Jason Sumich, The Middle Class in Mozambique: the state and the politics of transformation in Southern Africa.
The Middle Class in Mozambique by Jason Sumich is an insightful contribution to the history of Mozambique and class formation under colonial and postcolonial conditions. The monograph details how the weaknesses of the Portuguese colonial state allowed and enabled a diversity of class trajectories among the so-called sertanejos, 'local African leaders and prominent Afro-Portuguese families' (p. 30), and assimilados, those Africans who were legally integrated into the settler-colonial state. These historical formations came to form 'the nucleus of much of the post-independence political elite in Maputo' (p. 26). Sumich's argument draws on long-term fieldwork and reflects a deep understanding of local realities and experiences.
Sumich argues that the Portuguese colonial state was different from other colonial formations in that it did not establish strong controls during its early phase. This allowed Africans to carve out a niche for themselves within the colonial state. However, it is not entirely clear from the argument why Africans would choose to be drawn into the colonial state instead of continuing their own political and economic traditions and institutions. In other words, if the colonial state was weak, then local populations had other options than collaboration, and we would want to better understand what benefits were derived from integration into the colonial project.
With regard to the early colonial period, I would have also appreciated more discussion of the precolonial resources and material as well as social bases that were in the hands of indigenous elites. This would have allowed for forms of social differentiation that predated the arrival of colonialism. It is my view that paying attention to the longue duree is important in African historiography, a historiography that far too often starts with the arrival of colonial rule.
The book shows clearly that, with the consolidation of the Portuguese colonial project, assimilation became the vehicle for class mobility. This meant that many Africans were drawn into a colonial civil service. Similar processes took place throughout the colonial world. For example, in South Africa, the early black middle class found employment as clerks, teachers, police and interpreters in the colonial administration. Given the diversity of middle-class professions in neighbouring South Africa, it is surprising that Sumich only mentions one profession, that of translators. I would be interested to know whether this was indeed the only profession open to Africans, or whether there were other professional avenues.
Turning to the postcolonial period, the central role of Frelimo is made very clear in the monograph. Party loyalty and cadre deployment were central strategies in filling the now vacant positions in the state apparatus. This, in turn, enabled the swift expansion of Mozambique's African middle class, a development that is mirrored across the continent. It would be interesting to reflect on Frantz Fanon's critique of the national bourgeoisie, a scathing critique he first formulated in The Wretched of the Earth (1963). The question that faces many postcolonial African states is whether the middle class is a positive force or whether it uses mechanisms of elite closure and self-interest to consolidate its position vis-avis the many who still struggle to find some level of prosperity. This development is especially surprising in Mozambique, where the vanguard party, Frelimo, defined itself as Marxist-Leninist.
Engaging with these questions on a continental rather than a national level would be important. It would allow us to see parallels and differences, and perhaps question the neoliberal narrative of middle-class growth as necessarily positive for democracy. It is striking that across Southern Africa we see a postliberation growth of inequalities, despite continuing Marxist-Leninist rhetoric. Sumich notes this for Mozambique, but it is a larger trend in the region: Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa and Namibia. In this context, the continued use of the term 'middle class' is puzzling: in terms of income and privilege, many of those who are conventionally described as middle-class actually form an upper class with high incomes and profitable business interests. In South Africa, this debate has been ignited by the publication of the Income Comparison Calculator (<https://www.saldru.uct.ac.za/income-comparison-tool/>), which was developed by the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU). According to this tool, most senior civil servants in South Africa are not middle-class but belong to the top 10 per cent income bracket. It is possible that the situation is similar in contemporary Mozambique.
In conclusion, Sumich has written an important work on class formation in colonial and postcolonial Southern Africa. It is particularly valuable for understanding the role of the liberation movements in these processes, and it opens up a vital debate on the political and economic role played by the middle classes in the postcolony.
