Theory Teacher's Blog

Protests, State Violence, and the Manufacture of Dissent in Ethiopia

Two things happened simultaneously on May 1st, both involving the U.S. State Department and its relation to Ethiopia. Thing one was the State Department’s news program, Voice of America, broadcasting its brief account of Ethiopian security forces firing upon student demonstrations the previous day (April 30) at three universities resulting in 17 dead and many wounded. Thing two was the Secretary of State John Kerry in Ethiopia giving a speech full of praise for Ethiopia’s rapid economic development as well as the U.S.-Ethiopia partnership in addressing the violence against civilians in neighboring Sudan and Somalia. Apparently, Kerry was unaware that the day before, just a two-hour’s drive down the road from where he was speaking, America’s supposed partner, the Ethiopian government, had committed acts of violence against its citizens. In fact, thousands of individuals at universities and in cities across the Oromia region of Ethiopia had been protesting for days, and as the journalist Mohammed Ademo’s article for Think Africa pointed out on Tuesday (August 29), what they were protesting was precisely the consequences of the rapid economic development and foreign direct investment that Kerry praised in his speech — the eviction and displacement of tenant farmers and poor people due to the expansion of the capital city Addis Ababa into the Oromia region.

We might observe a contradiction here within the same State Department.  While the State Department’s news program laments an event and clearly points to the root cause, the State Department’s secretary appears ignorant of the event and also strangely unable to discern the causes of ethnic unrest across Africa. An Al Jazeera op-ed responding to Kerry’s speech suggests that the United States fails to see the contradiction in its policy that talks about democracy and human rights but in practice emphasizes security for foreign direct investment (as per the State Department’s own report on such investment in Ethiopia published shortly before Kerry’s visit.) Noticeably, two contradictory ideas are coming out of the State Department simultaneously. What do we make of that contradiction?

Before I answer that question, I might add on to this strange state of affairs by pointing out that Kerry did criticize the Ethiopian government for using repressive tactics against its journalists — the famous Zone 9 bloggers — but what strikes me is that at the very moment that Kerry criticizes the state of journalism in Ethiopia, the mainstream American news outlets such as CNN, National Public Radio, and the NY Times have for a long time neglected to give any serious coverage of the issues within Ethiopia and in fact did not report on the student demonstrations. The only American media mention of the recent student demonstrations and deaths is a very brief Associated Press article that appeared the day after Kerry’s speech (May 2) and that article embarrassingly gets its facts wrong about what happened and why. Such poor journalism is increasingly perceived to be the norm of America’s once celebrated media whose many factual inaccuracies and lack of any genuine will to truth arguably contributed to the Iraq War back in 2003. Curiously, the only news organization in America that did its job (the VOA) is the news organization intended to serve communities outside of America. Moreover, the VOA is part of the very same “department” that Kerry heads. The quality of mainstream American media coverage might seem excusable if it weren’t for the fact that BBC covered these tragic events in Ethiopia reasonably well, first on its radio program immediately after the massacre (May 1st) and then more comprehensively on its website the following day. You can listen to the radio report below:

Since this is a theory blog, I want to advance some philosophical hypotheses that we can draw from the U.S. State Department’s conflicted relationship to this tragedy. We might excuse Kerry for just being diplomatic at a diplomatic event, except that this blind spot seems more pervasive and systemic both in U.S. foreign policy and its coverage by its most respected news outlets, CNN, NY Times, and National Public Radio. Rather, what is happening here is a globalized twenty-first century version of what the theorist Stuart Hall, borrowing from Antonio Gramsci, called the “manufacture of consent” — that process whereby rather than through coercive force, hegemony is achieved through cultural means that slyly convinces individuals of their place in the world order. In this case, the role of Voice of America is to provide peoples all over the world (e.g., in Ethiopia) with access to the sort of “free journalism” (or at least, dissenting journalism) that doesn’t exist in their own country. In many ways, Americans should be genuinely proud that the VOA is what it is — relatively free journalism in over fifty languages that is independent of the organization that funds it and can publish dissenting views. Hence, through the VOA, the American government promises a sort of deferred liberalism (democracy and human rights) that the people within countries like Ethiopia aspire to even though at the same time the actual practice of the American government contributes to the very repressive regime that stifles its own civil society. This is why the American government media (e.g., NPR and VOA) sometimes appears more “free” than the private corporate media which is so beholden to the corporate agenda of its stockholders — ironically the same corporate agenda that the State Department is in some ways also beholden to.

