Thomas Serres, The Suspended Disaster, Governing by Crisis in Bouteflika’s Algeria (Columbia University Press, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Thomas Serres (TS): Algeria is a fascinating country, and I believe that it is a very generative case study to think about political developments in the Global South in a critical light, from the selective appropriation of (neo)liberal tools of governance by local elites to the rise of ruling coalitions dominated by bureaucratic-military apparatuses. That being said, the book has been considerably reworked since its first publication in French in 2019. With the occurrence of the 2019 revolutionary mobilization known as the Hirak that led to the resignation of Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, I felt that a partial rewriting was necessary. My initial analysis was accurate but needed to be updated to better foreground the political, social, and economic dynamics that led to this peaceful uprising. I also seized this opportunity to adapt the content to an English-speaking audience, which is certainly less familiar with Algerian history, and include more sources in Arabic.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?
TS: The book intervenes at four different levels, each of which reflects the various methodological and theoretical influences that shaped my research.
Firstly, at the core empirical level, it is a work of political sociology, which aims to understand the impact of a longstanding—and seemingly never-ending—crisis on political activists and organizations. From a methodological perspective, I tried to give a central role to my interviewees, notably by foregrounding their own strategic dilemmas, hopes, and anxieties.
The second intervention is in the field of comparative politics, as the book provides a critical contribution to the debates on authoritarian upgrading and democratization, which are too often limited by normative liberal approaches. In addition, I introduce the notion of cartel, which is a tool to think about the cohesion and competition within heterogeneous ruling coalitions whose power-sharing arrangements escape the formal sphere of institutional politics.
Thirdly, the book engages with the literature on critical security studies, by fleshing out the concept of governance by catastrophization introduced by philosopher Adi Ophir. Chiefly, I show that beyond the management of the disaster and the routinized use of emergency measures by the state and its affiliates (local and international) in order to prevent a disaster in the future, governance by catastrophization should also be understood from the perspective of those subjected to it, as the catastrophic lived experience of the oppressed described famously by Walter Benjamin.
Lastly, I am also engaging with the intellectual tradition of postcolonial theory, notably with Achille Mbembe. The last chapter of the book complicates Mbembe’s analysis by looking at Algeria as a postcolony where the “fetiches of commandement” are largely inoperative and where a “mutual zombification” between ruler and ruled is impossible. In addition, it reflects on the specific forms of culturalism and populism that characterize the political culture of a nation that was so “profoundly shaped by colonization and decolonization,” to use Omar Carlier’s words.
J: How does one govern by crisis, concretely?
TS: To govern by crisis, the first thing one needs is a socially shared understanding of a looming threat. In Algeria, this common understanding was largely shaped by the Dark Decade of the 1990s, a civil war that the state and its allies—as well as many scholars, notably in the United States—constantly depoliticize by casting it as a “tragedy” resulting from the masses’ immaturity and fundamentalism. The civil war is the past disaster that could be repeated in the future; it was therefore the bedrock of governance under Bouteflika. Of course, the anticipation of the catastrophe is also inflected by other shared memories, such as colonization, the economic crisis of the 1990s, and the violent repression of past popular uprisings.
The second ingredient is a heterogeneous set of collective actors (government, security agencies, corporations, foreign partners) who both catastrophize and mitigate the unfolding disaster. That is to say that they make the threat more tangible and imminent, while at the same time aiming to suspend the threat just before its actualization.
