April 17, 2024

Decolonizing Identity Politics Through Subjective In-Betweenness, Part 2 (Rode Molla)

The following is the second of a four-part series. The first can be found here.

In November 2020, war erupted between the Ethiopian federal government led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the TPLF (the party in the Tigray region; TPLF stands for Tigrayan People Liberation Front). The Ethiopian government accused the TPLF of attacking the Ethiopian soldier, but TPLF blame the federal government for being anti- Tigray and anti-TPLF. TPLF resisted Prime Minister Ahmed’s plan for postponing the 2019 election due to the Coronavirus pandemic. After the war erupted between the Tigray region and the Federal Government, millions were displaced, thousands died, thousands of children and women were in danger of being sexually assaulted, women were raped, and famine became the main challenge for millions of people in the Tigray region and neighboring states.

In the Ethiopian context, identity politics functions as rational governmentality that causes war, violence, instability for the lives of millions for the centuries. The Ethiopian feudal emperors, Derge, EPRDF, and the current Prosperity Party use their political practices to colonize the bodies of Ethiopians, which is biopolitics. Their political impositions were integrated with the juridical, educational, and political structure to suppress the agency and subjectivity of Ethiopians. In the following, I will use Wendy Brown’s theory to show how neoliberalism eliminates homo politicus and the subjectivity of Ethiopians.

Neoliberal Political Rationality

I intend to discuss the broader discourse of neoliberalism in the United States and Europe to guide my conversion to address its practical impact on the African and Ethiopian context. I argue that neoliberalism is a form of neocolonial governmentality. To critically reflect on the ethnic conflict, war, and identity politics that Ethiopians face, I will be conversing with the broader field of neoliberalism. Wendy Brown, in Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, employs Foucault’s concept of biopolitics to describe the practical impact of neoliberalism.

Brown’s argument is that neoliberalism is not only an economic policy that creates competition in the economy; “rather, as a normative order of reason developed over three decades into a widely and deeply disseminated governing rationality, neoliberalism transmogrifies every human domain and endeavor, along with humans themselves, according to a specific image of the economic.”32 That makes human beings homo economicus. Brown joins Foucault and other neoliberal theorists who articulate definitions of neoliberalism that includes its effects on culture, normative understandings, and a sense of reason, beyond just the economy.33

Homo economicus means both the state and the demos are living within the expectation that neoliberal governmentality demands them to maximize their capital through entrepreneurialism and self-investment in order to attract investors.34 The main economized form of neoliberalism is practiced through higher education in the United States and Europe. In the neoliberal era, there is nothing other than an economic goal of being human. Brown’s main argument is that neoliberal reason is not only economic; instead, it exists in education, culture, workplace, and juridical system by operating as a political governing system. Neoliberal governmentality controls individual lives by being part of their practical life in every day.

According to Brown, Foucault’s definition of neoliberalism does not address the socio-political lives of the demos. Foucault’s biopolitics addresses homo economicus and homo juridicus, people’s relationship with the state, economy, and pastorate. However, the biopolitics of Foucault’s discourse misses homo politicus. Homo political sovereignty could form political, social, economic representation for the public good.35 In order to define homo politicus, Brown employs Aristotle’s view that addresses human beings as political animals. Brown writes:

The formulation of man as fundamentally political—meant to live in the polis, share in its rule, deliberate about proper actions and just relations in very sphere of life—is the foundation for handling this problem. Man is political because he is a language-using, moral, and associational creature who utilizes these capacities to govern himself with others.36

Brown emphasizes the political governmentality of neoliberalism since the political power of human beings is eliminated by the power of homo economicus. Neoliberalism becomes political rationality giving shape to the state and human beings in all institutions and organizations.37 The political nature of the state and the demos becomes economized, meaning “when homo politicus fades, and the figure of human capital takes its place, no longer it is entitled to ‘pursue his own good in his own way.’”38 The human capital, or homo economicus, vanquished the sovereign agency and subjectivity of the demos.

Human beings’ religious, cultural, political, and social freedoms become economized through the normative rationality and political governmentality of neoliberalism. Brown leads the neoliberal conversation to the political function in the everyday lives of individuals. The economic and state governmentality that Foucault employs does not tell us the personal power of human beings, but Brown argues that neoliberalism vanquished not only the state governmentality and market justice, but also the agency of human beings. That makes neoliberalism a socio-political rationality that impacts the agency of human beings.

Kwame Boafo-Artur, in his article “Trapped in Development Crisis and Balkanisation: Africa Verus Globalisation,” argues that Africans need to create a political and economic unity and community in order to resist the global governmentality of neoliberalism. The journey of globalization for Africans began in the era of slavery. It worked in different approaches to colonize Africans, and those approaches shaped Africans’ political, economic and social development. In the 21st century, globalization works through the neoliberal open market economy that creates an international market capital all over the world. So, the African continent needs to respond to the global economic power of neoliberalism through “logic of inevitability.”39

In what follows, I will discuss the global implications of a neoliberal framework that creates ethnic fragmentation, eliminating in-between spaces and in-between consciousness in Ethiopians.

