Writing Theory from the South: The Global Order from an African Perspective

By Jean Comaroff & John L. Comaroff

Western thought has, from the first, regarded the non-West as a place of antiquarian traditions and unprocessed data. Below, Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff suggest that, in the present moment, it is the global south that affords privileged insight into the workings of the world at large, as old margins become new frontiers.

Western enlightenment thought has, from the first, posited itself as the wellspring of universal learning, of Science and Philosophy, uppercase; concomitantly, it has regarded the non-West—variously known as the ancient world, the orient, the primitive world, the third world, the underdeveloped world, the developing world, and now the global south—primarily as a place of parochial wisdom, of antiquarian traditions, of exotic ways and means. Above all, of unprocessed data. But what if, and here is the idea in interrogative form, we invert that order of things? What if we posit that, in the present moment, it is the global south that affords privileged insight into the workings of the world at large? That in probing what is at stake in the North-South division itself, we may move beyond the contrast to lay bare the larger, global processes that produce and sustain it.

To the degree that the making of modernity has been a world-historical process, it can as well be narrated from its undersides as it can from its self-proclaimed centers—like those maps that, as a cosmic joke, invert planet Earth to place the south on top, the north below. But we seek to do more than just turn the story upside down, thus to leave intact the Manichean dualism that holds Euro-America and its others in the same, fixed embrace. What we suggest, in addition, is that contemporary world-historical processes are disrupting received geographies of core and periphery, relocating southward—and, of course, eastward as well—some of the most innovative and energetic modes of producing value. And, as importantly, part or whole ownership of them. In making this claim, Theory from the South is built on two closely interwoven arguments. We develop them, as we intimated earlier, by taking Africa as our point of departure. In the final analysis, however, our horizons extend to the global order at large.


We suggest that contemporary world-historical processes are disrupting received geographies of core and periphery, relocating southward—and, of course, eastward as well—some of the most innovative and energetic modes of producing value.

Afromodernity, In Practice and Theory

The first argument is that modernity in the south is not adequately understood as a derivative or a doppelganger, a callow copy or a counterfeit, of the Euro-American “original.” To the contrary: it demands to be apprehended and addressed in its own right. Like its European counterpart, modernity in Africa, for example, has entailed a re-genesis, a consciousness of new possibilities, and a rupture with the past—a past that, in the upshot, was flattened out, detemporalized, and congealed into “tradition,” itself a thoroughly modern construct. African modernity, in sum, has always had its own trajectories, giving moral and material shape to everyday life. It has yielded diverse yet distinctive means with which to make sense of the world and to act upon it, to fashion social relations, commodities, and forms of value appropriate to contemporary circumstances—not least those sown by the uneven impact of capitalism, first colonial, then international, then global. Nor is this true of Africa alone: in making reference to a notorious site of sweatshop production — the Northern Mariana Islands in the Western Pacific — US senator Tom DeLay, called it a “perfect petri dish of capitalism.”1

Acknowledging the widespread yearning for the elusive promise of “progress,” patently, should not prevent us from recognizing its many destructive effects, or challenging the myth that there is only one authentic version of it.

It is important, in this respect, to distinguish modernity from modernization (cf. Appadurai).2 Modernity refers to an orientation to being-in-the-world, to a variably construed and variably inhabited Weltanschauung, to a concept of the person as self-actualizing subject, to an ideal of humanity as species-being, to a vision of history as a progressive, man-made construction, to an ideology of improvement through the accumulation of knowledge and technical skill, to the pursuit of justice by means of rational governance, to a restless impulse toward innovation whose very iconoclasm brings a hunger for things eternal (cf. Harvey).3 Modernization, by contrast, posits a strong normative teleology, a unilinear trajectory toward a future—capitalist, socialist, fascist, African, whatever—to which all humanity ought to aspire, to which all history ought to lead, toward which all the peoples ought to evolve. Acknowledging the widespread yearning for the elusive promise of “progress,” patently, should not prevent us from recognizing its many destructive effects, or challenging the myth that there is only one authentic version of it.


