When Disorder Has a Value: Denunciation and Liberty in Armed Conservation in the Central African Republic

In other words, order is the purpose of society. Disorder is therefore always a failure of society or otherwise undesirable, and the purpose of social mechanisms is to contain and process conflict. These equations whereby order = good and disorder = bad, have often been taken to be key elements of what Geertz critically called the “consensus gentium” (nuggets of cultural universals)[ii]. But there is good reason to question whether the values embedded in those equations are indeed universal/neutral.

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Disorder as a Rationale for Decentralization and Recentralization

In the post-Westphalian world, sovereignty is the norm that simultaneously produces anarchy between states and the possibility of its opposite, order, within those states. While sovereignty ostensibly gives national authorities ultimate control over subnational actors and spaces, along with the formal ability to impose order from above, the reality is much more complicated – and much more interesting. Order is never a foregone conclusion, even within the sovereign states that form the units of the international state system. From the seminal works of scholars like Michael Mann, Stein Rokkan, and Charles Tilly, we know that the emergence of the nation-state as the dominant unit in the modern world was everywhere associated with dramatic territorial struggles between national and subnational actors over who got to do what, and with whose resources. Whether peripheral regions were incorporated into proto-states by core areas using direct or indirect forms of rule, territory was always at the heart of state building. But territorial struggles do not simply disappear once the process of state formation is complete; well after their emergence, states are constantly negotiating and renegotiating territorial arrangements between core and periphery, and between national and subnational. We see this in the wave of decentralization that swept the global south at the end of the last century, and in the set of re-centralizing changes that have occurred in the opening years of the new century.

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An Age of Uncertainty

It is worthwhile at this juncture to consider the nature of the US presidency and its likely impact on the role of the US in the post-World War II and post-Cold War world order. The issues inherent in the US president’s recent statements and behavior — his fondness for autocrats, dismissal of allies and long-term partnerships, and his embrace of mercantilist approaches to trade —constitute a major break with core bipartisan traditions in US foreign policy.[i] Close advisors to the president articulate broad views of global politics that they define as standing at odds with this tradition.[ii] These developments contribute to a major increase in uncertainty for those who govern amidst disorder.

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Theorizing (Dis)order: Exploratory Remarks

The philosopher Eric Heller wrote, ‘Be careful how you interpret the world; it is like that.’[29] One of the challenges facing the social scientist is that a deep knowledge of a particular issue, or a particular place, allows the scholar to write about it with an authoritative subjectivity. In my own writings on Sudan, I have approached the same topic (e.g. political violence) from different perspectives, each time with some explanatory purchase. These different frameworks of explanation may be incompatible with one another, but that has not hindered me from using them.

My concluding point in this paper is therefore, that (dis)order may be in the eye of the beholder, or the pen of the writer, as much as in the world that is being observed or described. However, rather than lapsing into an irretrievable subjectivity and a resigned agnosticism, I prefer to be cautious about what can and cannot be explained, and to insist on always bearing in mind the limitations of any particular point of view.

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