Book Review: The Image by Daniel Boorstin

I have just finished reading Daniel Boorstin’s formerly famous and hopefully not forgotten 1962 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America which despite the passage of time seems just as relevant today (if not more so) than when it was first published; I would go so far as to say that this is a prophetic work. Boorstin the social critic and historian provides an unforgiving critique of our superficial and image obsessed modern society which he sums up as merely “an age of contrivance” defined by a widespread “social narcissism”.

In the book he explores the impact of the images that flood the American consciousness on an hourly basis using every day examples – Boorstin’s central thesis based on empirical observation suggests that because of this flood of images we are unable to distinguish between reality and the image. These images are reshaping American culture from one based on ideals to one dominated by “the menace of unreality”. To make his point the book examines many seemingly unconnected strands including news-making, politics, celebrity, even the travel industry and the world of literature. They are cleverly brought together in a single yet succinct unifying theory; that they are all examples of what he terms pseudo-events in short a type of fabricated reality designed solely for dissemination to audiences and the mass media.

As an example of a pseudo-event Boorstin offers us a hotel which throws a party to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary to call attention to its lengthy community service. The event is reported in the media and thus its value is in that it is reported; it was staged for this precise purpose and that it appears a fabrication means little. In reality if the hotel had been rendering such a service to the community it would not have been necessary to stage the event. In politics too these events are staged by PR professionals. He says “our national politics has become a competition for images or between images, rather than between ideals” which he writes unsurprisingly shortly after the election of JFK. The television debates are yet another example of a pseudo-event designed for the purposes of mass consumption and for creating yet more pseudo-events such as post debate discussion and analysis.

There is then the human pseudo-event which is a pseudo-event as above but in human form. The example offered is that of talentless modern celebrities who are a media fabrication “well known for their well-knowness” and exploited to make money. Their fame and celebrity is a false creation of a for-profit media industry. This analysis could not be more accurate. Any contemporary reader of Boorstin could be forgiven for thinking they were reading something written in the present rather than 50 years ago. His description and analysis of society and especially political life is powerful and has enduring relevance. He seemingly predicts the new centrality of political marketing to politics and perhaps his talk of images replacing ideals also predicts the emergence of the New Democrats and New Labour. Boorstin even alludes to the expectations gap thesis, an established element of political thought, in which public expectations are growing in response to elaborate images. Yet at the same time the capacity of politicians to meet those expectations are diminishing. Some literature in recent years on the Presidency, such as that of Prof. Richard Waterman, believes the expectations gap resultant of unrealistic images of Presidential power is a considerable problem in modern politics. The work of Boorstin therefore continues to be debated, discussed and analysed among his modern day counterparts.

Perhaps a weakness in this work is his concept of the “graphic revolution” the point in time in which Boorstin believes a change occurred and before which everything was fine. This concept refers to the rise in imagery from television, magazines, billboards, movies, etc. As a result of the perpetual flood of images he perceives the decline of culture and that with modernity everything is going to hell in a handbasket. Boorstin is clearly a conservative iconoclast of the traditional sort, very skeptical of technological advancement, and bemoaning the commodification of our lives which comes hand-in hand with industrialization and free market capitalism. While writing from the political right there is much in this work that those on the left can agree with. There are many parallels with  Boorstin’s work and that of the Critical Theorists and the Frankfurt School notably with that of Jürgen Habermas who like Boorstin perceives a correlation between the growth of the commercial mass media and the erosion of a public sphere. Similar to the work of Antonio Gramsci we can see Boorstin arguing a kind of media hegemony over our daily lives deluding the mass public with intricate illusions and images.

Though we should not make the mistake of thinking Boorstin too radical. His criticism is rooted in a sense of conservative nostalgia harking back to some golden age before the graphic revolution. This golden age never existed. He is correct in thinking that television and the rise of a commercial mass media has transformed our society and our relationship with it. Especially our politics. But to think that politics only become flawed and superficial with the emergence of television is a mistake. We need only remind ourselves of the Sophists of Ancient Greece and their tendency to use rhetorical devices and performance to mislead. Despite this obvious flaw I can’t recommend this book strongly enough. As I read I felt a sense of shared frustration with Boorstin with how our society so vehemently centers around the superficial and a consumer culture. If only he had updated his work before his death in 2004; for a man who wrote with such passionate opposition to changes occurring in the early 1960’s I can only wonder what he would think about the state of politics in the present.


