold war’s local theatres of the global clash between the two blocs.

What we have here, then, are violent national dramas, secondary episodes of the cold war, or combinations of both. But countries living under the tolerant, paternalistic umbrella of France’s Co-opération were not part of either. During the 1980s, Cameroon, like the Ivory Coast and Senegal, were actually less full memberstates of the South than mere neocolonies or post-colonial protectorates. Though “Third-Worldist” NGOs were developing vigorously during the 1970s and 1980s in Africa, civil society failed to emerge and (with the single exception of South Africa) Africa gradually receded to the margins in which it still vegetates today. Lasting alienation set in on a continent that had a wealth of religious messianic movements but virtually no political ones; the latter in many cases were simply gagged. Yet, in other parts of the world the gags were torn off. One gets the impression that in the early 1980s in Cameroon one world was contained in another, like Russian dolls. The national theatre of operations was to a large extent autonomous; mentally it was part, not of the third world or the South, but of a specific French-African universe. This, however, was before this last concept came into vogue – a factor that explains why we find no reference to a larger entity beyond the borders of the local political system and society sheltering under the French umbrella. In this specific universe real dependency was strong, though in comparison with the symbolic dependency experienced by the “subjects of two presidents”, one local and the other metropolitan, it seems weak. This world seemed to be able to get along without conceiving of anything beyond bilateral cooperation with the former metropolis. There was no place for the South – a notion referred to only by the “White” activists of the developmental NGOs, and by a few other NGOs such as ENDA in Senegal and in Benin. After its third world paroxysm – Patrice Lumumba’s messianic tragedy – liberation

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movements were nipped in the bud, and Africa simply missed out on the next phase – the South.

New Hebrides

Moving on to the New Hebrides in the mid-1970s, we find in this Franco-British condominium a dual caricature of the colonial world. The “White” planters were living out the last years of the world of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The missions provided the principal political structure and the only framework available to civil society – apart from cargo cults like Nagriamel and John Frumm. No such thing as a South existed in this universe, there was only a crude form of North, cocksure of itself and the inherited prerogatives carried over from the 19th century. This North constantly caricatured “Northern-ness” – though with a lag of two generations that made the archipelago an isolate, and put the Pacific almost outside the real world. It was part of the latter only as a tax haven and a refuge for practically naked men who lived outside all ideological fields. Local identity was based on two markers: on one hand, custom and its so-called traditional rules, and on the other, membership of a church and a religion. Sometimes one of these went against the other. The South was absent from these islands and to some extent they were treated as extraterritorial. With their clumsy parliamentary institutions and their apparently colonial dependence, they were not part of the global interdependence of the world. The islands of the Pacific should possibly be seen as having a special status. Liberation movements there were micro-nationalistic; they were barely visible to observers outside the region. The islands were protected from famine and mass poverty by their sparse population. Considered from both exogenous and endogenous points of view, these societies overseen by Australia and France were to a large extent outside the third world and subsequently the South.


This brings us to the present century. We will examine some paradigmatic terrains that illustrate other incongruities incompatible with the projection of a “South” – a notion now probably obsolete. These terrains have all known communism – in pre or post- declensions. In Laos, during the years 1993-2000, the government – i e, the Communist Party, which has been in power since 1975 – brought in the Chinese model of “market socialism” to avoid economic ruin and the overthrow of the government – the outcomes that had put an end to the USSR. After experiencing serious shortages and major failures, the economy revived, but only very slowly, despite a broad opening up to foreign capital. To counterbalance this opening, authoritarian political rule was maintained to ensure basic management. Freedom was, nonetheless, conceded to religion. Communism, imported and imposed, was an extraneous graft and had no real hold over the people, who perceived it only through the terror it inspired, and resorted massively to emigration. The cult of mediums (Hours and Selim 1997) saw a revival. In these cults, through the words of genies transmitted by their mouthpieces (or “vessels”), the world stage was represented with its actors, with Laos among them. In Buddhist terms, communism was preceived to have sent Laos into a deep regression, obliging the genies to hide in fear and

