| Mark Duffield | MR Online

An interconnected whole–an interview with Mark Duffield

Originally published: ROAPE (Review of African Political Economy) on May 9, 2024 by ROAPE (Review of African Political Economy) Staff (more by ROAPE (Review of African Political Economy))  | (Posted May 13, 2024)

ROAPE interviews Mark Duffield about his life and work. For decades Mark has worked on the political philosophy of the permanent emergency, the current global crisis in capitalism, the war economy, and the political and economic situation in the Horn of Africa. From his early days growing up in the West Midlands, to his research in Sudan, and later examining the militant struggles of Indian workers in the UK, Duffield has spent a lifetime examining at the central dynamics underpinning our interconnected world of genocide and imperialism.  

ROAPE: For ROAPE readers unfamiliar with your work, perhaps you could begin by saying a few words of introduction?

| Mark Duffield | MR OnlineMark Duffield: First of all, thanks for this kind invitation. As a start, I would say that I have never fully identified with the academy or, for that matter, felt accepted within it. Perhaps with the exception of working as Oxfam’s Sudan Country Representative in the 1980s, which was a team effort, I have been something an outsider looking in. My more familiar books, Global Governance and the New Wars(2001) and Development, Security and Unending War (2007) came out of consultancy work rather than academic grants. For a long time, it has seemed that the world has been closing in. Fear of capture, that is the only way I can explain it, drove an urge to always stay one step ahead. I might have been an anthropologist, a race and labour migration specialist, a development practioner, an expert on war economies, or even, God forbid, an International Relations pundit. The result, in disciplinary terms, has been a certain ambiguity. However, with an overriding interest in how different peoples, places and times interconnect historically and interact globally, this was perhaps foretold.

R: Can you describe your politicization, and the events in your life that started your political and intellectual journey?

MD: Important here was the early feeling that I was being told who I was and not liking it. I was born in 1949 in Tipton, a small industrial town near Dudley in the Black Country. My father was a foundry worker and my mother worked in the local post-office. Hemmed in by railways and canals, until I was 14, we lived in a cramped Victorian terraced house with no bathroom or indoor toilet. Even people in council houses looked down on us. An early memory was the pungent foundry smell of burnt oil, sand and iron filings that clung to my father’s work clothes. At a young age, it was somehow clear this was not for me.

Because of what would now be called dyslexia, I was late learning to read. Nonetheless, failing the 11+ was devastating. Instead of a grammar school, I went to Park Lane, a boy’s secondary modern, which my father and grandfather had also attended. In 1960, its Teddy-boy ethos generated a fearsome reputation. The expectation that we were factory-fodder was summed up in an apocryphal story told by the metalwork master. A professor stands by his stationary car, bonnet open, staring blankly at the engine. A passing secondary modern boy spots the problem and quickly has the thankful professor on his way. Meant as encouragement, it had entirely the opposite effect on me.

In terms of escape, a couple of things stand out. Some supportive teachers organised a weekend walking trip to Wales for a group of us. This led to discovering the Sunday Times and, in the colour magazine and supplements, the sudden opening of a new and hitherto unknown world.

In 1964, I transferred to Dudley Technical College to complete my secondary education. In the last couple of years, we were fortunate to gain a young left-wing general studies tutor. Studying science subjects, his lectures on the Vietnam War, nuclear disarmament and racial discrimination were truly revelatory. If the Sunday Times described appearances, his lectures suggested that hidden connections lay beneath. Not really understanding what it was, but encouraged nonetheless, I became a sociology undergraduate in 1968. Sheffield University was chosen because my mother vaguely knew a woman whose son had gone there.

It was a time of widespread unrest in Britain’s universities. Besides helping occupy the London School of Economics, I was immediately caught up in sit-ins, Vietnam War, and anti-racism protests. My political fate, however, was sealed at the hands of the irreverent and charismatic radical, Frank Girling.