The Celebrity Presidency

The Daily Mail reports that left-wing documentary producer Michael Moore is encouraging Hollywood actor Matt Damon to run for the Presidency. This is apparently because he has been a vocal critic of Barack Obama and seemingly stands more chance of winning because of his popularity. While this may well be a non-story as Matt Damon hasn’t yet indicated any desire to run it does highlight a growing shift in public opinion regarding the kind of person who can be President and the skills they should possess.

The skills necessary to be President have changed with legislative ability counting for increasingly little. It is not difficult then to see why Obama is now in trouble; as the superficial and manufactured ‘image candidate’ his style and ability to perform counted for more than his ability to craft and pass legislation. When he came to power he did so on the back of powerful slogans and images with little substantive content behind them. Obama was simply a fuzzy mirror upon which the electorate projected their feelings and hopes; Obama reflected that image back at them.

The increasing importance of mass media in election campaigns means that candidates for the Presidency are media performers. They are even expected in our modern era to be pop culture icons and to exude star-power. This is why a career as a celebrity, specifically an actor, translates so well into the role. Today spin doctors require a candidate to read scripts to the camera, pause and smile at the right moments and to talk in soundbites. As we tend to experience democracy through our television the electorate increasingly judge candidates not on what they are saying but how they look saying it – hence the phenomenal importance of being a strong television performer.

As a result of different skills being prioritized we are seeing different kinds of people becoming candidates and ultimately the President of the United States. These people while charismatic television performers may not necessarily be effective legislative performers. We are witnessing a new type of President aptly named by Alan Schroeder as the ‘Celebrity in Chief’. Obama is a perfect example. This also goes some way to explaining why he is consistently forced to compromise and remains politically impotent; quite simply as a celebrity leader he is not used to dealing with the nuances and struggles of Washington politics. Why then Michael Moore is keen to see another media performer as President is baffling. As Richard Neustadt said the Presidency is “no place for amateurs” and part of the problem is that time and again we elect amateurs to the White House.

The Celebrity Presidency has a severe impact on civic and democratic engagement. While the likes of Pippa Norris from the Harvard School of Government argues that it more closely connects elector with the elected in a kind of ‘virtuous circle’ in actuality it reduces the quality of democracy with the public only experiencing democracy as spectators via  TV. They are like the prisoners of Plato’s cave mistaking the dancing shadows for reality. They are exposed to a one way stream of images yet not engaged in any kind of meaningful political conversation

So too we see other effects too numerous to cover in any detail; among them a convergence around the median voter to ensure mass popularity and shifting political discourse with issues being dumbed down and condensed into tiny time slots for TV audiences. But also candidates all coming to look and sound the same and perhaps as a result we have decreasing levels of faith in democratic processes with candidates no longer representing vast ideological differences. Finally, it undermines faith in the Presidency itself and reduces politics to a mere form of entertainment.

Given the above perhaps Moore would be willing to reconsider? But alas… I doubt he reads my blog!

UK Riots: What now?

As the riots in England are now at an end it is important for us to proceed with caution. From the political right we are seeing demands on the e-petitions website that rioters to lose their benefits while councils have threatened to evict people from social housing. We must avoid this kind of reactionary response which may do more harm than good.

It is important that we ask questions:

  • Who started these riots?
  • Why did they spread?
  • What motivated people to join in?
  • And how can we prevent it happening again in the future?

It is important that we establish the facts of the case and investigate the underlying factors behind the riots before we make assertions about the best way to tackle the problem. We are very mistaken if we believe that people commit mass violence and riot without provocation. People do not exist outside society; indeed context is everything. That these riots should occur at a time of rising youth (and other) unemployment and sweeping cuts to public services may be no coincidence. That riots are happening in other countries such as Greece shouldn’t be ignored either.