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break their linkage to Buddha’s representative, the king. The introduction of capitalism enabled the genies to return in large numbers, multiply their marriages with humans and thus transform the latter into mediums. Laos thus returned to its place in a universe where genies moved constantly, choosing their elect in the USA or in France, caring for and healing the sick who awaited them eagerly. The genies apparently liked the market and in the 1990s ceremonies were magnificent, spectacular celebrations of refound plenty and joy. The year 2000, however, with the Asian crisis and the devaluation of the kip, disappointed the genies; they sulked, announced that they were divorcing the lao mediums and planned to move to fresh fields and pastures new, and remarry where money flowed more freely. Though they no longer confronted the communist government that had given them back their freedom, they came to the conclusion that capitalism was unreliable, a thing of mere chance. There was neither a North nor a South in the collective imagination embodied by the genies; instead, there was a political trial of strength (between the genies and the government), a state of the economy (shortages, markets), and time (which brought closure or deferred the accomplishment of Buddhist civilisation).


In neighbouring Vietnam – one of the agents who had imported communism into Laos – the configuration was quite different. The party-state had come to power as the result of a long war of liberation – the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese people against American imperialism. By the end of the 1990s, the “market socialism” developmental route led to “feral” modes of capitalist production in which there were no checks and balances whatever to regulate profitability. The party elite – heading not only the economic enterprises but all institutions – took over all resources and exploitation became inordinate (Selim 2003). Deep-seated discontent welled up in the lower strata of society, which was defenceless against this new form of, not only political but also economic, domination. In this context, communism, hijacked by its officials, blocked off any vision of the world in terms of a North and a South. Until 1991 Vietnam lived in a universe with the USSR as the positive pole. When the latter disappeared, Vietnam tried to restore a network of trade with its former “brother-countries”, all of which had converted to capitalism, with or without a partystate. Political propaganda made no distinction between states like North Korea and Rumania and its main aim was to efface from public perception the dramatic dissolution of the USSR and the collapse of communist regimes. It was urgent to keep up the Vietnamese regime’s image of permanence. For the population – in whose eyes the tutelary figure of Ho Chi Minh still presided over the State – the future seemed to hold the possibility of a better life with fewer hardships, to be attained by dint of hard work. There were no doubts as to Vietnam’s ability, both individual and collective, each at its own level, to hold its own in international competition. All realised that they no longer had a protector, a benign “Big Brother”, and that there was to be no more free aid as the provident USSR had gone for good. Neither would Vietnam itself be sending a skilled workforce to help out other countries, as it had done in Algeria. The old hierarchy of the communist world, based on the degree of communist development of each nation, had disappeared. Without so much as a symbolic transition, it had been replaced by a world of pitiless competition, perceived without romance, but also without regret. This new world was also inhabited, however, by populations that were rough, backward and inferior – in particular in Africa, both north and south of the Sahara. Such appeared the opinion of most Vietnamese, whose impervious racial vision, during the colonial period, had symbolically led them to draw closer to the French settlers in order to distance themselves from other subject peoples. This had given them a special status.


After the fall of the USSR, Laos, like Vietnam, turned towards China, which in 1978 had decided to adopt the market system – early in the 21st century it was already a leading capitalist power

  • but without giving up communism. Draconian censorship of the media continued, applied with rigour even to the American internet majors that had conquered the gigantic Chinese media market. Today China is a world centre. Thanks to the long history of its development as a state and its omnipresent bureaucratic supervision, it has never, for any significant length of time, belonged in any way to the South. The subsequent development of a new form of communism – radical, exceptional and purportedly exemplary
  • has strengthened its pervasive nationalism, precluding any thought of inferiority. Its ability to cope with the regular crises of the regime, responding to challenges by launching new policies with engaging slogans about every 10 years, has shown that its political history has been widely appropriated by the people. Identification with the Chinese state outweighs all other factors, to the point that it even allows for critical thinking, endoscopic soul-searching, cicatrisation, and self-questioning, both individual and collective. Questioning of this sort, in which reflection can take on a universal significance, makes the dichotomies stemming from the North/South divide irrelevant to China. Yet the old trauma of the occupation by Western powers and subsequently by Japan still persists. These fragmentary colonial experiences, and the messianic developmentalism preached by Mao, give China certain historical traits also found in the “South”, though not to the point of blurring important differences. The “Southern” traits are the existence of a rich, globalised minority, proper to neither North nor South, and of an indigent majority, reduced to precarious employment and forced to emigrate; these traits persist in a country that, despite its deep-seated duality, untiringly asserts its own centrality and autonomy.
  • Uzbekistan