Neoliberalism as Global Governmentality and Identity Politics

Foucault’s and Brown’s views were written in the European and American perspective, and they do not show the global understandings and definitions of neoliberalism and its impact in the postcolonial context. In this part of the paper, I will use Quinn Slobodian and Carl Raschke’s work on neoliberalism. Slobodian argues that the Geneva school has seen neoliberalism as a legal and political practice that is demonstrated through institutions and policy and trade agreements. Slobodian writes, “My narrative presents a vision of neoliberal globalism viewed from Europe because it was Central European neoliberals who most consistently looked at the world as a whole.”40

The school of Geneva contradicts the neoliberal definitions and conceptual understandings that emphasize neoliberalism as an ideology that started after the end of apartheid in South Africa or the end of the Soviet rule in Europe. Instead, the school of Geneva addressed neoliberalism through a world economy and world nations that created global institutions as a new colonial system after the end of the empires and the First World War.41 Slobodian writes:

The rise of Geneva School globalism had little to do with the supposed free- market utopianism or market fundamentalism of which it is often accused. It was clear to the intellectuals of the 1930s that the choice was not between a governed nation and an ungoverned world economy.42

Slobodian claims that the neoliberalism emerges from the resistane to facism and war of the 19th and 20th century. The Geneva School of neoliberal theorists claim that democracy is not enough to create peace, so democracy needs to be limited. Slobodian writes, “The tension was always between advocating democracy for peaceful change and condemning its capacity to upend order.”43 Slobodian’s claim is that the Geneva School of neoliberal thought created a neocolonial legistation and organization that controls the power of the new/postcolonial nations through international laws. The School of Geneva neoliberals believe that it is required to limit the power of the new nations to preserve democracy and peace. So, even though the empire ended, the neoliberals believe in creating a militant globalist system that limits the power of the postcolonial nations.

Slobadian writes, “The normative neoliberal world is not a borderless market without states, but a doubled world kept safe from mass demands for social justice and redistributive equality by the guardians of the economic constitution.”44. Slobodian claims that the globalist view of neoliberalism focused on designing international institutions “to encase them, to inculcate capitalism against the threat of democracy, to create a framework to contain often-irrational human behavior.”45 Neoliberalism creates a colonial system through constitutions, rights, and confederations in order to implement global capitalism that governs both the political and economic rules. So, the end of geographical colonization and the rule of the empire gave birth to neocolonial and neoliberal militant governmentality.

Neoliberalism is a militant globalism that creates national states, which are embedded in their local spaces; however, these countries’ economic and political power cannot function without the militancy of international institutions. Slobodian writes, “I argue that we can understand the proposal of the Geneva School as a rethinking of ordoliberalism at the scale of the world. We might call it ordoglobalism.”46 Globalism creates “same law” to colonize the global world. Globalist militant systems create nations with borders, but those spaces serve as spaces for implementing global mononomos capitalism and global and political colonization.47

The Geneva school of thought shows that neoliberalism creates different worldviews and states through its globalist militancy. Slobodian employs known Geneva school neoliberalist F.A Hayek’s terminology called “xenos rights.” Slobodian argues:

The category of xenos rights helps us think about individuals having protected rights to safe passage and unmolested ownership of their property and capital, regardless of the territory. It is a right that inheres to the unitary economic space of dominium rather than the fragmented state space of imperium—yet it requires political institution of imperium to ensure it.48

That means neoliberalism is not only ideology or economic policy, but it is a doubled capitalist system in a doubled world of imperium and dominium. Even though the postcolonial nations have a state structure of imperium (the rule of states), there is also the dominium (the rule of property). So, the imperium, or third world countries, function under the mononomos of globalist institutional systems. Even though the geographical colonization does not function anymore, the global institutions control the capitalist and economic development of those states.49

Slobodian claims international rules and treaties signal equality, but they are not equitable. The postcolonial nations are part of the international rules that signal their freedom, but they are not competent. Slobodian quotes the Ghanaian president, Kwame Nkrumah, to show how the world of signals works: “For those who practice it, it means power without responsibility, and for those who suffer from it, it means exploitation without redress.”50 The postcolonial states are part of the world economic rules and regulations for economic and social development; however, they do not have equal power to practice universal economic implementation. Globalist neoliberalism describes how neoliberal double political and economic colonization functions in a postcolonial context. So, as long as the postcolonial nations are under those rules, they cannot ensure their free power in the neoliberal market economy. The postcolonial nation cannot compete in the free market because the treaties give more power to the West and are inequitable for the rest.