Frank was a veteran of the Spanish International Brigade. As a young Oxford anthropologist studying the Acholi, Frank had been declared persona non grata by the Ugandan colonial government for spending too much time on the wrong side of the fence. Frank’s Comparative Studies course was anarchic and had little formal structure. Besides Marx and Engels, we read the latest radical publications in political philosophy, anthropology, and psychoanalysis as soon as they became available. It was a brutal time of critical practice. The public denunciation of the conveyor-belt ‘Fordist University’, its bourgeois social sciences and the petite bourgeois lectures that promoted them.

The main thing this bruising school taught was that the world was an interconnected whole and struggles in one country helped or hindered those in others.

R: Could you say something about your ethnographic fieldwork among Sudan’s Hausa-speaking communities?

| Photographic Permit Khartoum January 1974 | MR Online

Photographic Permit, Khartoum, January 1974.

MD: The main thing is that, back then, getting a research grant and Sudan government approval was comparatively easy. Moreover, rather than today’s security obsessed self-isolating subject. the venturesome goddess Fortuna still ruled. I spent the academic year of 1972-73 learning to speak Hausa at SOAS before arriving in Khartoum on 23 December 1974.

Originally from Nigeria, and settled since the colonial period, there are many such Hausa communities in northern Sudan where they are collectively known as Fellata by the Arabs. Denoting a non-Sudanese of servile status, Fellata is a derogatory generic term for African migrants from Nigeria and Chad.

The mid-1970s marked the zenith of the anti-colonial world-making project before the reassertion of a now U.S.-led imperial order. In Sudan, the period marked the high point its independence, its liberal hour, so to speak. With the agrarian economy focused on the internal market, the central and eastern areas of North Sudan enjoyed a certain rural prosperity.

It was also a time just before the generalisation of the landline telephone. My parents did not yet have one, nor my girlfriend or her family. The letter was the main means of national and international communication. For Britain, especially outside Khartoum, a five to six week send and receive cycle was involved. This impelled a reliance on one’s hosts and allowed for a level of immersion now impossible in our hyper-connected world.

Within three weeks of arriving in Khartoum, I was living in the small Blue Nile town of Maiurno as the guest of Sultan Abu Bakr Mohammed Tahir. A descendant of the last rulers of Nigeria’s Sokoto Caliphate, Abu Bakr was the nominal representative of the Blue Nile Fellata. I would stay there for the next fourteen months, eating with the compound’s unmarried men.

Given prior language tuition, within a couple of months I was fluent in Hausa. With Maiurno as a base, I began a number of lengthy visits to other areas of Hausa settlement. Besides major towns, this included small villages on the Blue Nile south of Ed Demazin, then southern Kordofan, eastern Sudan and Gezira. In the spirit of participant observation, I travelled by lorry and made extensive use of the halwa or guest-hut system operated by local village sheikhs. Usually arriving unannounced, I frequently shared a halwa with migrant workers, itinerant traders, or faith-healers.

Focusing on the development of rural capitalism and dissolution of peasant agriculture in Maiurno, only a fraction of the material I collected was used in my PhD thesis and eventual book, Maiurno: Capitalism and Rural Life in Sudan (1981). In terms of this wider picture, the profitability of Sudan’s commercial agriculture has long been dependent upon the forcible reproduction of cheap labour that, importantly, also has no rights or entitlements. During the colonial period the Fellata took over the structural position formally occupied by slaves. This structural position has subsequently been periodically reproduced anew in relation to other groups who have been dispossessed due to their race, religion, or nationality. Rather than the independent state abolishing this dependence, its factions and institutions have grown out of it. Even to the extent, as today, of fracturing this entity.

R: Before we come back to present-day Sudan, could you say something on how you see the changing role of the anthropologist?

