Liberia: The Violence of Democracy, a book review by Elin Carlsson

During the spring term I taught African Studies at Uppsala University. Students created a blog Uppsala African Reviews where they published reviews of books with a focus on contemporary African issues. Elin Carlsson is one of the students.

Mary H. Moran. Ethnograpy of Political Violence : Liberia : The Violence of Democracy. Philadelphia, PA, USA: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2006.
199 pp. ISBN 9780812220285.

In her book ”Liberia: The violence of Democracy”, the american anthropologist Mary Moran explores a phenomenon that has been widely discussed by several scholars of different areas of study; democracy. Moran puts democracy in a different shed of light as she challenge the popular western view of violence and democracy as two separate ontological states. According to Moran there is no such separation. There is violence in democracy as well as there is democracy in violence, a thesis which she intends to prove through the lens of Liberia.

Moran’s preliminary aim is to make three related contributions to the existing writings on democratization in Africa; first, she intends to “denaturalize” the violence taking place in Liberia and elsewhere on the continent. Second she wishes to put an end to the assumption that Liberia and other countries on the Guinean Coast are societies where democratization is hindered by religion and culture and by political systems built upon secrecy, distrust and hierarchy. Thirdly Moran claims that violence and democracy are not each others opposites, rather they are coexisting phenomena that are both important for the understanding of political legitimacy.

Moran conducted fieldwork in Liberia between 1982 and 1983 where she studied and lived with the Grebo people in the southeastern parts of Liberia. Her main area of study was women’s lives and status aspirations (research which she also published in her book ”Civilized Women: Gender and Prestige in Southeastern Liberia” in 1990), but after further exploration in the area she was intrigued by more national events, especially the relationship between community and state. Hence, she planned to return to the country to do further research, but when the Liberian civil war began in 1989 she was persuaded to stay in the United States. However, this did not stop her from keep doing research in USA where she conducted interviews with Liberians in exile and kept in close contact with her former host family in the Glebo community throughout the war.

As notable when reading in between the lines of ”Liberia: The violence of Democracy”, Moran is clearly frustrated over the explanation given by many scholars to the outbreak of the Liberian civil war. Some analysts explains the war with a thesis commonly known as ”New Barbarism”, stated by Robert Kaplan in 1994. In simplified terms, this thesis argues that a combination of deeply-rooted ”tribal” conflicts, rising populations, ecological degradation and marginalization from the global economy is enough to turn a society into an anarchistic, irrational and violent state. Moran is strongly against this idea and wrote ”Liberia: The violence of Democracy” much as a respons to these kind of essentialist perspectives.

Even though the whole book could arguably be regarded as a confrontation of the New Barbarism thesis, it is in the first chapter where Moran outspokenly describes and confronts the idea of New Barbarism. In a rational and convincing way, she meets Kaplan’s arguments one by one and proves through several examples how his assumptions about less evolved societies are, as she argues, ”absurd” (Moran. 2008:19). For example Moran contest the New Barbarism argument that the West has somehow progressed beyond culture and and kinship, by saying that ”all human beings, by definition, are rooted in culture” (Moran. 2008:19) and the fact that Kaplan even makes the statements that he does is a proof of his involvement in his own culture. New Barbarism itself is a cultural product, according to Moran.

When searching in books and on the web, it is relatively easy to conclude that, despite her sometimes spiteful criticism, Moran is not just out to denigrate Kaplan. Several scholars have drawn the same conclusions regarding the New Barbarism thesis, among these Paul Tiyambe Zeleza. In his book ”Roots of African Conflicts: The Causes and Costs” he introduces the reader to the subject by arguing that the main problem when studying the causes of African conflicts is the fact that they tend to be treated as very peculiar and separate from other conflicts around the world. Tiyambe argues that it is theses like the New Barbarism that distorts the discussion and creates the illusion of African conflicts to be beyond rational explanation (Tiyambe. 2008:1).

In seven separate chapters, Moran makes a huge effort to rectify this distorted view of African conflicts and explain why they are, in fact, a vary rational consequence of historical events, at least in the case of Liberia. Her language is indeed persuasive and easy to go along with, but it is sometimes hard to understand her intentions. Her study is based on first hand experiences and conducted interviews in Liberia in the 80’s and at times I get the feeling that this book is more of a number of collected essays from her fieldwork than subsequent writings on the topic of democracy and violence. Moran takes the reader through numerous social and political issues that has affected, and affects Liberia up to this day. Among other things we get to learn about the influence of the rise of Internet, about patrimonialism, child soldiers, witchcraft, the term ”civilized” and the status of women. These are indeed very intriguing aspects of Liberian society, but could easily have generated a book of this kind each one of them.

Another problem I find in Moran’s writings is the fact that she never actually defines ”democracy”. Her intention is to prove that ”indigenous democracy” is just as credible as the one ”westerners” talk about when they mention democracy, an argument that is absolutely possible, but without any definition of what she really means by democracy her work suffer from a lack of substance. Just like Markus M.L Crepaz argues in the book ”Democracy and Culture : An African Perspective”, democracy exists in multiple forms. His argument is that even among established democracies there is a huge difference in actual practice, a thesis he exemplifies by distinguish the Scandinavian democracy from the one in the United states. In Scandinavia equality has been the prominent norm, where as liberty has been the loadstar in USA. These very different views upon democracy has created two political landscapes that varies enormously, even within the concept of democracy (Moshi. 2008:8). To make her study more credible, Moran could have used arguments such as those presented in ”Democracy and Culture : An African Perspective”, to clarify her reasoning.

In conclusion, Moran’s book is definitely worth reading as it is filled with interesting and important notions about our ways of putting history in context and describing the world. Her conclusions of violence and democracy are vague, but she manages to make a point about the fact that violence and democracy are coexisting states through several examples from her own experiences, interviews and research. Even though her research may not have been presented in the most favorable way in this publication, it has proven to be extremely important. In the summer of 2014 as Liberia was struck by the horrors of Ebola, Moran’s research proved to be very helpful in understanding the ways of which the disease spread. Her fieldwork involved women’s activities at funerals and the treatment of the dead and with her contribution to the expertise, recommendations for actionable steps could be given (Colgate University. 2015

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