    We terminate our tour of the terrains that are difficult to see as part of “the South” by visiting a former Soviet republic, Uzbekistan, which became independent in 1991. Economic collapse, a ferocious dictatorship, mass unemployment, recurrent monetary crises and routine corruption are some of the traits that place the country in a version of the South that is bound to fall to pieces. Inside the country, however, all do their level best to hide their poverty from the investigating anthropologist, ashamed of the misfortune that has been their destiny. Nostalgia for the USSR is felt in all fields, individual and collective. Being part of the USSR meant belonging to a superior, developed ensemble, with technical and scientific means rivalling those of the capitalist West. A luminous past is being reconstructed in retrospect in an increasingly sombre political and economic present. Everyone wants to leave the country, emigration goes mainly towards Russia and neighbouring Kazakhstan. Attachment to the former centre, an inability to let go of “empire”, the fantasy of a new “union”, and the sense that independence has been a fall, an accident than something desired – all of these factors distance the inhabitants increasingly from the South. Had the country been part of the South, it could have confirmed its current position and let its glorious past subside into oblivion. Instead of this, the population simply feels lost, part of an empire that collapsed and rather than of an improbable Southern ensemble. Former colonial subjects, the people of Uzbekistan think of themselves less as emancipated than as abandoned. From this sense springs the reorganisation of central Asia around Russia as a centre. It is currently under way, despite “revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia.

    Global Incongruities

    During the colonial and neocolonial periods, the North usually invaded the South. Globalisation, however, seems to have inverted the movement, which now proceeds from South to North. This can be seen in the migratory flows and in precariousness, which was formerly specific to the South. In its various guises – economic, financial, moral, legal, medical, precautionary and protective – globalisation generalises an impression of delocalisation. Have the notions of centre and periphery – typical of third world thinking – become obsolete? Distribution of corporate headquarters, offices, production sites and potential consumer markets is no longer structured along a binary North-South divide.

    Migratory flows still seem to be running from South to North in accordance with the previous logic of the poor moving towards the rich. However, these migrants no longer get stable industrial employment, but only temporary seasonal work, often clandestine, and devoid of any future. The image of the North as a symbol of wealth and stability is clearly changing. Moreover, a growing number of Northern citizens are being transformed into mere “outcasts” (the excluded), condemned to unemployment, “temping” and flexibility in one form or another. The North is now producing its own South at home. The South is no longer outside it, but inside.

    The break between rich and poor, or more precisely between solvent and insolvent consumers, with the latter being marginalised, can be found today inside all societies. Local bourgeoisies and sectors that can be assimilated to the “middle class” all eat much the same food, wear similar clothes and take the same medicines. They watch the same films, listen to the same music, and have the same leisure activities in the same places. The globalisation of commodities induces this uniformity. Commodities now include not only health and beauty products, but also art works and religious beliefs – i e, the symbolic and cultural merchandise that underpins identity. Supply of these products is now organised on a global basis, creating global clienteles that are largely transnational. Links to the original local societies have weakened as

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    those to global markets, both real and virtual, have gained strength. The money used for these transactions has no odour, its local attachments are losing significance, but without actually disappearing as production of wealth and income, at least in part, is still local. However this may be, capital tends to produce more income than labour, and this can explain the labile nature of the local links of solvent operators in any market. On the other hand the non-solvent outcasts, the “poor” – not Mother Teresa’s poor, but the World Bank’s: a different definition – tend to react by boosting the value of their identities, turning identity into a priceless commodity with incommensurable symbolic value. This plays into the hands of radical, terrorist and fundamentalist movements, whose sound and fury now thunders across the planet and will no doubt continue to do so.