Similarly, one could speculate that the rise of global philanthropists and civic organizations staffed by young graduates of peace-studies programs at American liberal arts colleges present the face of American liberalism that unintentionally undermines the very governments of the peoples they purport to help. This is why such philanthropy and civil society has been suggestively been called by some cultural theorists the “Trojan Horse” of global capitalism just as Christianity was once called the Trojan Horse of European imperialism.

But Gramsci and Hall’s theory of hegemony appears unable to fully account for the pervasive and ubiquitous violence and unrest that we see not only in Ethiopia but all over the world. In fact, ethnic conflict and violent expressions of dissent seem to have become the norm, and so I might suggest we revise their theory to point out a “manufacture of dissent” in which such dissent and perpetual crisis is ironically the unintended consequence of America’s global hegemony. Moreover, such local dissent ironically functions in a way that maintains the hegemony of global financial institutions (as was pointed out in Negri and Hardt’s famous book, Empire). We might find the more recent philosophy of Giorgio Agamben about the “state of exception” somewhat useful to explain this. Agemben focuses on how the normal functioning of law depends on an extra-legal assertion to establish the law. A simple and innocent example of this might be somebody writing on the chalk board in a classroom “Do not write on the chalk board.” The initial violation of the rule establishes the rule, and in this sense the rule’s own violation of itself is internal to the structure of the rule but externalized as its opposite. A more terrifying example of when the state of exception becomes the norm (rather than the exception) would be concentration camps, refugee camps, and “indefinite detention centers” (like that at Guantanamo Bay) in which individuals lived in a non-legal state that is organized by the state itself in the name of preserving law and rights.

In this more global context of foreign direct investment, international human rights organizations, and ethnic groups fighting over increasingly scarce land that is dominated by multinational capital, we have a peculiar state of exception — a new and somewhat strange space between competing jurisdictions and competing senses of sovereignty. One example of this state of exception is the troubled border between an Addis Ababa rapidly developing from foreign direct investment secured by global interests and the Oromia State that supposedly represents (constitutionally) the “people” who live in it. Hence, the local ethnic conflict that Americans may imagine to be “outside” their own democratic system is actually structurally inside it, hence the strange disconnect between the two offices of the U.S. State Department. My point here is not to play the blame game and look for the guilty party that we can then chastise and hold responsible. Rather, my point is (with Agamben) that noticing the structural gaps and impasses endemic to the system may enable the various constituencies to better address each other and work towards more ethical solutions.

There is more to say here, and admittedly, I am afraid my theorizing is a bit hard to follow. I am writing fast in order to participate in the very emotional conversation that has emerged about the issue over the past two days and so I have not yet fully worked out what I want to say. I will try to revisit this topic later when I have more time to reflect and work out what I like and dislike about Agamben’s theory. So I hope my readers will generously comment and help me think through this and figure out a way to express it more clearly.

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May 3, 2014 - Posted by | Oromia

2 Comments »

  1. Like you, Steven, I find that in the press of events, when we need to do the deepest thinking and the best writing, the rush prevents exactly that happening. Thanks for excellent thoughts anyway. Your sample letter makes up for any uncertainty in how to express these issues plainly. I believe that effective advocacy at the State Dept will come from bringing some clarity where you point out contradiction — US – backed democracy is being prevented by the kind of US-backed policies in place to encourage economic expansion. But, yes, let’s all think this through together. This is a great start…thanks.

    Comment by bkholcomb | May 5, 2014 | Reply

  2. It’s indeed a great start to theorize events and processes in Ethiopia. To try theorizing might seem a luxury when human beings suffer actually. It is a necessity because it helps us to understand, imagine what may happen tomorrow and work hark today to prevent the worst from coming to pass. Theory predicts, and your re-imagining of Agambe’s theory of exception becoming the rule puts in perspective everything that has been happening in that country: an authoritarian way to democracy and a monopolistic way to a free-market economy. Thanks for helping us see a trajectory. If only we can think, especially when events make us emotionally charged.

    Comment by egbarro | May 6, 2014 | Reply


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