State Actors and Private Actors: Revisiting the Concept of Governance

A close look at the mechanisms of rule in colonial states has important implications for the general debate on governance in areas of limited statehood. Not least, it contributes to a historicization of the notion of governance. The incorporation of “private” actors into governmental strategies of rule is by no means a novel phenomenon. Given the precarious instability of imperial rule, governance was fundamental to colonial states from the very beginning. The colonial state, it is important to remember, was not just one among many examples of states that depend upon the incorporation of nonprivate actors and institutions. Instead, colonialism was the fundamental geopolitical and cultural condition that structured the global spread of the modern state. Analysis of governance patterns in colonial states thus helps to contextualize the concept of the modern state and its many historical manifestations (Dirlik 2007; Reinhard 1999).

Moreover, the case of the colonial state enables us to critically examine an aspect that lies at the heart of many current governance debates: the dichotomy of public and private. The dynamics of rule in colonial states render the binary category of public and private actors highly ambivalent and problematic, not least on normative grounds. The boundaries between public and private were blurred both among the colonizers and between the colonial bureaucracy and indigenous potentates. Moreover, in the colonial situation different governance collectives interacted and overlapped. This made it difficult to define the constituency for which governance services were provided. There are three components to this argument, which we will examine in greater detail here.

First, the differentiation of the colonizer population into state actors versus private actors remained largely theoretical. Most visibly in the early periods of colonial rule, but also later on, distinctions between state-funded administrative personnel and a wide range of nonstate actors were marginal. This was particularly obvious in the case of British India, where political power was deliberately delegated to the private East India Company. In the case of imperial Germany, the government invested colonial activists like Carl Peters with the right to annex territory for Germany. In the early 1880s, private entrepreneurs and companies also exercised quasi-state powers. To the extent to which the German colonial empire consolidated, these competences in foreign policy were monopolized by the colonial government. But in many other policy fields, private initiative remained crucial. This was true in particular for the education system that was largely built by mission societies and without state funds (Krause 2007).

While these forms of delegating power and authority seem to fit the definition of governance from the point of view of the colonized, the differences between state institutions, missions, plantation owners, traders, members of scientific explorations, and so on were marginal. This was not only the case in the early years in which, in Cameroon for example, the adjudication of criminal law was explicitly defined as the task of all Europeans (Schaper 2010). Even after colonial bureaucracies had been firmly installed, the categorical difference between state and private actors was not part of everyday colonial practice. From the perspective of the colonized population, the power of a plantation owner and even the head of a mission station did not fundamentally diverge from the authority of state administration.

Instead, what was crucial was the boundary of race. Colonial societies relied on the “rule of colonial difference,” as Partha Chatterjee has called it in the case of British South Asia. By this he means the ideological and practical importance of the idea that there was a fundamental dichotomy between the colonial masters and the (supposedly inferior) colonized population. This concept was central even where the government and administration believed that their colonial subjects would at some point in the future be capable of becoming citizens with equal rights to those of citizens at home (Chatterjee 1993).

To be sure, the notion of race was not monolithic, and many competing strands of racial thinking coexisted. Moreover, in everyday practice the notion of racial difference could not be taken for granted but was, as Ann Stol- er has convincingly argued, constantly rearticulated and negotiated (Stoler 1989; Stoler 2002). These qualifications notwithstanding, the segregating work of the color line was the fundamental reality of colonial rule. It was immediately apparent in the separation of living spheres in colonial cities, in the duality of the legal structure, and in the prohibitions to intermarriage and miscegenation. The prerogative of “race” implied that access to power and authority did not depend primarily on social difference, class, or indeed the characterization as public or private, but rather on notions of difference that reinforced the basic opposition of colonizers and colonized (Muhlhahn 2000; Wildenthal 2001; Zimmerer 2001).

Second, the definition of indigenous elites as private actors is highly problematic. Informal rule implied the delegation of authority to local potentates (frequently the so-called chiefs). This followed a classical governance pattern of employing indigenous actors and recruiting their networks and social prestige to make up for the weakness of the colonial state. From the perspective of the colonial government, these arrangements did indeed involve private actors who were temporarily invested with state competences. But for the historian, it is a normative assumption to declare the colonial administration a “state,” and the local communities mere “private” institutions. Indeed, the local “chiefs” were selected by the colonial bureaucracy precisely because they were not mere “private” persons but rather fulfilled official functions in the local societies they represented. What was more, in many parts of the inaccessible hinterlands the colonial government did not even have the power to enforce their own orders, and the concept of indirect rule was clearly but a fiction. In northern Cameroon, for example, German rule should really be described as coexisting with local rule. The Islamic Fulbe rulers were formally subjugated through a series of military expeditions but the Germans had little real economic or political control. In fact, the Fulbe aristocracy themselves made use of the colonial power and were able, with the military support of the Germans, to expand their own area of domination (Hausen 1970; Wirz 1972).