    Exclusion can be observed in one form or another in all societies, North and South. This factor too tends to invalidate the North-South dichotomy. Pockets of relegation and social and cultural ghettos are cropping up everywhere, generating new affiliations and behaviour patterns. French and Chinese jobseekers have stories and profiles that may seem different but in fact stem from the same factors: the delocalisation of European enterprises, the closure of State-owned production units, and the general tendency to cut social benefits and retirement pensions in order to increase flexibility and promote readaptation. The precarious tenure that formerly characterised the countries of the South is now current in those in the North. It makes sense to speak metaphorically of a “South in the North”.

    The crumbling of social protection systems in Europe is a symptom of this. Social budgets are no longer commensurate to social problems. Inversely, in the more efficient of the Southern economies, as in China, protection of this sort is now being envisaged in order to limit the risks arising from the widening gap between rich and poor. In the South, the French healthcare system is taken as a model, yet in France itself it is chronically – and perhaps permanently – in deficit. These shifts in viewpoint correspond to the criss-cross patterns of economic flows. Can old Northern models be recycled in the South and vice versa? Microcredit, yesterday typical of the South, is being put forward today as a means of “redeeming” the European jobless and poor by conferring on them “entrepreneurial capacity”. Microcredit was born in Bangladesh – a peasant society where incomes were extremely low. Initially the Grameen Bank reserved microcredit for women and for the poorest of the poor, to promote their emancipation. Today, 40 years after the first Bangladeshi experiments in the Tangail district, officials in France are attempting to develop microcredit to help the French workless to pull themselves “out of poverty”.

    The unexpected displacement of the French healthcare model to a very different locus is fraught with meaning. The North-South axis has been broken; the poverty that its institutions were set up to alleviate with is now to be found everywhere. Will we see the Chinese “middle classes” subscribing to health insurance on the French 1970 model, while in France the poor are reduced to microcredit, which is, now, not seen so much as a gesture of social solidarity but as a financial mechanism? Shifts in perspective of this sort, “cross-dressing” a destabilised North and a heterogeneous

    Economic & Political Weekly

    july 25, 2009 vol xliv no 30

    South, correspond first and foremost to a breakdown of the historical North-South coupling, a worn-out 20th century product now falling to pieces.

    With the market economy enforcing flexibility, constant adjustment, and permanent mobility, precariousness today has become widespread. The more the market absorbs solvent consumers, the more it expels those whose low income prevents them from taking part in the feast. This apparent entry of the South into the North is in fact that of a South that is not really the South any more, and of a North that has slipped its moorings. Looking at economic, political, social and moral displacements, the implosion of these categories as a result of ongoing globalisation is obvious. It proves – but is proof still needed? – that basic mutations are taking place. Having recognised what they are, we should now assess their amplitude.

    As the colonial and neocolonial domination of the North over the South recedes into the past, what is emerging is a globalised dependency within the framework of the market. The latter is a single all-embracing field, covering the economy, international finance, the ethics of human rights, health, diseases that cross all frontiers, and last but not least, security, indispensable if one to enjoy one’s consumerism in peace and quiet.

    This generalised interdependency constitutes the main driving force of globalisation, linking agents who used to be national and are now transnational. North and South evoked worlds that were different in many ways. We are forced to admit today that many of these differences are fading away, leaving in their stead a single indifferent world: no longer that of citizen, but that of consumer. It comes in two versions, solvent and insolvent, the new binary divide. The solvent consumer is integrated into his society; the insolvent one is cast out – but constantly plied with “solutions”: evening classes, temporary allocations, microcredit, etc. He can redeem himself by crossing over – not by sailing the straits of Gibraltar in an overloaded, leaking boat, but by buying or selling goods of some sort or the other in the approved fashion: in the North or the South, whichever.