University of Cape Town
The past two decades have witnessed a significant rise in interest in the middle classes in comparative contexts. While public and mainstream policy debates have often tended to present the middle classes as idealized embodiments of economic progress through images of consumption, scholarly work has sought to grapple with the complexities and contradictions that characterize this social group. Jason Sumich's The Middle Class in Mozambique is a welcome addition to this literature. The book presents an in-depth analysis of the ways in which the middle class in Mozambique has been 'intertwined with previous projects of transformation' (p. 155) that span from the colonial period to the present era of economic reform. This approach allows the book to provide a rich analysis of the ways in which the middle class is a category that is produced by political projects of transformation and change rather than a self-evident economistic category. This theoretical approach provides a number of points of comparison and contrast to comparative work on the middle classes.
One of the major strengths of Sumich's work is his analysis of the relationship between the state and middle-class formation and politics in Mozambique. The creation of the middle class by the state (p. 15) and the continued significance of the party state in providing segments of the middle class with privilege echo parallel processes in other state socialist environments. In the Indian context, for instance, while contemporary discourses associated with the middle classes focus on post-reform consumption, historically specific policies of both the colonial state and the planned twentieth-century developmental state were crucial processes in the making of the modern middle class.
In this context of state formation, Sumich's discussion of the Mozambique state provides a rich and generative basis for further discussion on the nature of the state-middle-class relationship. For instance, the book illustrates that, while the state-middle-class relationship remains an underlying foundation through various historical periods, this relationship also shifts. The shift from a state socialist project to a reform-oriented state is a particularly significant change that echoes trends in comparative contexts (ranging from Eastern Europe to Asia). The closure of industries and the freezing of salaries in the state bureaucracy (p. 106), as the book shows, foreground the precarity of middle-class privilege in the context of broader economic and political transformations. One issue that this raises is how we think about differences within the middle classes. For example, the book seems to focus primarily on more privileged middle-class members and those who have the support of party linkages. How did internal processes of differentiation shape the middle classes? The book has some interesting discussion of the gendered dimensions of the symbolic representation of the middle classes. How is this further complicated by differences between the lower and upper middle classes and are there symbolic differences that are shaped by such socio-economic stratification? Do rural-urban differences play out in this stratification?
Such questions about the interplay between middle-class stratification and the question of symbolic representation raise a broader question about the changing nature of the state-middle-class relationship. The book shows that economic reforms produced both changes (with a familiar turn to an emphasis on consumption) and historical continuities (for example, relationships with the state still shape access to the privileges of new property markets).
The question that remains is one that addresses the nature of state power and how it changes in the context of post-reform policies in Mozambique. For instance, does the hegemonic representation of the middle classes (which the book grapples with) change? From a comparative perspective, the middle classes in India have continued their relationship with the state in the post-reform period. However, the nature of the hegemonic incorporation of the middle classes has changed (even as the middle-classstate relationship remains central). In post-reform India, the upper tiers of the middle classes have served as a hegemonic representational source of support for state policies of reform even as, in practice, large segments of the middle classes remain in a precarious economic position. On the one hand, idealized images of middle-class consumption serve as the symbolic terrain of the success of reforms in ways that shape middle-class identity and practices, as individuals aspire to the benefits of reform. On the other hand, this idealized image rests in uneasy tension with many segments of the middle classes (from subaltern castes, religious minorities and less privileged socio-economic backgrounds) who struggle with processes of exclusion and sustained inequality, as I discuss in 'India's middle classes in contemporary India' (in Routledge Handbook of Contemporary India, 2015) and India's New Middle Class: democratic politics in an era of economic reform (University of Minnesota Press, 2006). Does the state-middle-class relationship in Mozambique change in similar ways in the context of the recent economic transitions? Or do the legacies of the state-middle-class relationship (and the nature and dynamics of state power) in Mozambique continue because of the specific nature of the party state?
Such questions point both to the complexities of and the need for the sustained study of the middle classes in comparative contexts. Jason Sumich's book provides a valuable addition to this agenda and a refreshing break from simplified consumption-focused studies that too often conflate the identity of the middle classes with consumer behaviour.