I don’t seek to defend the actions of these rioters but I believe it would be wrong of us to ignore our obligations, to ignore the role of society at large and to reduce this solely to an issue of individual responsibility. The way we treat people in our society especially those at the bottom is relevant and especially the way that we demonize them in the mass media as lazy and irrelevant. Is it any surprise that when those struggling are cast in popular culture as criminals that they then become such?

It is exceedingly important that we persist in asking tough questions and challenging what seems to be the prevailing consensus on these riots. Yet at the same time we must not cede ground to the right on law and order by having them portray us as soft on crime and as if we are seeking to justify their actions. It should be possible to both ask these difficult questions and to wholly condemn the actions of the rioters.

I stress again that for the moment we must be cautious before taking any reactionary and draconian measures against those involved. They will be processed by the courts and receive their sentences but if poverty and deprivation is to blame for these events then removing benefits and housing will only serve to further compound their misery and criminality. If this happened because society turned its back on these people doing so again will not make it better.

How democratic is Africa’s predominant party system? A Case Study of Zambia

This brief essay will present a case study of Zambia as a means to illustrate the nature of the predominant party system in Africa. This will be split into three sections; first examining the relationship between democracy and the party system, then looking at Zambia’s predominant party system between 1990 and 2001 and then post-2001.

Democracy and Party Systems

What is the relevance of the party system with regards to democratisation?

The academic literature assumes a relationship between party systems and democratic consolidation. The political parties in regimes making the transition to democracy have a key role in whether democracy ultimately consolidates; yet so too can they undermine that process.

The ideal party system for democratic consolidation, according to Giovanni Sartori, would be one that is highly institutionalized, lowly fragmented and idealistic by which we mean motivated by ideology rather than personal allegiance to charismatic leaders.[1] This is the opposite of what we have in Zambia and most of Africa.

If democracy is to consolidate, at which point democracy becomes the only game in town and is the accepted way in which power is obtained, then there must be political parties competing in free and fair elections.[2] The competitiveness and stability of party systems are essential for democratic consolidation.[3] To then answer the question directly, a predominant party system would be one which actually undermines democracy as it is neither competitive nor stable as it is weakly institutionalised.

Juan Linz says a ‘political society’ is necessary for democratic consolidation to contest the legitimate right to exercise control over public power. A full transition must involve political society, this being political parties, elections, electoral rules, political leadership and legislatures, through which society constitutes itself to select and monitor democratic governments. There must be political parties who represent the differences in society and regulate conflict.[4]

In this mix, how then do we define the predominant party system?

In assessing Zambia’s party system Peter Burnell utilises the framework offered by Giovanni Sartori in Parties and Party Systems and suggests that his classification – the predominant party system – can be applied to Zambia’s third republic.[5]

This term describes a type of party system in which there exists a predominant political party which over time is able to command an absolute majority (over 50%) of the seats in the legislature.[6] This is different from a one-party system as other parties compete for election as opposed to a ‘dominant party system’ where other parties are not constitutionally permitted to compete; in a pre-dominant system there is the possibility of alternation between parties but it is unlikely.

Zambia Case Study – 1990 to 2001

How does Zambia fare in regard to this criteria? Since democratization in 1991 Zambia has had a predominant party system with the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy dominating through to the present day; by 1996 they controlled 87% of seats in the National Assembly, the Presidency and local government too. Yet between 1991 – 1996 there were 11 parties contesting elections and a total of 25 registered parties.[7] It appears that there is a fully functioning and thriving democracy.

However a high number of political parties may not necessarily be conductive to democratic consolidation according to the Laakso-Taagepera index for the effective number of political parties.[8] This is because it creates high fragmentation which isn’t ideal according to Sartori’s criteria. Additionally, many of these parties are parties in name only and others such as UNIP were dominated by one leader, the former president Kaunda and his family, who used it as personal means through which to obtain power.