    Beyond North and South: The Figure of the Stranger

    As the categories of North and South dissolve and seem to disperse, they come together again, but in new ways and guises. This is leading to major ideological recompositions. To conclude our article we would like to look at just one of these: the Stranger; We will conclude with a brief examination of the construction of this imaginary figure in various national settings. The Stranger would seem to stem from a generalised process that occurs not only in mature, industrialised societies, but also in largely rural ones, and in both developing and collapsing economies. The foreign actant1 is constructed using materials drawn from both internal and external population groups, articulated and yet confused; the construction serves to bolster identifications threatened by the eclipse of hierarchies based on the North-South axis. The Stranger menaces the Self in its innermost (individual) and outermost (collective) dimensions. Symbolically, he is placed close to sensitive zones, and has therefore to be pushed as far as possible away from them. If this were not done, society as whole might contract a “cancerous tumour” (as it is phrased in irresponsible political discourse). Every nation has a foreign figure that it tends to display in a purely negative light. These figures help to reconstitute the coherence and unity that have been torn apart by market mechanisms. The market tends to put up barriers between social classes, at the risk of estranging them from one another to such an extent that they can no longer communicate. This has given a new lease of life to myths of the autochthon – with its variants and degrees of authenticity or purity. This is the case in the Ivory Coast, in India and in Europe. It takes no account of previous political systems. This ideological actant draws its substance from the remains of the North-South axis, putting them together in a completely new way. It encapsulates the central analytical categories of the new grammars of globalisation – in particular in the moral field. Accused of stealing jobs and wealth, the Stranger is invariably also suspected of introducing different manners and morals and of wielding dangerous powers, targeting women in particular. Spanning the oceans, in the former territories of the North and South, now bereft of the dichotomies that formerly shored them up, the status of women is brandished as a national standard. It has become the emblem of the pressing need for an ontological break with foreigners. In the name of women’s freedom and inviolable dignity, identical dramas are being played out under all skies, in throbbing, haunting repetition. Their purpose is to legitimise higher rights in a global juncture that paradoxically has made rights universal but restricted access to them according to income. This brings us to one of the most interesting contradictions arising from the collapse of the old North-South décor. The role assigned to women has become a fetish. This development provides a link to the colonial period, when the way in which women were treated was the main trait marking the native as a barbarian.

    Today, as we witness the endless declension of standardised but deceptively different foreigners, the production of identity is


    1 In the narratology of A J Greimas, one of six basic categories of fictional role common to all stories. The actants are paired in binary opposition: Subject/ Object, Sender/Receiver, Helper/Opponent. A character (or acteur) is an individualised manifestation of one or more actants; but an actant may be realised in a non-human creature (e g, a dragon as Opponent) or inanimate object (e g, magic sword as Helper, or Holy Grail as Object), or in

    being relocalised. Localisation now serves as the main marker of identity, replacing the old geopolitical referents, North and South, as they fade into oblivion. Seen from this angle, the West turns out to be an illusion, the East a fantasy; tales of belonging enchant us, but are lethal. Identities compete with one another, all based on factitious roots; the status of women is often used to gain an advantage. But this status is now based neither on the binary opposition between (as the North imagined it) freedom in the North and oppression in the South, nor (as it was seen from the South) between the honest South and the meretricious North. Women in the new upper middle classes in India and China belong partly to the North (as enthusiastic consumers), while poor women often stand in the front line of demonstrations against foreign oppressors, national and multinational (for e xample, in Venezuela or Bolivia).

    The enemy can be an internal ethnic group, a foreign State – neighbouring or remote – or a multinational corporation. What counts in this process, apparently, is the construction of an e ndogenous consensus against the Other. This Other no longer tends to come from the North; he (or she) can also come from the South. This makes the traditional division even more fragile, and adds to the relativising effect of other multiform, plurivocal globalisation processes.

    In this partly new landscape, the South is being recomposed in accordance with logics that are less geographical than global. The same can be said of the forms of domination and exclusion that are also currently being restructured. The South was a phase in the relations of domination between societies. With the advent of global interdependency, its foundations have crumbled, while new forms of domination have been developed. These are now largely delocalised, affecting all societies, each of which suffers from internal fragmentation and is r eforming on the basis of its identity in its struggle against e nemies, imaginary and real.


    April 25, 2009

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