The Global South

This brings us to the second argument of the volume. Contrary to the received Euromodernist narrative of the past two centuries—which has the global south tracking behind the curve of Universal History, always in deficit, always playing catch-up—there is good reason to think the opposite: that, given the unpredictable, under-determined dialectic of capitalism-and-modernity in the here and now, it is the south that often is the first to feel the effects of world-historical forces, the south in which radically new assemblages of capital and labor are taking shape, thus to prefigure the future of the global north.

Old margins are becoming new frontiers, places where mobile, globally competitive capital—much of it, these days, southern and eastern—finds minimally regulated zones in which to vest its operations; where industrial manufacture opens up ever more cost- efficient sites for itself; where highly flexible, informal economies have long thrived; where those performing outsourced services have gone on to develop cutting-edge info-tech empires of their own, both legitimate and illicit; where new, late-modern idioms of work, time, and value take root, thus to alter planetary practices. Which is why, in the dialectics of contemporary world history, the north appears to be “evolving” southward.

In recent decades, capital, with its stress on flexibility, liquidity, and deregulation, has yet again found untapped bounty in former colonies, where postcolonial states, anxious to garner disposable income and often in desperate need of “hard” foreign currency, have opened themselves up to business; specifically, to corporations that have little compunction in pressuring ruling regimes to offer them tax incentives, to relax environmental controls, to remove wage restrictions and worker protections, to limit liability and discourage union activities, even to allow them to enclave themselves—in short, to bow to the tenets of laissez-faire at their most extreme, their most sovereign. As a result, it is increasingly in the south, Tom DeLay’s preferred “petri dish,” that the practical workings of neoliberalism have been tried and tested, in them that the outer bounds of its financial operations have been explored—thence to be exported to Euro-America.

At the same time, some nation-states in the south, by virtue of having become economic powerhouses—India, Brazil, South Africa—evince features of the future of Euro-America in other ways, having opened up frontiers of their own and having begun to colonize the metropole: vide the seizure of global initiative in the biofuel economy by Brazil, or the reach of the Indian auto industry into Britain, or the impact of the Hong Kong banking sector on the development of new species of financial market. Or, in another register, the emergence of South Africa, a major force in the international mineral economy, as the America of Africa, an African-America eager to experiment with constitutional law, populist politics, and, if hesitatingly, post-neoliberal forms of redistribution.

The rapid increase of foreign direct investment (FDI) south of the Sahara over the past decade4 —capital inflows to Africa rose by 16 percent to $61.9b in 2008, while falling 20 percent worldwide5—has led Ferguson6 among others, to speculate that African countries might be less sites of “immature forms of globalization” than “quite ‘advanced’ and sophisticated mutations of it.” Again, for better or for worse, Africa is ahead of the curve. It is precisely the mélange of its inherited colonial institutions and its postcolonial availability to neoliberal development that make Ghana, and other nations of the south, a vanguard in the epoch of the market. As Newsweek put it in early 2010, Africa is “at the very forefront of emerging markets . . . Like China and India, [it is] perhaps more than any other region, … illustrative of a new world order”,5 a multi-focal order whose axis mundi is no longer self-evidently in the north.

Just as it has been in the past, the continent is also a source of inventive responses to the contingencies of our times, responses driven by a volatile mix of necessity, possibility, deregulation, and space-time compression. Hence, among other things—and in addition to the vibrant, if uneven, growth of its formal sectors and its endogenous capital—the extraordinary expansion here of “informal” commerce, the growth of economies built on more or less licit practices of counterfeit, and the emergence of new modes of service provision; Hardt and Negri7 dub this last, misleadingly perhaps, “immaterial production,” the traffic in care, security, intimacy, affect. The south has also led the way in the efflorescence of “ethnoprise,” what elsewhere we term Ethnicity, Inc. (Comaroff and Comaroff):8 the incorporation of identity and the commodification of culture–as–intellectual property, this by appeal to the natural copyright of indigenous knowledge, by deploying sovereign exclusion, and by exploiting markets in difference, not least via the tourist industry, the media, and the Internet. The boom in the identity economy is having thoroughgoing implications for the ways in which ordinary people experience collective being, social capital, and political attachment. And it is steadily diffusing northward, toward those metropoles that once saw themselves as beyond ethnic parochialism or “tradition.” In the face of the structural violence perpetrated in the name of neoliberalism, as this suggests, the global south is producing and exporting some ingenious, highly imaginative modes of survival—and more.