If we measure democracy by the presence of parties alone then we could conclude that democracy is thriving in Zambia. To counter this, Peter Burnell argues that for a thriving democracy more is required than the presence of elections.[9]

Important considerations include: What about the quality of those elections? Was there a real competition between parties and a real ideological choice on offer? The accusation of Zambia is that democracy has made little difference and there is the continuation of de-facto as opposed to de-jure one party rule as under Zambia’s Second Republic. Peter Burnell argues Zambia is not a one party state and points to continuities with the Second Republic and longer held political traditions from the colonial period. This then becomes an issue of African political culture and whether it is by nature anti-democratic.[10]

There may be some merit in the point about the one-party state; there are occasions where the MMD has resorted to authoritarian practices as in using its dominance of the National Assembly to pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting the opposition leader, former President Kaunda, from standing in the presidential elections. This was only able to occur due to the absence of horizontal accountability and an opposition motivated to hold the government to account. If we are to properly consider the predominant party system democratic then parties must respect the civil and political rights of their opponents.

The political parties in Zambia tend to be underdeveloped because politicians use parties for personal gain and are willing to jump between them to share in the benefits of government patronage. As a result they are not focussed on holding the government to account. They do not outline alternative policy proposals and do not offer an ideological choice. Zambia is a ‘choiceless democracy’ because of the near permanence of the MMD and the lack of credible opposition.

Zambia has a low degree of competitiveness with most people having no contact with the opposition party in the time between elections. There is the enduring problem of an uneven playing field where the MMD uses state resources (e.g. broadcasters, finance) to win elections. It is not healthy for democracy whereby the democratic process is distorted and other parties can’t compete on an equal footing.

The absence of horizontal accountability and because of weak democratic institutions the government is able to exercise its power unchecked as demonstrated by the 1996 constitutional amendments. With no effective check on the power of the governing party in 2000 President Chiluba felt confident in attempting bypass constitutional norms, displaying perhaps a lack of respect for democracy, in launching his ‘third term campaign’ to allow him to run for a third term. It is promising that this was thwarted, not by the opposition, but by civil society. The failure of the party system to hold government accountable may result in a stronger civil society to compensate.[11]

In Zambia there is certainly the existence of non-democratic trends embedded within the predominant party system yet they are clearly far from authoritarian.

Zambia After 2001

Peter Burnell speculates that the party system after 2001 will become more competitive. With hindsight we can point to many improvements; the system is more competitive with seats in the legislature being more evenly distributed between the parties.[12]

However the process of democratisation has been slow and seemingly come to a halt. It’s unlikely there will be a return to an authoritarian one-party system however progress is unlikely. The process of democratisation has become stagnant and the lack of development in party systems may be part of the reason.[13] We can’t fully consider these African countries democratic yet neither are they authoritarian. They have been described as either ‘hybrid regimes’ or as ‘delegative democracy’ which seems the new regional democratic phenomenon.[14]

It may be that African democracy will be characterised by weak parties, weak legislatures and powerful executives.  It is even questioned whether parties are suitable vehicles for the promotion of democratisation and perhaps they are not.[15] We may be guilty of taking a western-centric view of political parties and in fitting with the tenets of modernisation theory expect them to develop in accordance with Dahl’s conception of polyarchy in being highly competitive and participatory.[16]

Illiberal democracy may be the fate for Africa as modern democratic practices exist alongside older more traditional forms of representation perhaps viewed more favourably. Perhaps the individualism of liberal democracy does not sit well with African communitarianism? And perhaps our conception of what a political party is and does is not the right one for Africa and perhaps the predominant party system, while certainly less democratic as we’ve established, is a better fit?

[1]  Sartori, G. (2005). Parties and party systems: a framework for analysis. United Kingdom: ECPR Press.

[2] Diamond, L. (1999). Developing democracy: toward consolidation. United States: John Hopkins University Press. P 259.

[3]  Kuenzi, M. & Lambright, G. (2005). Party systems and democratic consolidation in Africa’s electoral regimes. Party Politics, 11(4), pp. 423-446.

[4]  Linz, J. & Stepan, A. (1996). Problems of democratic transition and consolidation. United States: John Hopkins University Press.

[5]  Burnell, P. (2001). The Party System and Party Politics in Zambia: Continuities Past, Present and Future. African Affairs, 100, pp. 239 – 263.

[6] Sartori, G. (2005). Parties and party systems: a framework for analysis. United Kingdom: ECPR Press. P 174.

[7] Burnell, P. (2001). The Party System and Party Politics in Zambia: Continuities Past, Present and Future. African Affairs, 100, pp. 239 – 263.

