"The Anti-Politics Machine" (Review)


James Ferguson’s The Anti-Politics Machine presents a Foucauldian critique of the development apparatus explaining, first, that the development discourse produces a fantasy of the “less-developed country,” second, how that fantasy’s disjunction with reality causes the development project to fail at its stated goals, and third, why the development apparatus has the consistent effect of expanding and strengthening bureaucratic state power. The strongest and most impressive chapter, closely adapted from his 1985 dissertation, explores the reasons why the Thaba-Tseka livestock/range-management development project failed to create a commercial cattle industry in Lesotho. The book is essentially the addition of context and purpose to Ferguson’s excellent anthropological study of cattle-ownership in Lesotho.

Throughout the book, Ferguson reveals a preference for the in-depth case study over systematic theory building. He tells the reader that he is aware of his own lack of scholarship outside of Lesotho and that “others more knowledgeable than I” (p. 257) can make a better judgment of his generalizations, yet at the end of the book he does not shy away from extrapolating from his observations in Lesotho. Ferguson occasionally also professes to not morally evaluate the development apparatus, not to decide if development is a “good thing.” However, throughout the book his tone and word choice condemns the development apparatus in general and not specifically for Lesotho.

Ferguson is not afraid to remind the reader of the subjective nature of his words. He speaks of himself to explain his purpose in writing a particular section or the whole book, as in the preface. Interestingly, his only mention of his personal impact on the people he studied appears on page 125, “In Mashai, it was possible to find people making their livings … even transcribing tapes for an anthropologist.” Unfortunately, Ferguson’s frequent introduction and recapitulation litter the book with superfluous and redundant sentences: “in the above sections I have described” (p. 166), “I will argue that…” (p. 138), and “The next chapter will show that this is the case” (p. 73). It appears that he attempted to make each chapter stand alone, perhaps to facilitate a professor’s use of a chapter as a reading assignment. Another irritating rhetorical devise does have a purpose. Ferguson commonly surrounds contestable concepts with quotation marks to remind the reader that Ferguson is trying to write from outside the development discourse. The Anti-Politics Machine is truly a critique and rejection of “development.”

Fantasy and Failure

Ferguson explains that the development discourse’s fantasy of the less-developed country (LDC) arises because of a backward logic maintained in development agencies. A development project can build roads or teach agricultural expertise, but it cannot intervene in a state’s social policies—technical solutions, not political ones. The development institution can only comprehend problems that accept a development project as its solution. Development writers who suggest that an area suffers from some political trouble “would not necessarily be censored or suppressed, … but they would find their analyses quickly dismissed and discarded as useless” (Ferguson, Anti-Politics, p. 68). Ferguson’s analysis is supported by a dissection of a 1975 World Bank report on Lesotho. Every section of the report contains stunning fallacies that quite clearly contradict a large body of scholarly literature.

The LDC fantasy consists of the main assumptions that the people are isolated, subsistence farmers and that the government is a collection of benevolent administrators that only wish to modernize their country but don’t have the resources or technical knowledge to do so. This allows the development project to build infrastructure to create a national market, to teach the farmers how to become commercial agriculture exporters, and to aid the government in its mission to properly administer development.

In Lesotho, all three of these main assumptions are clearly false. One hundred years earlier the Basotho were exporting grain throughout southern Africa. At the time of the Thaba-Tseka project, the great majority of income in Lesotho came from wage labor and not farming at all. In fact, wage labor productivity was so much higher than farming productivity that Thaba-Tseka was a net importer of grain and cattle. Additionally, the government of Lesotho had little on its mind except maintaining its power and crushing the opposing party.

Ferguson shows the reader an anthropologist at his best when he explores the further cultural barriers to the project’s goal of livestock/range-management. He explores the idiosyncrasies of the cattle market’s embedding in Thaba-Tseka society. While the development project administrators believed that the Basotho did not treat cattle as commodities because they clung to a tradition of a separate livestock economy, Ferguson reveals the contemporary situation well-explains their behavior. While the Basotho considered most household assets disposable by both husband and wife, they reserved certain animals only for men and others only for women. Cattle happened to be in the male domain. If a husband owns an ox, the wife cannot sell it or trade it. If the husband sells the ox, the wife can then spend the cash earned from the ox without asking the husband. This encourages men to both treat cattle as better than cash and also encourages them to maintain this special treatment of cattle. Ferguson details many other aspects of this intriguing “bovine mystique.”

The misunderstanding of the Thaba-Tseka people could have caused the failure of the development project on its own. When the project finished constructing roads, the people began to import more grain and cattle, rather than exporting it. However, the project became much more of a disaster because of its misunderstanding of the Lesotho government. Ferguson records the many troubles that the Thaba-Tseka project administrators had with maintaining authority and executing their plans. The various ministries refused to cooperate and used project resources to further entrench the ruling party. The central government had no desire to make the drastic land reforms necessary to create a commercial livestock industry. In fact, should the development project have succeeded, the government would have been burdened with redundant laborers coming down the mountains and into the city as the more productive farmers consolidated land. The government certainly did not want that roving mass.