Not that the fruits of this ingenuity have reversed the radical privation from which it springs. As Zygmunt Bauman9 reminds us, the creative destruction endemic to modernity has always produced poverty in its wake (see above). All the more so in neoliberal times. At the same time, those most adversely affected are taking modernity to places it has never been before, thus also to bring to light elements of its intrinsic nature long suppressed. Indeed, it is precisely this dialectic that has pushed Africa, Asia, and Latin America to the vanguard of the epoch, making them at once contemporary frontiers and new centers of capitalism—which, to reiterate, in its latest, most energetically voracious phase, thrives in environments in which the protections of liberal democracy, of the rule of law, of the labor contract, and of the ethics of civil society are, at best, uneven.

It is here that our two theses converge: here where the first, the ontological claim that Afromodernity exists sui generis, not as a derivative of the Euro-original, meets the second assertion that, in the history of the present, the global south is running ahead of the global north, a hyperbolic prefiguration of its future-in-the-making. In sum, just as neoliberalization, deindustrialization, and eco-degradation are crystallizing new forms of culture and sociality, new economies of exchange, and new survival strategies in the nether reaches of the north, so they are producing new modes of mobilization, species of ethical action that often elude the conventional bounds of politics.

As the contemporary capitalist world order—at once global and local and everything in between—catches all and sundry in its web, as its peripheries become its vanguard and its centers mimic its peripheries, so the world is turned upside down. This raises two final, fundamental, formidable questions: What, where, exactly is “the south”? And what, precisely, do we mean by “theory”?

For better or for worse, Africa is ahead of the curve. It is precisely the mélange of its inherited colonial institutions and its postcolonial availability to neoliberal development that make Ghana, and other nations of the south, a vanguard in the epoch of the market.

On the South, and Theory

Two things in particular. The first is that a number of nation- states of the south, far from being marginal to global capitalism, are central to it. However it may be imagined, as Balibar10 (cf. Krotz)11puts it, “the line of demarcation between ‘North’ and ‘South,’ between zones of prosperity and power and zones of ‘development of underdevelopment,’ is not actually drawn in a stable way.” Per contra, that line is at best porous, broken, often illegible. Even if it could be definitively drawn, moreover, many nation-states defy easy categorization: On which side, for example, do the smaller countries of the former USSR fall? Or, if brute economic development is the primary criterion, where are we to place those powerhouses to which we keep returning, the likes of India, Brazil, South Africa, and Nigeria, which seem to cross the cleavage between hemispheres? This is not even to mention Japan or the most portentous player of them all, China, which greatly profits from playing in the interstices between worlds. And has interpolated itself into both north and south without being truly either, all the while promising, some time off into the future, to alter the political economy, and the geo-sociology, of the entire planet. On one hand, these are among the more dynamic economies and cultural worlds of our times. Yet, on the other, still being highly polarized within, they are geo-scapes in which enclaves of wealth and order feed off, and sustain, large stretches of scarcity, violence, and exclusion. This is also true, increasingly, of Euro-America. In short, there is much south in the north, much north in the south, and, as we argue throughout the volume, more of both to come.

The south cannot be defined, a priori, in substantive terms. The label refers to a relation, not a thing in or for itself. This is why we need theory to make sense of our global situation.