[8]  Rakner, L. & Svåsand, L. (2004). From Dominant to Competitive Party System: The Zambian Experience 1991 – 2001. Party Politics, 10(1), pp. 49-68.

[9] Burnell, P. (2001). The Party System and Party Politics in Zambia: Continuities Past, Present and Future. African Affairs, 100, pp. 239 – 263.

[10] Burnell, P. (2001). The Party System and Party Politics in Zambia: Continuities Past, Present and Future. African Affairs, 100, pp. 239 – 263.

[11] Burnell, P. (2001). The Party System and Party Politics in Zambia: Continuities Past, Present and Future. African Affairs, 100, pp. 239 – 263.

[12] Rakner, L. & Svåsand, L. (2004). From Dominant to Competitive Party System: The Zambian Experience 1991 – 2001. Party Politics, 10(1), pp. 49-68.

[13] Democracy index 2010: Democracy in retreat. (2010). Retrieved April 18, 2011, from The Economist Intelligence Unit:

[14]  O’Donnell, G. (1994). Delegative Democracy. Journal of Democracy, 5(1), pp. 55-69.

[15]  Burnell, P. (2001). The Party System and Party Politics in Zambia: Continuities Past, Present and Future. African Affairs, 100, pp. 239 – 263.

[16] Dahl, R. (1989). Democracy and its critics. United States: Yale University Press.

Conflict in Africa: Is it inevitable?

Given continuing events in Africa in which, as the linked article suggests, 1.4 million people have been killed to date I can’t help but wonder what is the reason for the ongoing conflict?

As conflict commonly occurs within weak states it may be fair to say that conflict is rooted in the “everyday politics and discourses of  weak states” as Richard Jackson suggests. If he is correct in his assertion, if conflict is rooted in the weak state, it follows that conflict may be inevitable as the weak state has become the normal state of affairs.

Attempts at democratisation too have often been accompanied with the breakdown of order and the escalation of conflict. In some cases the end result has been state collapse, civil war and a vicious circle of endemic violence in roughly half of African states. While it may seem the inevitable state of affairs, despite the weak state framework, these conflicts are not inevitable. Only almost inevitable.

What are the characteristics of these conflicts?

These conflicts are of an entirely new form; they are ‘new wars’ different from ‘old wars’ which were typically ideological, fought between states and armed forces over resources. These new wars are more destructive, fought by non-state actors and concern issues such as ethnicity and religion. They tend to be conflicts within states rather than between states. [1] In these conflicts there is greater violence directed at civilians and increased brutality with the use of rape, ethnic cleansing and even genocide as tools of war.[2]

And what of the explanations? How did we arrive at this situation? Many explanations consider both internal and external factors though in a globalised world many of these have become increasingly related as inter-state conflict usually has international ramifications such as refugee flows; for our purposes breaking explanations down into internal/external makes this task easier to handle.

The internal explanations include those of either grievance or greed. The grievances may be economic with war as a response to economic decline and poverty. Specifically, young people with no jobs may feel angry and motivated by grievance to resort to conflict.  Alternately, greed explanations pertain to ‘war as business’ in which war is the rational creation of groups wishing to benefit from the war economy. It is “the continuation of economics by other means” in which winning in the conventional sense is less important than profiting.[3]

The greed explanations point to the prevalence of looting in these conflicts and struggles for control over valuable resources e.g. diamond mines in Sierra Leone. Another internal explanation pertains to the cultural and would argue that conflict is due to the existence of repressed ‘ancient hatreds’ which never truly disappeared. Samuel Huntington (1996) similarly argues that the conflicts of the future will be about culture rather than ideology.[4] While in the case of Rwanda this may sound convincing it completely ignores other important factors such as growing poverty and persistent underdevelopment.

The international explanations stress the emergence of these conflicts in the post Cold War era and the resulting collapse of international finance which meant fewer resources available for clientelist practices. This is argued by Chabal and Daloz (1999) who believe conflict was sparked by the breakdown of patrimonial systems which were responsible for generating authority and support in African states.[5] The more recent developments in conflict literature perhaps seek to reconcile the internal and external factors by arguing the centrality of the African state in explaining conflict. These state based explanations vary considerably.