What this means, then, is that the rhetoric of public versus private runs the danger of reifying colonialist categories and thus of naturalizing colonial rule. The colonial state was no more “public” than the multiple political entities it purported to govern. Instead, the complex mechanisms of colonial rule are better described as competing and overlapping forms of authorityinvolving both the colonial government and indigenous rulers. Depending on the context, the local rulers did not derive their authority from being invested by a colonial bureaucracy. Their rights to rule were equally based on the power structures of the local population and they aimed at representing a “state” that could claim higher legitimacy than the colonial state.

Third, the colonial setting renders the question of who constitutes the governance collective a highly complex one. Who were the individuals and groups addressed by governmental and private interventions? The boundaries of groups that benefited from governmental measures and were targeted as their beneficiaries were fluid and changing, and they are analytically hard to pin down for the historian. Within a given colony, highly diverse groups profited from the regulations and provisions of the state administration and its “private” partners. And as different social groups competed for rights and access to power, the addressees of institutional arrangements varied fundamentally.

Of course, governance always implies forms of bargaining between different groups and a trade-off between competing claims is therefore nothing peculiar. But the conditions under colonial rule were specific. For example, certainty of justice and the reliability and transparency of the law were values that the colonial government championed and used to legitimate its presence. But whose certainty of justice was it, and indeed, whose justice? From the perspective of the colonized population, the mechanism of legal procedure worked primarily towards the reenforcement of colonial rule- even if in concrete cases it may have served their individual or group interests.

To be sure, in this case it is important to stress that a straightforward dichotomy of rulers and ruled is misleading, mainly for two reasons. On the one hand, recent scholarship has complicated the strict dichotomy between colonizers and colonized as posited in colonial discourse. A spate of theoretical and empirical work has explored and exposed the brittle boundaries of whiteness, gender identities, and rulers and ruled in everyday colonial practice. Instead of taking a racially based “rule of difference” for granted, historians have looked increasingly at the shifting, negotiable “politics of difference” (Arnold 1983; Buettner 2000; Cooper 2005; Fischer-Tine and Gehr- mann 2009; Levine 2004; McClintock 1995). On the other hand, the differentiation between the colonial masters and the colonized, a differentiation that was increasingly expressed in terms of “race,” stood in opposition to the concept of “elevation” preached by the proponents of the cultural mission that was one of the main ideologies driving the colonial project. The civilizing mission aimed to promote comprehensive social “development”: to facilitate technical progress, end despotic rule, create a social order that was based on emancipation (for women for example) and participation, and introduce “modern” cultural dispositions. But “elevation” and “development” were always conditional, as parity with the colonizers was constantly deferred. The school system is a good example of the tension between assimilation and difference, between “elevation” and the maintenance of fundamental differences that characterized the colonial project as a whole. Western education was supposed to make its recipients familiar with the principles of European- Christian civilization, but at the same time, teaching was limited to a very basic level. To be clear, it did provide resources that colonized inhabitants could access. It allowed the children of slaves and other dependent groups (who were often the first to attend at mission schools) access to education and, thus, the prospect of improving their social position. Many members of the national elites who would later lead their countries to independence also attended the mission schools. Emancipation was indeed a goal, but there was never any intent for the students to become equal citizens. The schools were established to create perfect “natives,” not black Europeans (Barth and Osterhammel 2005; Conklin 1997; Fischer-Tine and Mann 2004).

All these complexities and contestations notwithstanding, the fundamental issue of legitimacy remains crucial to any evaluation of governance under colonial conditions. Domination by a foreign power delegitimized, albeit to different degrees, the interventions under colonial rule. While the state bureaucracy and its different “private” partners—such as mission societies and indigenous potentates—supplied the newly founded schools, the creation of Westernized medical services, the ongoing efforts to “educate the natives to work,” and the introduction of Western legal standards, these services and programs were always tied to the interests of the European planters, settlers, merchants, and administrators. The forms of in- and exclusion based on the notion of race produced a binary discursive structure that made it difficult to embrace the “benefits” of governance provisions without recognizing the inherent connection to foreign domination.

 
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