Africa: Politics and Societies South of the Sahara

Armed Groups, Power and Domination: The Dilemma of Violence

Posted in African Politics, Global Africa, Reviews by ruben eberlein on October 4, 2009

lrasoldiersKlaus Schlichte published his book In the Shadow of Violence recently with Campus Verlag. The political scientist provides an ambitious study about the use of violence, questions of legitimacy and the stabilisation of domination by armed groups. He draws on extensive evidence from the fields, a good part of it cumulated by himself and his students. Read my review here.

This latest publication by Klaus Schlichte, currently Professor for Political Science at Magdeburg University (East Germany), offers a summary of one of his main research interests. Since the early 1990s, Schlichte dedicates himself to those phenomena which today employ a separate academic field by the name of ‘state decay’: the functionality of armed groups as well as the dynamics of power and its challenge, for example in Liberia, Serbia, Senegal, Mali or Uganda.

In the Shadow of Violence is an ambitious and successful effort to relate a huge amount of information from ‘the fields’ to a sociological theory of power and domination inspired by, among others, Max Weber and Norbert Elias. The author presents his own empirical data, the studies of his PhD students at the research group ‘Micro Politics of Armed Groups’ (Humboldt University), founded and directed by Schlichte until March 2009, and other relevant research.

Within seven clearly arranged chapters, the author investigates the genesis of armed groups from their creation to the capture of power up to the stabilisation and institutionalisation of authority. His central argument: Such organisations have permanently to negotiate the inherent contradictions between their social legitimation and the violence they exert. Successful rebel groups, Schlichte writes, are able to overcome the ‘shadows of violence’ and even can become state founders, be it with international blessing or informally.

This book also constitutes a draft challenging the scientific or political levelling of all kinds of rebellions under the brands ‘state decay’ or ‘war against terror’ respectively. In order to learn more about violent conflicts, the author states, we have no alternative but to analyse specific cases and combine these informations with all instruments available to social sciences. For Schlichte, this includes an admission that current knowledge with regards to these subjects still is quite constricted. Thus, the possibilities to theorise about them face their limitations.

It is exactly these limitations that Schlichte’s study explores. At the same time, the author refers to the genesis of the state in Europe as well as Northern America and its partially downright violent history. The reader is cautioned that a number of characteristics of so-called ‘new wars’ might finally not be that new.

Not least because of its attentive, almost precautious handling of the material in question, this publication stands out from others that promote sensational but weakly substantiated assumptions. For in the end the author feels only confident to say that the outcomes of the politics of armed groups and the responses to it are not predictable. Insofar one can hope that this commendable account is indeed only an interim conclusion of Schlichte’s research on armed groups, power and domination.

Klaus Schlichte. In the Shadow of Violence. The Politics of Armed Groups. Campus Verlag, Frankfurt/Main & New York 2009, 256 pp., 29,90 Euro. The original review appeared in Welt-Sichten (10/09) entitled Von Gewalt und Legitimität. This latest issue of Welt-Sichten focuses on homosexuality and its (non-) acceptance around the world.

Photo: Voxcom/Irinnews. Soldiers of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Sudan, April 2007.

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