Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

State Power

Expanding on my post from yesterday, below are two quotes from Taiaiake Alfred’s books Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto (2009) regarding the state’s subversion of opposing viewpoints.  Alfred writes specifically about indigenous rights, but I believe his arguments parallel my feelings towards development work.

Michel Foucault identified two ways of understanding state power.  The first sees state sovereignty as being created through the contractual surrender of individual rights.  In this view, it is the abuse of state power – its extension beyond the accepted legal framework – that results in “oppression” of individuals.  Most of the Western political theory concerns the tensions that arise within a constitutionally regulated matrix of political power.

The other, deeper, understanding of power proposed by Foucault sees the overextension of state power within a constitutional framework not as abuse but as the “mere effect and continuation of a relation of dominance” that is fundamental – “a perpetual relation of force.”  Instead of defining oppression as an overextension of state power within a legal framework, Foucault points to the continual domination by force necessary to maintain that framework itself.  This approach is particularly useful for analyzing the relationship between the state and indigenous peoples – an approach in which not only the expression and extension of state power but the entire framework on which the sovereignty of the state depends on the question.

A critique of state power that sees oppression as an inevitable function of the state, even when it is constrained by a constitutionally defined social-political contract, should have special resonance for indigenous people, since their nations were never party to any contract and yet have been forced to operate within a framework that presupposed the legitimacy of state sovereignty over them.  Arguing for rights within that framework only reinforces the state’s anti-historic claim to sovereignty by contract. [my emphasis] (pg. 71-72)


Undeniably, many Native people who work in state institutions, or in state-sponsored governments within communities, see themselves as working in the interests of their people.  There is a strong, although fundamentally naïve, belief among them that it is possible to “promote change from within.”  In retrospect, those who have tried such an approach have failed to see that belief for what it is: more of justification than a reason….  The co-optive intent of the current system is clear to anyone who has worked within it, as is the moral necessity of rejecting the divisive institutions and leaders who emerge from a bureaucratic culture. (pg. 57)

At the Canadian National Engineers Without Borders conference last year, someone asked, “If I want to change the world, is it more effective to work within Wall Street or to Occupy it?” 

I became an engineer to transform the system from the inside, but the more I explore these issues the more I understand that the solutions to Third World poverty are socioeconomic, not technical.  Too bad.  Technical solutions are so much easier to implement!


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