MD: In the 1970s, radicals imagined that living and working close to the ground, in solidarity with one’s hosts, was a blow against anthropology as a discipline and a contribution to world revolution. These things, of course, did not happen. Today, however, the conditions for the immersive fieldwork of my generation have disappeared. At the same time, the peoples of Sudan have been subject to a deepening cycle of war, dispossession, and violent extraction. The anthropologists who were producing the holistic accounts once possible, have all seen the communities they lived among, and on who they relied, radically altered, even devastated, and scattered by war.

Besides photographs and audiotapes, my own observations were recorded in the form of a daily diary spanning twenty-two notebooks. Unread for decades, I recently began the slow task of transcribing and editing this detailed diary. With forgotten names, places and debts coming back to life, the content remains relevant and historically invaluable. I have just finished transcribing a section when I spent a month, fifty years ago, among the Hausa settlers and indigenous Funj groups living on the banks of the southern Blue Nile. Emerging tensions, issues over nationality and the hardening of cultural boundaries between these groups were well in evidence. In 2022, several violent clashes erupted between these same peoples, leaving around 600 dead and over 200,000 displaced. The same antagonisms recorded in 1974, had not only deepened, but they had also matured into political institutions and armed divisions. That youthful hopes didn’t materialise not only begs the question why? It carries the responsibility to bear witness to the resulting tragedy.

R: After fieldwork and working at the University of Khartoum, you changed focus and completed research on Indian foundry workers in Britain. This highlighted the racism within the labour movement. Can you say something about this?

MD: In 1979, I joined the Research Unit on Ethnic Relations (RUER) at Aston University, Birmingham. RUER was a new ESRC-funded research Institute. It turned into a five-year fully funded research position on a topic of my choosing. This kind of open-ended opportunity has long since disappeared within universities. Aware of the concentration of Asian workers in the Black Country foundries, and their reputation for militancy, I chose to study their struggles. In particular, Indian workers in the large Smethwick foundry complex of Birmid Qualcast.

The lasting importance of this work was its critique of the mechanistic application of unequal exchange theory, then popular on the left. Specifically, its extension to immigration from Britain’s former colonies. Migrants were understood as a physical, indeed, immutable embodiment of ‘cheap’ labour. Like a living discount note, once arrived, capitalism could use it to work against the future. Thus, its many advocates argued that immigrants would keep old plant going, fill the jobs whites did not want and politically divide the working class. Cheap labour, however, is not born, so to speak. It has to be produced by violence, and then kept cheap by ongoing repression and racism.

The necessary and ongoing role of violence and militarism within capitalism is ignored. What became Black Radicalism and the Politics of Deindustrialisation (1988), details how Asian workers did none of the things accorded them. In fact, they fought back and achieved the opposite.

While the history of the ‘68 revolt is usually told in relation to the intelligentsia, prior to the May clashes in Paris, British industrialists already thought control of their factories was being lost to non-union worker militancy. Asian workers were a vanguard in this unrest. The left’s mechanistic view of cheap labour articulated with the chauvinism and racism organic to the British labour movement. Since decolonisation, there has been a single, increasingly repressive logic underpinning the reformulation of race and nation in Britain. That is, the pitching of public and welfare services as a finite quantity. From the beginning, immigration has been seen as a zero-sum game. The more immigrants, the less wealth in common for the deserving classes. Consequently, the constant refrain has been the control of numbers and restriction of social reproduction. Britain’s Labour Party and trade unions, have always been a key player within this violent logic.

During the 1950s, trade union presence was concentrated in the old Black Country craft foundries. Helped by strong union opposition, Asians concentrated in the new mechanised foundries then opening to support the motor assembly industry taking-off around Birmingham and Coventry. Through wild-cat strikes, that is, outside of trade union control, Indian workers leveraged what had become a regional just-in-time supply chain to increase, rather than lower, wages. Such was the threat, through private lobbying by large West Midland foundry groups, the Labour government inserted a Racial Balance Clause into the 1968 Race Relations Act. In the interests of ‘racial harmony’, this made it lawful for employers to disperse militant concentrations of Asian workers that monopolised specific foundry shops.

