Global Modernity, social criticism and the local intelligibility of contestation
The language and vocabulary of social scientific analysis of social movements and contestation draw specifically from the history of protest and contestation in Western societies. This history has produced a research programme (in Imre Lakatos’s sense) with a hard core set of assumptions and questions that generally view protest in a positive and teleological manner. While such a research programme may have been useful in making sense of the struggles of the European working classes and, thereby, also helping to explain democratic dispensations, it is not at all clear how useful such approaches as have been fostered by this research programme provide adequate accounts of contestation in African settings. In fact, work on African social movements has displayed a tendency to adopt this upbeat attitude of the research programme by foisting upon events in Africa a normative reading grid that may have obscured issues, rather than enlightening them. This paper will draw from the work of the American philosopher Michael Walzer to claim that contestation is a form of social criticism that is informed by the tension between moral and social orders. The argument will be developed with specific reference to African politics. The main gist will be the idea that the notion of a “global modernity” may be useful in drawing researchers’ attention to important transnational structural processes that constrain and probably shape local action, but may not be able to account for the nature of local social action. This is related to the normative bias of the research programme on social movements that has fostered the idea that any form of protest is political and expresses deep misgivings about the functioning of capitalism. In fact, “global modernity” translates into locally intelligible idioms of social action that play themselves out in the tension between moral and social orders. It is this tension and the actors and the repertory of actors which it evokes which, ultimately, render contestation intelligible.