Chris Allen (1999) perceives conflict as the result of ‘spoils politics’ whereby violence becomes intensified as elites try to hold onto control of the state apparatus for the purposes of personal enrichment. Ethnicity may be used as a mobilising factor which can lead to instability. In the end as a result of ‘spoils politics’ the state may become so weak that it will implode; meaning that it ceases to exercise authority. Alternately, it may explode in which the regime is replaced by warring factions.[6] In a roundabout way therefore, conflict is a result of the weak state.

Mary Kaldor (2007) argues that states are weak because of the economic impact of globalisation. This has caused a decline of state authority and the erosion of economic and social security; therefore these ‘new wars’ are the result of the disintegration of the state.[7] Herbst (2000) however offers a rather radical perspective in that the weak state is the result of low population density.

Finally, Richard Jackson (2002) whose analysis we are most interested in believes civil war is not the result of a breakdown in an otherwise peaceful order but rooted in structures and processes of the weak state which is a non-consolidated democracy.  His explanation of the features of the weak state cover the political, economic and social. They are:

“institutional weakness, economic scar-city, problems of legitimacy, political instability, lack of national identity, failure to secure the hegemonic idea of the state, and external vulnerability” [8]

What is the relationship between these features and conflict? Richard Jackson (2002) links the weak state with elites and economics explaining that conflict is often a rational strategy by elites trying to hold onto power and prompted to do so by the decline of resources for patrimonialism and the pressures of globalisation. With few resources the most obvious choice is to utilise existing ethnic identities; this can lead to politics divided along ethnic lines with different ethnic groups competing for power which significantly raises the stakes of obtaining power.[9]

As most African states can be deemed ‘weak states’ and if conflict, and civil war specifically, are the result of the weak state is it not then inevitable?

In short, the answer is no. The ‘prevention is better than cure’ argument appears convincing in so far that it is better to prevent conflict before it emerges through the use of diplomacy e.g. peacekeeping, disarmament, etc. This is preferable as once a weak state does become engaged in conflict it is very difficult to solve as violence tends to intensify. To resolve a conflict once underway much is required including ‘demobilisation, demilitarisation, economic and social reconstruction’ in short getting to the root of the problem and reconstructing the state itself.[10] It is necessary to build state institutions to transform it from a weak state into a strong state.

The approach thus far however of western governments in propping up weak states may be counter-productive as unless a weak state makes a transition to a strong one then there is likely at some point to be the continuation of conflict; especially as it requires a reliance on internal actors who are hardly committed to democratic principles.[11] However the weak state framework of Jackson (2002) and similar analyses from others (Allen, 1999)  do not posit that conflict nor conflict resolution are inevitable. They do however require a better understanding of the causes as well as the sharing of power by elites and the adoption of democratic reforms, institution building, strengthening civil society, creation of a system of checks and balances.[12]

Ultimately, while conflict is not inevitable it is a likely possibility for any weak African state; the chances of which would be greatly diminished with successful democratic consolidation.


[1]      Kaldor, M. (2007). New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in a Global Era. United States: Stanford University Press.

[2]    Jackson, R. (2002). Violent Internal Conflict and the African State: Towards a framework of analysis. Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 20(1), pp. 29-52.

[3]    Ballentine, K. & Nitzschke, H. (2005). The Political Economy of Civil War and Conflict Transformation. Retrieved April 19, 2011, from Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management:

[4]    Allen, C. (1999). Warfare, endemic violence & state collapse in Africa. Review of African Political Economy, 26(81), pp. 367-384.

[5]  Huntington, S. (1996). The Clash of Civilizations: Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[6]  Kaplan, R. (1994). The Coming Anarchy. Retrieved April 20, 2011, from The Atlantic:

[7]    Chabel, P. & Daloz, J.P. (1999). Africa Works: Disorder as a political instrument. United States: Indiana University Press.

[8]    Allen, C. (1999). Warfare, endemic violence & state collapse in Africa. Review of African Political Economy, 26(81), pp. 367-384.

[9]    Kaldor, M. (2007). New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in a Global Era. United States: Stanford University Press.