Extending Bureaucracy

As the development project left Thaba-Tseka, although it failed to create industry, it did leave one large, permanent effect—the state had extended its reach to the mountains through the new roads built by the project and newly empowered local bureaucrats.

“There was a Post Office, a police station, and an immigration control office; there were agricultural services …; there were health officials…, and nutrition officers… the Ministry of Rural Development, and the Ministry of the Interior, … A vast number of minor services and functions that once would have operated, if at all, only out of one of the other distant district capitals had come to Thaba-Tseka.” (p. 252 – 253)

Ferguson explains that instead of conceiving the government as purposed to provide services, one may just as appropriately think of these services’ purposed to govern. Any government service can be turned to a political, controlling purpose through the use of restriction of service, propaganda along with service, or the granting of extra service to supporters. Moreover, this insertion of the bureaucracy could not have been done except under the cover of the apolitical development project. Though he points out that development projects must fail in order to perpetuate the development institution, Ferguson does not suggest a grand international conspiracy. Rather, he explains the development apparatus as a machine that cannot help but to repeatedly expand bureaucratic control through the anti-political development project.

Critical Opinions

Ferguson’s critics were not dissuaded from attacking his generalized theory by Ferguson’s admission of unfamiliarity with other countries. Hyden makes the point that Lesotho may not represent the world. More harsh is Blore, who complains that only Foucault could misread prisons as corrective institutions and that Ferguson assumes that “change must be a zero-sum game.” The frequency of rhetorical questions in Blore’s review speaks volumes. Why ask a question instead of stating the answer? Ferguson makes no suggestion that expansion of state power and the gain of the wealthy brings a corresponding loss to the poor; he clearly explains that the failure of development lies in the gap between a varied reality and a homogenous and apolitical development fantasy.

A more interesting discussion occurs in the labeling of Ferguson as a poststructuralist. He indeed questions the meta-narratives of development and modernization. He critiques development as having conflated modernity and wealth. This brings with it the ugly consequence of delegitimizing non-governmental challenges to the status quo by framing poverty as a technical problem of achieving modernity, rather than a political problem. Ferguson certainly rejects the neo-liberal idea of progress through modernization. Agarwal claims that Ferguson’s critique also rejects the structural argument of dependency theory. A better reading is Hyden’s, that Ferguson shows how the development discourse leaves no place for structuralist ideas. However, Ferguson would likely worry that the solutions presented by dependency theorists would fall victim to similar technocratic misunderstandings. From the epilogue of The Anti-Politics Machine and his recent presentation at Foucault Across the Disciplines, it appears that Ferguson does prefer non-structuralist approaches, such as grassroots initiatives or local resistance, rather than international actions.

Agarwal’s evaluation of poststructuralists offers two alternatives, that the argument is either an empty critique, or that it is a tautology. Agarwal claims The Anti-Politics Machineis an empty critique because it offers no alternative to the status quo. Ferguson repeatedly asserts that his book is even less than that, “When performing such cold-blooded operations, neither correction nor judgment is called for” (p. xvi). Neither case is true. The reader cannot believe that Ferguson truly makes no value judgment. It is clear that he rejects the development apparatus. The epilogue nearly functions as a manifesto. Though his plan of action is not developed, this does not mean it does not exist. Agarwal interprets Ferguson as advocating disengagement from the development apparatus altogether and counters that such an action is an act of faith—change does not come from discourse alone. This is a misreading encouraged by Escobar, “Ferguson’s analysis should lead one to conclude that the concern for the poor has to be advanced from within a space different from that defined by the hegemonic discourse of development.”

Agarwal misunderstands Ferguson’s advocacy because he overlooks Ferguson’s attack on the conflation of modernity and wealth. Agarwal believes Ferguson, like other post-modernists, rejects any universalist truths. However, The Anti -Politics Machine is only a rejection of modernity as a sufficient route to the elimination of poverty, not the rejection of all development. As Agarwal explains in that same review, any critique of one meta-narrative is its replacement by another. In Ferguson’s case, I’ll call it the anthropology meta-narrative. It’s the belief that no grand human project will succeed without the special techniques of the anthropologist. He claims that the big questions “will be answered only when they have been empirically explored in each specific context” (p. 260). This is a conceit that systematic theories must fit a certain complexity to be successful. I shall allow the anthropologists this conceit until it’s proven otherwise. Whether true or not, this belief does not prevent Ferguson and Agarwal from agreeing that it is unnecessary to disengage from the international apparatus. Instead, one could co-opt the apparatus—critique from within. Their disagreement is merely over which method is more practical.

Hirschman’s comment that Ferguson “overlooks almost completely the attention given to privatization, decontrol, deregulation, … for at least a decade,” also overlooks the conflation argument. One can easily argue that privatization and deregulation are really part of the anti-political machine, extending state control to make the necessary redefinition of property that would allow for privatization and deregulation. However, I will not deny that some of Ferguson’s misgivings about the development apparatus may no longer be an issue.