Slobodian shows how the postcolonial nations are controlled by international anti- democracy and social justice practices and legislations. But globalization and neoliberal governmentality not only control the postcolonial nations through international regulations, the territory of the postcolonial countries is also de-territorialized by the globalized practices of the neoliberal and neocolonial practices. Globalization theorist Thomas Hylland Eriksen argues that the speed of globalization creates a flat world by de- territorializing cultural, political, and economic territories. So deterritorialization provides an excellent opportunity for some countries to exchange in the market economy, global development, and social construction.

On the other hand, the flatness of this accelerated communication is not accessible for the other parts of the world, such as Africa and some parts of Asia. These practices dissociate some countries from the global market system. One part of the world is speeding and accelerating at the expense of others’ slowness. Acceleration and connection have social and economic benefits for some parts of the world by creating a border-free political, economic, and social relationship. At the same time, the accelerating dimension of globalization excludes others by creating a universal system that governs and imposes its rational normativity to justify its flat capitalist ideologies at the expense of others.51 The concept of speed and acceleration and global militancy articulates how neoliberalism creates the world of developed and underdeveloped. The world of developed and underdeveloped is not limited with economic and cultural justification, but it has also religious and theological signification.

So, the American political theologian and philosopher Carl Raschke takes the conversation of neoliberalism from international legislation to practical conversation that addresses how universal values and cultural multiplications create identity politics that eliminate human agency and subjectivity. Raschke approaches neoliberalism through identity politics or the politics of “representation.” Raschke employs Foucault’s linguistic approach because language, knowledge, and power shape the postindustrial society’s political, social, and economic practices.52 The main struggle of the post- industrial/neoliberal societies is representation, or identity formation. Raschke writes:

Neoliberalism is really not about economics, but about values, instantiating them in almost invisible routines of symbolic exchange that have profound economic effects. They must be seen as modalities of linguistic rule-making which both precede and provide the final shape for the ‘objects’ of political criticism and cultural change-making.53

Foucault articulates homo economicus; Brown addresses homo politicus; and Raschke defines homo neoliberalismus. Raschke defines homo neoliberalismus as individuals with assigned identities without consciousness. Raschke employs Fukuyama’s view of “the struggle for recognition.” According to Fukuyama, in the age of neoliberalism, human beings are not only in need of economic development, but they want value and recognition. On the other hand, according to Fraser, neoliberalism is anti- dialectical, meaning even though human beings need identity, value, and recognition, they do not have the power to shape their own values. For example, Hegel and Marx’s view shows the dialectical relationship between higher class and lower class. That means there is no identity without engagement between the oppressor and the oppressed.

However, neoliberalism does not allow people to dialectically create their identity, because dialectical relationships create awareness and subjectivity. But the neoliberal political identity is imposed on us. Raschke writes, “As Fraser observes, the politics of recognition was thoroughly anti-dialectical. It became at its core a ‘communicative’ mobilization toward the ‘recognition of difference.’”54

Raschke also claims that, even though the identity and universal claims of neoliberalism are anti-religious, they have a theological and religious implication in the lives of neoliberalismus. Raschke argues, “There is a deep structure to neoliberalism that is neither exclusively economic, nor political, nor even social or cultural, but theological.”55 Raschke analyzes Foucault’s concept of the pastorate to show the theological practice of neoliberalism. Therefore, according to Raschke, in the 21st century, neoliberalism becomes a global religious and theological message that creates hegemonic identity politics through the message of inclusion and multiculturalism.

Similarly, Eriksen articulates that the primary challenge of identity politics emerges from politicizing culture. According to Eriksen, culture is fluid, and it is affected by our context. However, identity politics as a re-embedding strategy overemphasizes differences and localization, which demands separatism, ethnicity, and nationalism.

Many nations in African, South American, and European countries emphasize their differences, leading to ethnic conflict and war. Identity politics is imposed sameness and difference; it does not allow groups to claim their subjectivity; however, groups want to resist the universalizing power of globalization through differentiation, called “identity politics.” According to Eriksen, identity politics comes from both homogenizing and fragmenting powers of globalization that emphasize political definitions of culture in the name of multiculturalism without giving agency for those groups or communities.56

Therefore, Raschke calls for a political theology that speaks against neoliberal “stealth revolution.”57 A political theology that activates the consciousness of human beings is not a theology of colonization or a theology of imposed representation, but one that creates a space of engagement for all.58 Modern colonization and neoliberalism kill the consciousness of human beings and create stereotyped and fixed representations of identity. Raschke does not articulate a contextual theology, but I claim that there is no universal political theology. Constructing contextual political theological reflection will enable the postcolonial nations to resist imposed identity politics. A political theology that integrates the lived experience of human beings resists hegemonic and universal identities to revive and reform the homo politicus and homo justus natures of human beings.