[10]      Jackson, R. (2002). Violent Internal Conflict and the African State: Towards a framework of analysis. Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 20(1), pp. 29-52.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

Book Review: Jeffrey Herbst’s States and Power in Africa – Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control

Jeffrey Herbst’s States and Power in Africa provides a unique historical examination of the process of African state creation and consolidation and seeks to explain why contemporary African states have been plagued by weakness and failure. He aims to show how African states differ from European states and believes that a great deal of current literature makes the mistake of being Euro-centric in its analysis of the problem. This is a Africa specific account.

The key thesis of this book is that low population density is a causal factor in explaining the weak state and as the title suggests this creates problems for ‘authority and control’. From the outset Herbst stresses the geopolitical problem of controlling and maintaining order over vast areas of land with few people; power therefore tends to be concentrated in urban areas and does not extend to the rural. The inability of African leaders to control their territory is a central explanation for the failure of African states to consolidate. There is the assumption throughout that states are only viable if they are able to maintain control of their own borders.

The analysis draws heavily on Charles Tilly’s work on European state formation ‘Coercion, Capital and European States’ in which it is argued that European states developed as population density increased and in which institutions were developed for the purposes of war. Africa however with low population density and little inter-state conflict has not developed as did Europe with strong institutions and a strong state. The case of Africa is qualitatively different with states having ill-defined boundaries and weak institutions as conflicts did not occur over land and borders.  Furthermore, the legacy of the Cold War and of western aid and development funding has further undermined the development of strong state institutions and thus African states remain weak.

It is not controversial to argue that conflict is a result of the weak state. The centrality of the weak state to conflict has been argued by many others notably including Chris Allen (1999) and Richard Jackson (2002). Nor is his analysis of the importance of institutions to state weakness particularly controversial. The most controversial element of Herbst’s theory is that colonialism in Africa was but a brief ineffective interlude and the problem of projecting power has been an enduring problem through the pre-colonial period, the colonial era and post-independence.  The colonial influence was limited to coastal areas and developed for the purposes of extraction and not for exerting power and influence over the masses; there was very little purpose to creating settler colonies. Herbst says that it was impossible for the Europeans to have utterly transformed Africa in just the few decades they were there. After all, the ‘Scramble for Africa’ did not take place until much later after the Conference of Berlin in 1885.

This assertion of colonialism as an ineffective interlude runs contrary to established academic opinion. Herbst is criticised by Robinson (2002) for only looking at formal colonialism and for failing to take into account that European influence started much earlier with the slave trade. This is but one example of how European influence completely transformed the continent and continues to influence its design into the modern era.

However while dismissing the influence of colonialism influence Herbst makes a contradictory argument in suggesting that the legacy of the colonial state system from the Berlin conference to be a particular source of tension. The current system of nation-states means rulers are stuck trying to project authority over vast territory because of the poorly drawn state boundaries; he argues there is disjuncture between asserted sovereignty and actual authority. This is a product of colonialism. In such a case can we consider it to be just a brief ineffective interlude?

Herbst makes very radical recommendations for solving the current endemic problem of state weakness such as considering the creation of new sovereign states which more accurately reflect the power of African leaders. This would mean re-drawing the map to more closely reflect the reality. This would be preferable to the international community continuing to prop up weak states and thus reinforcing the cyclical pattern of violence. The book even raises the possibility of alternatives to the dominance of the nation-state and recognising more local forms of governance.

These solutions run counter to so much popular thought in political science and provide a radical and thought-provoking alternative for the academic community to digest, discuss and debate. It provides a fresh analysis of an age-old problem. While there are of course exceptions to Herbst’s ideas he states in the outset that his aim is not to debate the minutiae but to focus on the bigger picture.  The book ends with a plea to scholars and others alike to consider the non-European path of state development and to consider the unique case of Africa. This is exceedingly important as the policy of the Washington Consensus grafted onto Africa continues to have devastating consequences.

Robinson (2002) questions whether this is accurate and suggests that this only explains states within Europe. What about other countries with low population density who are now peaceful? Canada is a good example of this.  His analysis of the current problems are accurate yet his account of the origins of these problems are questioned. Robinson (2002) for example believes that low population density is less important than colonial impact yet agrees with Herbst on other things like the negative impact of the international system as a continuing factor in the weak state.