A number of other reviewers also misconstrue Ferguson as claiming that the development apparatus cannot succeed at the elimination or alleviation of poverty. Hyden writes, “It is the narrow boundaries of this discourse and the fact that development analysts and practitioners are caught in this particular episteme that explain many of the failures of development, not just the material realities of underdevelopment.” Slater does not claim that Ferguson explicitly advocates complete rejection. Rather, Slater makes the correct observation that “the machine metaphor has the disadvantage of marginalizing the agents of change”.

Yet, as De Vries explains in his review, “[Ferguson’s] notion of a development apparatus does not deny the fact of multiplicity or heterogeneity [of internal narratives].” Ferguson also never says that the development apparatus cannot correct itself. He remarks that the potential for correct thought is in the development episteme. “What changes when we move from academic discourse to ‘development’ is not the library of available thoughts, but the institutional context” (Ferguson, p. 68). He also explains that discourse is constantly changing, “These rules may be ‘traditional,’ and they may be resistant to change, but they are not inert; they are perpetually challenged and always at issue, and always there is something at stake” (Ferguson, p.166). Though he said that about the “bovine mystique,” the words are equally applicable to the fantasy of the less-developed country and other development discourse phenomena.

Illustrating that point, Hyden mentions that the 1975 World Bank text that Ferguson dissected may not be representative of the discourse dominant in the 1990s, as donors sometimes now request political reforms as prerequisites for aid. Hirschman also claims that the “heroizing” of the state has been absent from development discourse contemporary to the book’s publication.

Perhaps the “empty critique” was actually successful. It seems that the development apparatus has indeed appropriated some of Ferguson’s thoughts. Bryane writes from, if not within the development discourse, at least more so than Ferguson, “In the development literature, ‘depoliticization’ refers to development organizations … engaging in political activities under the guise of implementing non-political—seemingly technocratic reforms”.

The most serious attack on Ferguson is Hirschman’s point that Ferguson overlooks a possible “third discourse” of the Thaba-Tseka residents, who might appreciate the new roads, closer cattle-markets, and other such small improvements and are willing to accept the greater bureaucratic burden as a lesser evil. This casts anthropologist as a paternalistic museum curator, who prefers preserving the society, rather than attempting to improve it by small increments. Ferguson implies that the expansion of bureaucratic state power was an unintended and unexpected result of the development project. However, the reactions of the Basotho to the various projects—killing ponies, uprooting trees, tearing down fences—suggests they were in fact conscious of this bureaucratic encroachment. Ferguson does not contradict this, but he does a disservice to the Basotho by not discussing their awareness of this process in more detail.


Agrawal, Arun. Poststructuralist Approaches to Development: Some critical reflections.Peace and Change, Vol. 21 No. 4, pp 464 – 477. October 1996.

Blore, Ian. Review [untitled]. African Affairs, Vol. 94. No. 374, pp 119 – 120. Oxford University Press. Jan 1995.

Bryane, Michael. Depoliticizing Anti-Corruption in Bolivia: Local International Intervention and the State. International Journal of Public Administration, Vol. 29, pp 1311 – 1336. Taylor & Francis Group. 2006.

De Vries, Pieter. Don’t Compromise Your Desire for Development! A Lacanian/Deleuzian rethinking of the anti-politics machine. Third World Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 1, pp 25 – 43. Tayor & Francis Group. 2007.

Escobar, Arturo. Review [untitled]. American Ethnologist, Vol. 18, No. 3, Representations of Europe: Transforming State, Society, and Identity, pp 618 – 620. Blackwell Publishing. Aug 1991.

Ferguson, James. The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development,” Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1994.

Ferguson, James. Toward a Left Art of Government: From ‘Foucauldian Critique’ to Foucauldian Politics (Audio Recording). Foucault Across the Disciplines. University of California, Santa Cruz. Mar 1, 2008.

Ferguson, James. The Bovine Mystique: Power, Property and Livestock in Rural Lesotho.Man, New Series, Vol. 20, No. 4, pp 647 – 674. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Dec 1985.

Hirschman, David. Review [untitled]. The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 28, No. 4, pp 706 – 707. Cambridge University Press. Dec 1990.

Hyden, Goran. The anti-politics machine. American Political Science Review, Vol. 89, No. 1, pp. 226-227. ABI/INFORM Global. Mar 1995.

Murray, Colin. Review [untitled]. Man, New Series, Vol. 29, No. 1, pp 199 – 200. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Mar 1994.

Poulter, Sebastian. Review [untitled]. African Affairs, Vol. 90, No. 358, pp 138 – 139. Oxford University Press. Jan 1991.

Slater, David. Review [untitled]. ECUMENE, Vol. 5, Issue 3, pp 364 – 367. Sage Publications. Jul 1998.