The African political theologian Emmanuel Katongole employs Basil Davidson’s argument from The Black Man’s Burden. Davidson argues that the problem of Africa emerges from different challenges and conflicts. The primary challenge is that the postcolonial institutions that were created through the colonial system. Davidson claims that, in Africa, the construction of the nation state was not a process, but a project that was created by the colonial powers and their successors.59 The colonial project presented Africa as a continent “without history.” That was normalized and legitimized by diverse scientific studies of anthropology and sociology rooted in a westernized worldview.

African local history was categorized using “isms,” like “paganism” or “barbarism.”60 At the same time, Africans’ diverse and plural cultures were labeled as “tribalism.” 61 So, Katongole argues, colonial African politics is created through imported political and ideological beliefs of Africa as a continent without history.m Katongole uses Davidson’s analysis of “ideological poverty” to show that African leaders were alienated from their history and identity. The colonial education system was the primary tool to normalize Africa as a “dark continent” and a continent without history.62 That means the African elites who want to create a nation state have a conflict with the social struggle and local struggle of Africa. However, when the political elites realized that their politics were disconnected from the social, they “recruited” local people to be their followers.

According to Davidson, the politics of recruits creates, not the historical tribalism of Africa, but “clientelism.” Davidson argues that, in the historical Africa, tribes had agency. However, clientelism gave power to the politicians, and the people became recruited objects.63 African politics, in which the elites used the masses as a recruited tool, created tribalism or tribal conflict “to provide its own self-justification as the pacifier of that space of civil society purportedly overrun by tribal conflict.”64

Katongole uses Mahmood Mamdani’s work on Rwanda, When Victims Become Killers. Mamdani describes how “Tutsi” and “Hutu” became a singular identity based on physical differences that were magnified by the privileged class. Katongole writes:

That this is the case, Mamdani argues, is evident from the fact that there has not been one single and constant definition of “Hutu” and “Tutsi” throughout Rwandan history; rather, their meaning have shifted as a consequence of every major change in the institutional framework of Rwandan state. In other words, different power players in Rwanda’s postcolonial history have imagined Tutsi and Hutu differently.65

These tribal bodies were constructed through the interest of the politicians, creating tribal conflict in different parts of Africa. Politically recruited people became political bodies that killed one another as enemies instead of living as brothers and sisters with diverse tribal and social identities.66 The competing elites’ interest of representation used tribe as a method to normalize the national political practice that is imposed on the local people.

Rode Molla is an assistant professor at Virginia Theological Seminary.


29 Terrence, The Puzzle of Ethiopian Politics, 195-198.

30 Terrence, The Puzzle of Ethiopian Politics, 198-199.

31 Terrence, The Puzzle of Ethiopian Politics, 199.

32 Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone Books, 2005), 10.

33 Brown, Undoing the Demos, 10.

34 Brown, Undoing the Demos, 22.

35 Brown, Undoing the Demos, 87.

36 Brown, Undoing the Demos, 91.

37 Brown, Undoing the Demos, 121.

38 Brown, Undoing the Demos, 109.

39 Kwame Boafo-Artur, in his article, “Trapped in Development Crisis and Balkanisation: Africa Verus Globaliasation” African Journal of Political Science 3, no. 1 (2000): 18, http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/africanjournals/.

40 Quinn, Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 2.

41 Slobodian, Globalists, 11.

42 Slobodian, Globalists, 19.

43 Slobodian, Globalists, 14.

44 Slobodian, Globalists, 16.

45 Slobodian, Globalists, 2.

46 Slobodian, Globalists, 12.

47 Slobodian, Globalists, 16.

48 Slobodian, Globalists, 123.

49 Slobodian, Globalists, 10-17.

50 Slobodian, Globalists, 219.

51 Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Globalization: The Key Concepts 2nd ed. (Bloomsbury Academic 2014), 40-55.

52 Carl Raschke, Political Theology and Neoliberalism; From Kant to Identity to Politics 1st ed. (2019), 28.

53 Raschke, Political Theology and Neoliberalism, 32.

54 Raschke, Political Theology and Neoliberalism, 219.

55 Raschke, Political Theology and Neoliberalism, 204.

56 Eriksen, Globalization, 152-167.

57 Brown, Undoing the Demos.

58 Raschke, Political Theology, 264.

59 Emmanuel Katongole, The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa (Grand Rapids: MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2011), 65.

60 Katongole, The Sacrifice of Africa, 67.

61 Katongole, The Sacrifice of Africa, 65.

62 Katongole, The Sacrifice of Africa, 71.

63 Katongole, The Sacrifice of Africa, 74.

64 Katongole, The Sacrifice of Africa, 74.

65 Katongole, The Sacrifice of Africa, 76.

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