More politically significant than wages, was the struggle against racism. In particular, the racialised definition of ‘skill’ wielded in common by employers and the trade unions. In the mechanised foundry, the machine-operator stood atop the skill hierarchy. In reality, a repetitive and easily learnt task. Since the 1950s, the unions had argued that Asians were culturally unsuitable for machine work. In 1968, the Indian Workers Association (IWA) organised a series of Smethwick strikes against this racial exclusion. Instead of recruiting outside white workers every time a machine operator position became vacant, the IWA proposed that first refusal should be given to those who had been in the shop the longest.

The combined employer, trade union and government response to this attempt by Asian workers to control the labour process would prove historically significant. While conceding machine work was routine, management highlighted the need for racial balance and, as a health and safety issue, proficiency in English.

Unrest in the foundries saw the start of government funded industrial language training programmes aimed at Asian workers. Rather than exploitation, industrial unrest was redefined as a communication failure and cultural misunderstanding. As a way of winning back control, by the end of the 1960s, Birmid Qualcast was operating Britain’s first ‘equal opportunity’ programme. That is, using training programmes and official statutes to side-line militants while opening higher paid positions to the more politically compliant. During the 1970s, language training, morphed into the racist ‘anti-racism’ of Racism Awareness Training (RAT) which, with its emphasis on cultural relativism and identity, weakened class solidarity.

By the time that deindustrialisation gathered strength, the Indian shopfloor movement had collapsed. The legacy, however, was a suite of managerial tools that would grow in importance.

R: You eventually returned to Sudan as Oxfam’s Country Representative in 1985. What sort of changes were underway at this time?

MD: Borrowing from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, from comparatively few, the sudden surge in the number of NGOs operating in northern Sudan as a result of the mid-1980s drought was aptly called the ‘fantastic invasion’. At the same time, Sudan quickly became Oxfam’s largest overseas aid programme. If capital confronts labour on a global scale, the ‘fantastic invasion’ was part of a profound change in the nature of this confrontation. Deindustrialisation and emergence of the western mass consumer society was coterminous with the transformation of East Asia into the new workshop of the world and, importantly, the crystallisation of a new Middle East/Africa imperial axis. One open to hitherto more directly violent neocolonial methods of dispossession and extraction.

| With Oxfam in Darfur 1987 | MR Online

With Oxfam in Darfur, 1987.

U.S. imperialism has always had an indirect or proxy structure. Preferring coups, regime change, colour revolutions and, not least, either enjoying total military dominance or getting others to fight its wars. This has always given U.S. imperialism a certain plausible deniability. Western humanitarianism is an integral element of this smoke and mirrors act.

While beginning earlier, the ‘fantastic invasion’ completed the process of Sudan’s imperial recapture. The accumulation of debt enforced IMF austerity and reorientation of agriculture towards exports, all fed into the rural inability to cope with the mid-1980s drought. The manner of Sudan’s capture was a rerun of how the old League of Nations justified its tutelage over otherwise independent Abyssinia. That is, as necessitated by the failure of black sovereignty. Western humanitarianism has drawn its legitimacy from this imputed failure ever since.

The 1980s, was also a time of radical change in the organisational structure of western NGOs. While initially employed as Field Director, within a year, my title had changed to that of Country Representative. There is a difference between ‘directing’ and ‘representing’. It was a period when NGOs were centralising authority. Helped by improvements in communication technology, centralisation saw the downgrading of area expertise, language proficiency and country programme independence.

Complementary changes were also underway in how disasters were understood. Seeking out the social and economic causes of a particular event were set aside. While predicting disasters became more important than knowing their cause. During the 1980s, famine was transformed into a series of behavioural signals and alerts. For example, population movement, changes in market prices or labour migration. The remote sensing of crop production through U.S. satellite technology also became established. The trend from causes to prediction would accelerate with the spread of computers. The result is an enduring paradox of western humanitarianism. Although NGOs have been in places like Sudan for half a century, other than endlessly recalculating the needs arising from the failure of black sovereignty, they have no real knowledge of what is going on there. I explore this paradox if my book Post-Humanitarianism: Governing Precarity in the Digital World (2019).

