‘Ruling the savage periphery’: frontier governance and the making of the modern state

I thought of doing a kind of book review of this striking book, which appeared almost by chance. (Yes, this is not the time to indulge in academic or literary pastimes, but you will find out why I have to bring it to public attention).

Four “frontiers” have been researched and presented in detail – the North-West Frontier of British India, the Northern Frontier province of Kenya, the Apache reserves in southern Arizona and the edge of the Pampas in Argentina. I feel the author would have included Burma/Myanmar if he had had enough material.

His findings up-end many of the political “wisdom” that has guided policy-makers in the post-colonial world, and that has much value in itself. Since I have a Myanmar readership in mind, and the book does not explore Burma/ Myanmar, I have decided instead to do an extrapolation and application of the findings to Myanmar.

If readers do not agree with them, well we can have a lively debate. But ultimately this book comes very close to a diagnosis of what has plagued this country for 70 years.

A time of revolution calls for revolutionary concepts –those that turn much received wisdom upside-down. To start with, in the author’s own words –

To speak of frontier governmentality in the modern world, then, is to speak of a long history of violence.

Frontier governmentality emerged from the 1870s onward as a near-universal strategy for the management of recalcitrant peoples inhabiting marginal lands on the edges of authority.  (It) presents a subversive and radically different way of understanding the modern world. These pages argue that frontiers are not places, but rather practices manifest in particular spaces.

Frontier as practice also challenges the binary spatial categories of “center” and “periphery,” instead replacing such markers of place with sinews of relationships. Further, this work provocatively considers

the relationship between the past and the present, more specifically the colonial past and the postcolonial present.

To what extent the latter is not simply beholden to, but actually a continuing manifestation of the former, seems a question rarely seriously considered.

The lasting legacies of frontier governmentality have proven more pernicious and durable than the formal state structures enforcing it. Those legacies include poverty, political disenfranchisement, marginalization, and, above all, violence.

So to speak of a long history of violence is to reference not only the continued occasional bloodletting that the peoples of the periphery suffer, but also, and as importantly, the incessant daily diminution of their human dignity exercised through a bureaucratic, legalistic, and political vocabulary that intentionally constructs them as something “less than” and thus disposable.

Yet violence is only one destructive legacy of frontier governmentality shaping the modern-day lives of peoples of the periphery.

The liberal promise of the law continues to be denied them while its punitive sanction remains in force.

The spaces of the periphery subjected to frontier governmentality remain incredibly impoverished. The peoples inhabiting them are among the poorest in what are in most cases already poor states. The violence of these spaces—actual and epistemic, state and social—compounds this

impoverishment. Just as colonial states refused to extend normal administrative order to these spaces, postcolonial states have in the main also refused to extend the physical infrastructure of development and modernity here, save in instances where it served to facilitate the state’s purposes.

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Sovereignty

The claims of sovereignty, or rather sovereign exclusivity, at the heart of the modern global order are false. For too long, sovereignty has been thought of by politicians, political scientists, practitioners, and even some historians in absolute terms.

Sovereign pluralism challenges the accepted orthodoxy of a world in which sovereignty is unqualified and indivisible, instead pointing toward

one where gradations of authority mark its exercise. …But such ideal types poorly fit the exigencies of the political moment, or the reality of the historical record. Few if any states resemble the ideal archetype of a sovereign Westphalian state.

The fact that states clothed their assertions of power, as well as the status of the peripheral peoples with whom they dealt through the practice of frontier governmentality, in the dually reinforcing language of sovereignty and independence was neither inadvertent nor inconsequent-ial.

For it reveals a world in which those making such sovereign claims both implicitly and explicitly recognized their gradation, rather than uniform-ity.

“Ruling the savage periphery”  by Benjamin D. Hopkins, Harvard University Press, 2020, 288 pages

(To be continued as Part 2, which will apply the books findings and lessons to Burma/Myanmar and assess the prospects for federalism)