To this end, the last element is the set of policies implemented by these actors, collaboratively or chaotically. These policies include the constant implementation of economic reforms, the never-ending process of democratic consolidation, and the cultural and civic reforms aiming to discipline the people. What is fascinating in the case of Bouteflika’s Algeria is that many of the policies that aimed to mitigate the unfolding disaster ended up reproducing forms of structural violence that lead to the 2019 Hirak.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
TS: My first goal was for the book to be read by Algerian citizens and activists but, to be honest, the French version is probably more accessible for linguistics reasons. I hope that this updated version of the book will nonetheless circulate among Algerians and North Africans living in English-speaking countries. More broadly, this book is directed at an audience of students and researchers interested in Middle Eastern politics and in a critical take on the political crises experienced by postcolonial developing countries, notably in Africa and Latin America. To make the Algerian configuration legible for readers coming from different horizons and area studies, I have included elements of comparisons with countries such as Syria and Egypt, as well as Italy, Venezuela, and Colombia. I also hope that this book will spark discussions among scholars, activists, and officials interested in understanding the rise of extreme forms of securitization, the growing ubiquity of a model of governance based on the constant management of crises. Overall, it is a book about the present and future of state power, and the possibilities for challenging this mode of government and the coalition of capitalist interests, security agencies, and bureaucratic organizations behind it.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
TS: I am currently working on a new project on subversive mobilities in the Western Mediterranean and conducting fieldwork in France and Tunisia. The goal of this project is to understand the trajectories and strategies of individuals and groups that are challenging nation-states, and the coercive responses of state security apparatuses to their demands. I am especially interested in multi-lingual and/or binational individuals, whose hybridity and mobility are seen as a threat. Indeed, a number of states in the region have passed laws targeting specifically dual citizens. I also want to think about the seemingly abject nature of these actors who engage in contentious and even in some cases revolutionary actions, while being constantly cast as perverse and corrupting outside forces. At the same time, I reflect on the kind of mobility regime that has emerged under the combined effects of neoliberalization and the war on terror.
Excerpt from the book (from the Conclusion of Chapter 1, pp. 27-31)
Governance by Catastrophization
Since the mid-1980s, a “crisis of governmentality” has undermined the procedures that had hitherto allowed for the management of the population and the economy, leading to a profound restructuring of the Algerian order. I will show in the following chapters that this restructuring drew on a selective conformity with globalized technologies of power, such as democratization, nonlethal policing, economic restructuring, and the inclusion of civil society. This kind of reorganization of the state and its peripheries has been described as an “authoritarian upgrading,” and has resulted in the reconfiguration of governance “to accommodate and manage changing political, economic, and social conditions.” This transformative process and its limitations will be discussed in chapters 3–5.
In the Arab world and beyond, the restructuring of domestic political orders has accompanied a succession of crises. The ongoing process of neoliberalization has undeniably been a crucial factor, one that has “reshaped the contours of inherited institutional landscapes and rewoven the interconnections among them.” In addition to economic restructuring, successive crises have also accompanied the diffusion of a new militarized form of policing. Born out of modernity, “risk societies” have become increasingly motivated by anxiety, shaped by defensive and negative concerns, preoccupied with preventing the worst rather than fostering collective emancipation. New forms of governance have instrumentalized economic, political, and security threats to manage populations and territories. In cities, an urbanism of disaster has allowed for continued speculation and profiteering at the expense of poor neighborhoods and public budgets. At the global level, sociopolitical upheaval, environmental catastrophe, and economic breakdown have been crucial in the expansion of neoliberal governance, in what has been described as a process of “accumulation by dispossession” in the service of “disaster capitalism.”
In Algeria, the rise of crisis governance has followed an economic collapse, the implementation of a structural adjustment program, and the privatization of public assets. Yet it was also centered on the prevention of a new conflict. After 1999, the exceptional nature of the threat associated with a potential repetition of the Dark Decade generated an imaginary of emergency based on an anxious waiting for a disastrous turning point. The Algerian case thus represents an extreme example of a totalizing securitization aimed at preventing the most absolute threat: the collapse of the polity and the rise of senseless mass violence. It is an example of governance by catastrophization, a system of government that allows for the management of society in the name of preventing a disaster.
Like securitization, catastrophization is at the crossroads of a host of subjective and objective factors. While it is partly discursive, it is also a response to concrete social, economic, environmental, or political conditions. As I showed in the historical overview that opened this chapter, the fear of a new wave of violence cannot be understood as a mere trauma. In Algeria, it was also a consequence of persistent “evils” (residual terrorism, social unrest, the illegitimacy and fragmentation of the ruling coalition, economic fragility, etc.). A totalizing form of securitization, catastrophization draws on the permanent dialectic between chaos and order and allows for the bureaucratic regulation of survival. It is a comprehensive operational framework for policy making that aims to prevent an unfolding disaster. As such, both state and non-state actors quantify the number of “evils,” monitor the impending catastrophe, and fix a threshold above which it can no longer be prevented. In so doing, they can suspend the unfolding disaster before the turning point is reached, thereby permitting the daily management of a population and a territory. Even though the fierce defense of sovereignty remains a key feature of Algerian political culture, governance by catastrophization also facilitates transnational partnerships. The shared imaginary of emergency encourages repeated interventions, merging managerial, humanitarian, and security-oriented approaches to preserve the linearity of development. Local and foreign actors alike seek to avoid crossing the threshold of catastrophe. In the name of stability and growth, catastrophization thus facilitates the polity’s insertion into the global system.