R: During the 1990s, you did consultancy work on humanitarian intervention. How would you sum up the historical significance of this period?

MD: This work was mainly for the UN, European aid ministries and NGOs on so-called conflict-related emergencies. Apart from revisiting Sudan several times, it also took in the former Yugoslavia, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, and Afghanistan. While always critical of the singularity of the surge in UN interventionism during the 1990s, with the outbreak of the war in Ukraine the historic significance of this period is now clear. NATO’s eastward expansion in Europe and the increase UN/NGO humanitarian interventionism in the Middle East and Africa are two sides of the same coin. The resurgence of western militarism with the onset of the second Cold War.

With regard to the aid industry, there are two key institutional departures. For the first time, the UN accepted to work in unresolved civil wars. During the first Cold War, a ceasefire was usually required for the deployment of a UN peacekeeping mission. Second, was the UN’s pronouncement that the time of absolute sovereignty was over. Captured in the term ‘humanitarian war’, sovereign inequality is intrinsic to western humanitarianism. Together, these departures marked the end of any semblance of aid neutrality. By the time of the U.S.-led War on Terror, NGOs had evolved into agents of counterinsurgency. As Colin Powell aptly remarked, they had become invaluable ‘force-multipliers.’

Western humanitarianism justifies itself by claiming to ‘save lives’. Not only is there sparse evidence for this, but it also turns the purpose of the aid industry on its head. Once famine becomes a problem of prediction instead of an historically determined event, rather like European immigration, it becomes a question of numbers. In particular, the formal designation of the limit of human wastage beyond which famine becomes official and international appeals authorised.

Since the 1970s, however, there has been a steady increase in the level of malnutrition deemed acceptable before an emergency is declared. Rather than saving lives, through the setting of emergency thresholds, the aid industry is more a means of regulating death. Instead of finding causes and changing situations, humanitarians strive to keep death within limits acceptable to the status quo. That life expectancy in parts of Africa is half, or less, that in Europe, is indicative of the level of human wastage both acceptable and necessary to maintain western consumer societies.

R: Together with Nicholas Stockton, you recently published an article in ROAPE on the impact of livestock exports from the Horn of Africa to the Gulf states. How is this relevant to your concerns? 

MD: The piece on the rise of militarized sheep ranching in Somalia and Sudan emerged from our dissatisfaction with mainstream commentary on the region’s deepening crisis. This was before the tragic outbreak of civil war in April 2023. Nick uncovered several UN and World Bank datasets concerning the export of livestock from the Horn of Africa since the 1970s. From the figures, several trends are unmistakable. The export of livestock, especially sheep, has risen steadily such that, prior to Covid, Sudan and Somalia were exporting more livestock than the likes of Australia and the U.S. Quite a feat for two otherwise impoverished countries. Moreover, all of this animal protein was going to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. By 2020, supplying 90% of the region’s livestock imports. In the last two or three decades, the Horn has been reduced to a violent food frontier for the rapidly urbanising Gulf states.

This trade is absent from mainstream commentary because of the liberal tendency to see war as a side-effect of other factors, like ignorance or climate change. In other words, war is always an externality. Violence, however, is as an economic relation in its own right. The effect of the IMF’s imposition of austerity, or structural adjustment, was to transform the previous relation of reciprocity between ‘farmers’ and ‘herders’ into a relation of permanent war.

The data shows a correlation between periods of increased internal conflict and spikes in sheep export numbers. The violent dispossession of Somali farmers during the 1990s is one such spike. Another follows a decade later with the outbreak of war in Darfur. The aid industry transforms this formative violence into a series of unconnected ‘humanitarian emergencies.’ On rare occasions when the livestock trade is mentioned, it is in the positive sense of ‘development’ in action.

