A few thoughts on Beatrice Hibou’s “The Force of Obedience”

The political economy of repression is a fascinating way to understand how deposed Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s regime had created an entire economy of obedience and control based on economic and banking factors, social-political economic engineering, and the creation of an economic and financial reform mythology that provided a space for the West to either ignore, or be complicit in, the perpetuation of the regime.  What is fascinating about this structural frame is that it can be traced back to more classic structural theories of government that focus on land tenure and capital, but adjusts to modern banking and debt economics to demonstrate the ways that hierarchy was perpetuated across the ruling party and maintained down to the individual level.  It pulls together what we know about totalitarianism, eliciting imagery of fascist Europe, and merges it with a distinctly economic space that can speak to readers in the United States and Europe about how modern freedom can be curtailed and controlled.

Hibou starts with a discussion of the Tunisian banking system as the foundational aspect of how control and repression was perpetuated in Tunisia.  The strength of this argument is augmented by the collapse of the global banking system.  She discusses in detail how the private, public-private and public banks are used to shift debt and maintain the appearance of a solid banking system.  She then details how this kind of debt shifting is used by the government and the party to reward loyalists or those with the right social connections, and criminalize those who do not repay.  The lack of tangible risk analysis and the opacity of the assets held by Tunisian banks demonstrates a system that abandoned quantitative risk analysis in favor of a social capital-driven system for issuing debt, but doing so in a way that is acceptable and operationally sound to outsiders such as multi-national banks and the multi-lateral agencies.

This level of economic control spreads across social systems including employment and social participation.  Since organizations need funding, and funding is handled through the banking system, which is controlled in a rather arbitrary way by Ben Ali’s party, the access to funding for organizations that do not toe the party line will be limited.  At the same time, European and American funders can still provide funding to projects and programs, perpetuating the myth of Tunisian reform.  This replicates itself in private investment and the development of SMEs, where actors are treated in favored and unfavored ways by the legal system, both in terms of access to credit and leniency in failure to repay.  This level of economic oversight creates a “policing state”, which oversees all parts of life using the functions of the economy as a mechanism for absolute oversight.  It is not merely a police force or a powerful president that creates a system of repression and obedience; it is the economic policies of the state that incorporate policing, politics, social security and banking to create an all-encompassing panopticon where no one is ever able to lead a purely private life.

The strength of her argument lies in the fact that she is building a modern political economic argument that draws on the methods used by previous scholars of governance and obedience.  While the structural theories of European state development focus on the political economy of land tenure, she takes her argument into the modern frame by focusing on the political economy of debt finance and banking.  An astute reader can see where classical notions of primogeniture and land-based capital acquisition, for example the feudal system, promoted the power of the landholder without the necessity to police the population.  The political economy of the society provided the structure in which to always be able to track people and force the modification of behavior.  Her analysis builds on this using the modern tools of finance and banking, demonstrating a continuity of repressions and obedience among politically powerful leaders across time.

It is particularly striking because we see these same systems operating in the West, ever more apparent in that last five years after the global financial crash.  There are debtors who are bailed out, and debtors who are cast out.  The housing market is one such example in the United States; the favored institutions were saved, while others for various and sundry reasons were left to fail.  Some financiers were taken to court and convicted of crimes, while others testified before Congress about why they needed less regulation.  The position of these different actors relative to the political apparatus could be a function of the legal outcomes they faced.  At the micro level, Americans are subject to surveillance under the guise of payment of debts; banks track us and report back to federal and semi-federal agencies about our spending habits and credit worthiness.  While the United States is not a police state, it has some of the traits of what Hibou describes of a ‘policing state’.

The value of this book is that in effectively describing the political control systems apparent in Tunisia, it does not fail to provide analysis that is valuable to readers in the United States or Europe.  The risks of political economic repression, and the development of a policing state are not unique to Tunisia, North Africa, or the Muslim World.  The Weberian and Foucaultian political economic structures she uses to analyze the web of surveillance and lack of privacy in Tunisia could easily, insidiously find their way in the daily lives of citizens anywhere if fail to be aware of them.

I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone with an interest in political economy, Tunisia, or Foucaultian political theory. Find it here – The Force of Obedience: The Political Economy of Repression in Tunisia

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