University of Michigan
This book offers a well-written, engaging study of the emergence of a middle class in a post-socialist African state, Mozambique, that gained its independence in 1975 after a protracted liberation struggle led by the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (Frelimo). The author examines how his interlocutors--with whom he has interacted for more than a decade since the early 2000s--have negotiated and evaluate 'their transition from revolutionaries to members of the urban middle class' (p. 1). While recent studies of middle classes in the global South have often focused (too) exclusively on modes of consumption and new lifestyles, this book firmly places its middle-class story in a much broader historical narrative. The author shows how, paradoxically, the 'socialist, egalitarian revolution' of the 1970s soon developed into 'an elitist project of social engineering' (p. 7) that offered unprecedented avenues of upward social mobility to loyal party members. Economic and political liberalization since the 1990s, in turn, presented new opportunities for self-enrichment while the former ideological foundations crumbled. The official discourse now centred on the necessity to create a 'national bourgeoisie' (p. 97). But instead of promoting the development of an economically and politically autonomous middle class, government policies only transformed and refined older forms of political clientelism. The middle class remained 'a politically dependent category with little control over resources or the means of production in an economy that is largely dependent on access to the state' (p. 10). There is also a generational dimension to this rather sombre middle-class story: the windows of opportunity closed--the post-independence expansion of education and the post-1992 boom of privatization of housing--and many members of the younger generation will not be able to reproduce their middle-class parents' social status. In any case, Sumich's interlocutors were highly critical of state officials' corruption and deplored the fiasco of Frelimo's original socialist project, but retained their party membership because it continues to give privileged access to jobs and resources.
For a West Africanist like myself, this book offered a brilliant introduction to the contemporary history of Mozambique, with a special focus on discourses on citizenship and nationhood. I was particularly fascinated by Sumich's analysis of the continuities of privilege and its changing ideological underpinnings: from the high modernism and urbanism of Portuguese-educated 'assimilados' to the Frelimo vanguard's philosophy of'the new man' to the meritocratic ideals of middle-class subjects in a liberal democratic system that defines citizenship increasingly in racialized terms (rather than categories of political loyalty as before). Sumich's focus on the emergence and transformation of class boundaries provides a most productive perspective on these historical developments. Analyses of the historical middle classes' boundary work in Europe have shown that the intensity of the politics of distinction can shift over time--for instance, from an early emphasis on the upper middle classes' distance from aristocratic circles to a later stress on the symbolic boundaries vis-a-vis the lower classes (for a summary, see Kocka's 'The middle classes in Europe' in The European Way: European societies in the 19th and 20th centuries, edited by H. Kaelble (Berghahn Books, 2004)). In the Mozambican case, if I understand Sumich correctly, it was only from the 1990s that an earlier two-class system--of privileged urbanized party cadres versus rural (and urban) masses--developed into a three-class structure of sorts, with an enormously wealthy political elite at the top (created through access to mineral wealth), most of the population struggling for survival at the bottom, and a besieged middle class in between. In the post-independence period, the proto-middle class's major concern seems to have been to legitimate their privilege vis-a-vis the broader masses. Since the 1990s, by contrast, the fraught middle class's emphasis shifted to erect firm moral boundaries vis-a-vis the outrageously rich elite.
I would have liked to learn more about this boundary between elite and middle class, and its economic and political as well as symbolic dimensions. Can individuals or families cross the line and move upward or downward? What about class endogamy, which Sumich mentions for the middle class, at the top level? If access to wealth is dependent on political connections, someone falling out of political favour would lose his or her standing--or does the amassed wealth allow for continued privilege? To what extent is the rigid boundary between top and middle a fieldwork artefact? Given the socially dominant discourse against corruption and political favouritism, it may be hard to find someone openly admitting membership in the elite. Or is the top group indeed closed so that even the wellconnected researcher has no access?
These questions bring me to a final observation regarding the book's structure. The overall narrative is organized along the chronology of political (and economic) history. Throughout, Sumich skilfully interweaves the big story with ethnographic vignettes from his participant observation and excerpts from his many interviews. However, there is a price to be paid for the coherence of the overall argument: the dynamics and vagaries of individual biographies receive less attention. I hope that Sumich will eventually present us with a second book that places the lives and stories of his Mozambican middle-class interlocutors at the centre--a book that will form a fascinating counterpart to this convincing analysis of the larger story of an African post-socialist society.