Regulating death conceals that land is being cleared of people to free cheap and disposable labour for the region and Europe, and to facilitate the emergence of a predatory form of militarised livestock production. Deepening the crisis within the agro-pastoral economy, this destructive and expansive mode of meat production is part of Sudan’s recent collapse into civil war. The key beneficiaries of the Horn’s violent food frontier, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are currently vying over the division of the carcass of this economy. The same states, as it happens, that are key players in U.S. attempts to normalise regional relations with Israel.

For the aid industry, Sudan’s tragedy is another example of the failure of black sovereignty. This time, rejuvenated as a zero-sum ‘political marketplace’. At the same time, the mystifying claim of ‘saving lives’ finds no greater expression. It is widely accepted that a genocidal intent, with the support of western powers, is being unleashed on Gaza. For Sudan, however, this awkward truth is ignored. Exploiting plausible deniability to the full, the aid industry is now urging the same imperial alliance to forcefully intervene in the interests of peace. Such a peace, however, will come at the heavy price of a regional carve-up of this stricken but once proud country.

R: A final question, how do you see the political mood at the moment and the changing dynamics of imperialism?

MD: Since the 2008 financial crisis, and especially the Covid pandemic, western capitalism has entered a deepening crisis. This has a number of unique and disturbing characteristics. While still retaining great power, the west’s half-millennium dominance over the global South can no longer be taken for granted. Certainly, the soft power it once enjoyed has been eroded. The hoarding of vaccines during the pandemic, the double standards with regard to Ukrainian refugees compared to Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa and, not least, the western backing for the genocide unfolding in Gaza have all contributed to this erosion. One can add the rise of China and the questionable effect of sanctions on Russia. For the first time, to the concern of U.S. imperialism, the vast Eurasia landmass shows clear signs of a halting process of unification.

Such factors are fuelling the resurgence of western militarism that emerged with the ending of the first Cold War. This militarism, however, is not like earlier versions. Both previous world wars, especially WWII, saw an increase in compensatory welfare spending. In Britain, war gave birth to the welfare state. Today, it is militarism with neoliberal characteristics. Preparation for external aggression is combined, through austerity, with attacks on the social reproduction of home populations.

A call to arms is taking place against the backdrop of the deliberate destruction of the public commons. Rearmament under conditions of deindustrialisation is also novel. Earlier phases occurred when western powers still had an industrial base. Other than small batches of high-tech weaponry, the infrastructure, skill sets and ethos necessary to sustain peer-to-peer industrial war have been wantonly destroyed by finance capital. And, unless the west defaults to nuclear weapons, if the proxy war in Ukraine escalates, it will be peer-to-peer industrial war. Militarism, moreover, is intensifying climate change. War depends upon the space-time advantages conferred by fossil-fuels. That pumping oil is now actually increasing rather than decreasing is no accident.

In juggling such contradictions, the political classes no longer govern in the public interest and politicians are widely derided. That capital is now fighting on both internal and external fronts has seen the return of unprecedented censorship, media manipulation and the suppression of the right of peaceful protest. The situation currently existing in the universities is unique in living memory. Such vital topics as Ukraine and Gaza are not openly debated for fear of sanctions. There is a new McCarthyism afoot.

From its inception, neoliberalism was anti-democratic. Until the 1990s, however, this was hidden within regional, trade and patent agreements. Today, it is visible. Rather than disappearing as many hoped with the 2008 financial crisis, neoliberalism has adopted outwardly authoritarian characteristics as capital intensifies its production of waste. To call for negotiation rather than war, to defend democracy against oligarchy and, in an increasingly multipolar world, to see utility in an independent foreign policy have all become threats to ‘western values.’ We are, indeed, at a crossroads.

R: Mark Duffield works on the political philosophy of permanent emergency, including, the datafication of the current global crisis, the expansion of remote management systems and the growing antagonism between ‘connectivity’ and ‘circulation’.

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