By placing the catastrophe at the center of my analysis, I do not aim to propose a normative assessment of the political order in Algeria, or to suggest that a transparent, democratic, liberal order is the solution to an alleged failure. At its core, governance by catastrophization is a matter of political and social indetermination. As it justifies the state of exception conceptualized by Giorgio Agamben, it makes the distinction between war and peace, between civil war and revolution, impossible. Indetermination thus means both stabilization and confusion, both of which bolster sovereign power. Moreover, following Walter Benjamin’s insights, the catastrophe also signifies both a horizon of possibility and a lived experience. As such, its indetermination is also synonymous with a threshold prefiguring both destruction and redemption, the complete collapse of the order and the hope associated with this collapse.
The conversation between Benjamin and Agamben takes place at the crossroads of domination and revolution. While his state of exception prevents a catastrophic potentiality and allows for the limitation of individual rights, Agamben is constantly grappling with the tension between the perspective of the state and that of the oppressed. Meanwhile, Benjamin famously opposed a “bastardized” mythical violence, the “bloody power” of the executive “over mere life for its own sake,” with a “pure” divine power, the truly sovereign power “over all life for the sake of the living” that can abolish state power and found a new historical epoch. But he reckons that the latter remains almost impossible to identify with certainty, while the former is immediately perceptible. Agamben endorses Benjamin’s effort to push back against the annexation of exceptional violence by the state, but he sees pure violence as “the stake in the conflict over the state of exception.” From this perspective, governance by catastrophization is not merely a top-down effort to control and discipline the subject in the name of preventing the disaster. It is also the process through which the possibility of a transformative expiatory catastrophe emerges. This tension becomes obvious at the grassroots level, once the catastrophe is conceived as a subjective emergency, a catastrophic experience of domination that nurtures a “weak messianism,” which is to say the possibility of an emancipatory disruption of time. The ambiguity of the suspended disaster is thus captured by Benjamin’s “tradition of the oppressed,” which is based on the confrontation between a state violence that obliterates the individual, and a “destructive character” whose revolutionary violence responds to the risk of obliteration.
We should appreciate Benjamin not only for his ability to imagine a governance by catastrophization that goes beyond state power and biopolitical management. His philosophy of history also sheds light on to the contradictory subjectivities of a nation shaped by anticolonialism and Third Worldism. At the heart of this philosophy lies the critique of a continuum of progress that is supposed to drive history. This critique allows us to think about the process of catastrophization as a particular temporality, as a disastrous stagnation contradicting the promises of modernity. The notion of a missed opportunity after independence is thus central to understand the meaning of the catastrophe in the Algerian context, and notably the profound sense of cultural alienation produced by the deterministic modernizing machine of the developmentalist state. Yet at the very same time, the process of catastrophization animates the possibility of a redemption through a moment of destruction. Indeed, the anticolonial revolution that overthrew French colonialism can still be saved and its radical potentialities once again actualized.
During the twenty years of Bouteflika’s rule, Algeria was seemingly reinstalled in a continuum of security and progress. In the name of survival, development, and curing an “Algerian personality” (shakhsiyya jazāi’riyya) shattered by colonialism and the Dark Decade, population and territory were to be reinserted into the “homogeneous, empty time” characteristic of modern governance and nation building. Yet this effort to normalize politics under the shadow of the suspended disaster cohabited with another understanding of the emergency, not as an impending repetition of the 1990s but as a routine of hopelessness and stagnation that invalidated the narrative of careful development promoted by the ruling elites. In this context, another temporality of emergency appeared, marked by the necessity of immediate and radical change. The catastrophe was thus situated at once in a traumatic past, an unbearable present, and a dreaded future. It was potentially synonymous with both an obliteration of the polity and a messianic release. To understand how the structure of the ruling coalition fueled this ambiguity, the next chapter will present its main institutions and the competing dynamics that undermined its cohesion.