The strengths of the book are clearly that it provides such a radical alternative. Yet as with any work there are considerable weaknesses. This is perhaps  a catch-all theory. If anything, the thesis that states are weak because of low population density appears too simplistic and there are too many exceptions to this rule. Can it really be this simple?


Allen, C. (1999). Warfare, endemic violence & state collapse in Africa. Review of African Political Economy, 26(81), pp. 367-384.

Gerhart, G. (2001). States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control. Foreign Affairs. Retrieved April 21st, 2011, from Foreign Affairs website:

Jackson, R. (2002). Violent Internal Conflict and the African State: Towards a framework of analysis. Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 20(1), pp. 29-52.

Keller, E. (2002). Review: Reexamining Sovereign States in Africa. International Studies Review, 4(1), pp. 197-200.

Neustadt’s Lessons for Obama

The late Richard Neustadt wrote in his book Presidential Power & the Modern Presidents that the power of the President is the power to persuade which is the power to bargain. This power is about getting what you want without resorting to outright coercion. If the President yields his power effectively he will be able to convince people and politicians that “what he wants of them is what their own appraisal of their own responsibilities requires them to do in their own interest, not his.” 

If a President successfully uses his influence he will not have to resort to formal edicts and constitutional legal authority. This power is vested in three main sources; firstly the bargaining advantages which come with the office itself, secondly his professional reputation and the expectation that he will use his bargaining advantages, and third and finally his public prestige and how the public views him. In dealing with a highly polarized Congress Obama will need to make use of all of these if he is to achieve what he wants – though his power of persuasion after this week is perhaps irreversibly damaged. Can we consider the resulting debt ceiling deal the result of a breakdown of presidential power?

Yes. And no. It is clear from these events is that the power of Obama to influence those around him is on the decline. When the President has to resort to using commands to get what he wants what we are witnessing is a failure of Presidential power – but of course he managed to negotiate a deal via compromise. So was this a success of his power? Obama did not have to resort to using the 14th amendment to bypass Congress yet there were times when talk returned to this point. It did not come to this yet at the same time the need to threaten suggests that power is gradually slipping away. That said Obama did at numerous points threaten to veto Republican legislation.

The concerning problem with the deal is that the Republicans were able to frame the debate as one of small vs. big government. While Obama argued the point well the plan also doesn’t include extra taxation for the excessively wealthy and is mostly capitulation to the demands of the Republican right. That Obama is having to concede time and again to the Republicans leaves his professional reputation in tatters and undermines his future capacity to influence, persuade and ultimately yield power. If his professional reputation becomes established as one of weak compromise it is less likely Republicans will concede in the future no matter how tenacious or determined he may be.

But there are positives and ways in which Obama did successfully yield power.

Obama did successfully use the bargaining powers which come with his position to moderate the Republicans. He successfully made claim to bipartisanship and the national interest something which will resound with many Americans. He also didn’t hesitate to draw on another source of power, public prestige, to force a compromise. Appealing to the public was a smart move with polls indicating that 7 out of 10 swing voters wanted the Republicans to compromise (Source: MSNBC). This was most likely a source of considerable influence; along with the fact that most Americans appear to support his plan for tackling the deficit and dislike that Republicans are increasingly ideological and resorting to demagoguery.

While Americans may support Obama’s position these political battles erode his authority. Neustadt perceives the exercise of power as prospective – what a President does and wins today enhance the prospects of winning tomorrow. That Obama has become a heavy-handed President resorting so frequently to executive-orders to get what he wants does not look good for him. Just to quantify it, in the period between 1993-2000 President Clinton issued 14 executive orders. Since Obama has been in power he has issued 26. Ultimately, this taken in context paints a picture of Obama as unable to get what he wants from the bargaining process and unable to effectively exert power.

It is unsurprising as Obama’s power resides most profoundly in his public prestige. In so many ways he reminds me of JFK – he is a great communicator and an emotive performer – but ultimately unsuited to the arm twisting, manipulation and hard political bargaining that goes on in Congress. Perhaps this is because as Neustadt indicates in his closing chapters that the Presidency is “no place for amateurs”.