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
Response by the author
First of all, I would like to express my appreciation to the three reviewers for their generous and stimulating comments concerning The Middle Class in Mozambique. Due to strict space constraints, I cannot give each review the attention it deserves, but rather I will discuss what I feel to be a few major issues.
A shared concern among the reviewers was whether my interlocutors are really a 'middle class' or an elite, and what is the nature of both internal (within the middle class) and external stratification. These are intricate questions and I tried to provide a sketch of the social complexity and almost paradoxical nature of the continuous process of boundary-making in my book. In Mozambique, as with other places, systems of stratification can appear as stagnant, as the same families appear again and again over time, and as precarious, as levels of privilege wax and wane. As a different faction seizes power, beneficiaries of the old regime can find themselves muscled aside by newly favoured, hungrier rivals. One can rise, then fall, then rise again. In this shifting terrain it can be very difficult to draw a firm boundary between what could be termed the uppermost reaches of a middle class and the bottom rungs of an elite, or internally between those on the way up and those on the way down. My goal was not to try to map a category of 'middleclassness' as an empirical reality, especially as it is debatable how beneficial the concept of a middle class is as an analytical category. However, it can be very meaningful as a folk concept. My interlocutors generally saw themselves as occupying some sort of middle in their social world. To varying degrees they felt subject to, or hostages of, the whims of a 'they' who occupy the summit of society and the roiling discontent of a 'them' below. Building from this, I understand the concept of a middle class as a discourse among those with significant if differing levels of privilege. It is a claim concerning the nature of reality and one's role within it. In my view, the middle class does not appear fully formed through consumption and shared pop culture preferences, nor is it utterly reliant on occupying a specific income bracket. Rather, it is a system of signification where global influences combine with pre-existing social logics to form the hierarchies--with their often amorphous middles--that have drawn our attention. It is this, in my opinion, that provides such fertile grounds for comparison.
Nkululeko Mabandla calls attention to the colonial and precolonial periods. Specifically, he is concerned with the precolonial resources and materials that provided a social base for indigenous elites. This is a very valuable line of enquiry, and I do briefly discuss some of these issues in Chapter 2, but as an anthropologist rather than a historian, I am probably not the best equipped to answer it. Instead, I focused on the projects of transformation that were the most salient for my interlocutors--at least due to the fact that they had occurred within living memory. In light of the sporadic nature of Portuguese rule and its lack of centralized control over its claimed territory for much of the colonial period, Mabandla also asks the fascinating question of why local populations decided to collaborate with it at all. Considering the vast social, political and economic complexity that existed under the umbrella term 'the colonial state', such a question would almost have to be answered on a case-by-case basis. For the vast majority of the 500 years that Portugal claimed to rule, one would have encountered regionally specific risks and opportunities, social logics and forms of domination, some far better entrenched than others, which could be resisted, collaborated with, and/or twisted in an attempt to suit one's own ends, sometimes serially, sometimes simultaneously.
In her insightful review, Leela Fernandes points to the changing nature of state power and asks whether this changes a hegemonic representation of the middle class. This is once again a difficult question to answer, especially as it is doubtful that previous iterations of privilege, such as the colonial assimilado or the socialist new man, would have been necessarily described as 'middle class'. In this context, I think that the idea of a middle class is both a novel innovation of the post-reform period while being deeply imbricated with previous projects of social engineering.
Finally, I want to thank Carola Lentz for her kind but penetrating review of my book. It is especially meaningful as I was inspired by her work when writing it. She points out that the overall coherence of the argument comes at a cost, as the dynamics of individual biographies are given less attention. I accept that this is a valid criticism. My goal here was to make a more general argument, to contribute to an ongoing discussion of a middle class beyond an overwhelming focus on consumption, whether celebratory or a condemnation of 'bling'. As Fernandes mentions in her review, the scholarly goal of the study of middle classes is 'to grapple with the complexities and contradictions that characterize this social group'. I have tried to do this through an exploration of the middle class as a political project that draws on the past while creating new forms of inclusion and exclusion. Thanks to the work and the astute comments of all three reviewers, I feel I can safely say that the discussion they call for is well under way.
University of Essex
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|Author:||Mabandla, Nukeluleko; Fernandes, Leela; Lentz, Carola|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||May 1, 2020|
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