‘Working the system’ : affect, amnesia and the aesthetics of power in the ‘New Angola’
Schubert, Johannes Gabriel
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How political authority and legitimacy are sustained in societies marked by socio-economic inequality and political exclusion is a long-standing preoccupation in the social sciences. Since the end of its civil war in 2002, Angola has often been cited as a paradigmatic case of such ‘illiberal peacebuilding’; of successful post-war transition to economic recovery and formal, political liberalisation, closely managed and tightly controlled by a ‘neoauthoritarian’, dominant-party regime. Based on 12 months of fieldwork in Luanda, this thesis offers an empirically and analytically innovative perspective that balances the ‘Africa rising’ narrative pervading mainstream media reports of post-war Angola, and complicates the clientelist account of Angolan politics that predominates academic literature. It does so by privileging an ethnographic approach rooted in urban life, encompassing social strata commonly studied separately. This seeks to delocalize the anthropological gaze and capture the radical social and spatial mobility of everyday life in Luanda. By working through the emic notion of the ‘system’, this thesis pays attention to both material practices and symbolic repertoires mobilised in the co-production of the political. For Angolans the ‘system’ is simultaneously a moral ordering device, a critique, and a mode d’emploi for their current political and socio-economic environment. It is characterised by multiple internal tensions: between the stasis and speed of urban life; blockages and mobility; the past and the future; ‘memory work’ and selective amnesia; and between fear and hope; and the affects and aspirations produced by ‘power’. Through detailed analysis of the practices through which people ‘work the system’, and of the political imaginaries and discursive repertoires that ‘make the system work’, the thesis looks at the myriad processes through which relationships between ‘power’ and ‘the people’ are constantly remade, renegotiated, and dialogically constructed. The analytical value of this notion of the ‘system’ is that it avoids reproducing a simplistic distinction between ‘state’ and ‘society’. By revealing the multiple linkages between these two spheres, we can think beyond ‘resistance’ and ‘complicity’, drawing out a more subtle account of hegemony, beyond the ‘cultivation of consent’ by the dominant. Examining the ‘functioning’ of ‘the system’ through the eyes of its ‘users’, the thesis therefore builds upon, and extends anthropology’s critique of dominance as something ‘produced’ by a group of select individuals, and investigates instead what it means and how it feels to live in and be part of such a polity. Its chapters explore the interweaving strands that make up this complex, mutually dependent relationship: history and the disjunctures between official and affective memories, ideas of racial and class identities, the idioms of kinship, and the practices and symbolisms of money-making. However, instead of reifying notions of ‘memory’, ‘tradition’, ‘identity’ or ‘corruption’ as analytical concepts, the thesis shows how social actors mobilise and modify these idioms in everyday interactions with ‘power’. Both in practice and in imagination, this ‘New Angola’ is constituted as essentially urban, upwardly mobile and aspirational, with rural areas left ‘behind’. Thus Luanda epitomises both a lived reality and a political project that stands for the entire country, as well as ‘laboratory of the global’, offering new insights into the politics of the everyday in dominant-party regimes in the 21st century.