The second thing, which follows as both cause and effect of the fuzziness of the line between the hemispheres, is the structural articulation—indeed, the mutual entailment—of their economies; which, we stress, subsumes their political economies, their cultural economies, their techno-economies, their moral economies. It is this, after all, that makes our counter-evolutionary story really a dialectical one; this, too, that makes global capitalism global, not merely international. It also reiterates the point that, in its aspiration and its reach, capitalist modernity has few, if any, exteriors, that its exclusions and its outsides are integral to its inner workings. Not only are the laboring classes of Euro-America, those who produce its means of consumption, situated ever more at southern margins, but, and this is critical, southern capital buttresses, even owns, many signature Euro-American firms (see above); all of which is further complicated by the world of finance and the ramifying electronic commons, whose labyrinthine capillaries defy any attempt to unravel them along neat geopolitical coordinates. This is why “the south” cannot be defined, a priori, in substantive terms. The label refers to a relation, not a thing in or for itself.  And this is why, in addition, we need theory to make sense of our global situation.

It is a matter of observation that, throughout much of the global north, there has been something of a flight from theory, a re-embrace both of methodological empiricism and born-again realism; also a return to the ethical and theological. For us, theory, particularly critical theory, is immanent in life itself. It need not be an elite or an elitist practice, even though it is often dismissed as such. To the contrary, it often derives, as much, from a lived praxis, one that may occur anywhere and everywhere. And does, not least at the frontiers of the contemporary world order—and, yes, in its petri dishes. These, again for better and worse, are rich sites of new knowledges and ways of knowing-and-being, ways of knowing-and-being that have the capacity to inform and transform theory in the north, to subvert its universalisms in order to rewrite them in a different, less provincial register. All the more so as Euro-America evolves southward, toward Africa. And Asia, and Latin America.

Reprinted by permission of Paradigm Publishers. Excerpted from Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America Is Evolving Toward Africa by Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff. Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.

About the Authors

Jean Comaroffis the Alfred North Whitehead Professor of African and African American Studies and Anthropology, and Oppenheimer Research Fellow at Harvard University. Her research, primarily conducted in southern Africa, has centered on processes of social and cultural transformation – the making and unmaking of colonial society, the nature of the postcolony, and the late modern world viewed from the Global South. Her recent publication with John L. Comaroff is Theory from the South, or How Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa (2011)

John L. Comaroffis the Hugh K. Foster Professor of African and African American Studies and of Anthropology, and Oppenheimer Research Fellow in African Studies at Harvard University, Honorary Professor of Anthropology at the University of Cape Town, and Affiliated Research Professor at the American Bar Foundation. His current research in South Africa is on crime, policing, and the workings of the state, on democracy and difference, and on postcolonial politics. His authored and edited books include, with Jean Comaroff, Civil Society and the Political Imagination in Africa, Law and Disorder in the Postcolony, Ethnicity, Inc., and Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America is Evolving toward Africa.


1. “The Real Scandal of Tom DeLay,” Mark Shields, CNN.com, 9 May 2005; www.cnn.com/2005/POLITICS/05/09/real.delay.

2. Appadurai, Arjun (1996) Modernity at Large: The Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

3. Harvey, David (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity: An enquiry into the origins of cultural change. Oxford: Blackwell, 10.

4. The World Bank reported that the FDI in Africa yielded the highest returns in the world in 2002; see “Best for Investment,” www.globalpolicy.org/socecon/develop/africa/2003/0408fdi.htm.

5. Guo, Jerry (2010) ‘How Africa is Becoming the New Asia’, Newsweek, March 1:42-44.

6. Ferguson, James (2006) Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order. Durham, NC: Duke University Press: 41.

7. Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri (2000) Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press: 292.

8. Comaroff, John L. and Jean Comaroff  (2009) Ethnicity, Inc. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

9. Bauman, Zygmunt (2005) Work, Consumerism and the New Poor. Maidenhead: Open University Press:88f.

10. Balibar, Étienne( 2004).We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship. Translated by James Swenson. Princeton: Princeton University Press: 14.

11. Krotz, Esteban (2005) ‘Anthropologies of the South: Their rise, their silencing, their characteristics’. Journal of the World Anthropology Network 1(1):147-159: 149.



The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.