Newsletter #39: The Periphery of the Periphery, with Rahmane Idrissa

by William Harris

It’s not always easy to detect patterns or sustained arguments across the episodic nature of a podcast show, especially one as all-encompassing as The Dig. So I found it helpful to see someone observe on Twitter that recently The Dig has been resuscitating the lost midcentury insights of world-systems theory, a body of thought which paid special attention to imperial cores and peripheries, development and underdevelopment, the international division of labor and the longue durée. You can see this focus in a variety of recent episodes, from Kojo Koram on Britain after empire, to a two-part analysis of China with Ho-fung Hung, to Ayşe Zarakol’s exploration into Asian empires before Western imperialism, and, most explicitly, Margarita Fajardo’s discussion of the origins of world-systems theory.

Our new episode is another fascinating contribution to this theme: political scientist and historian Rahmane Idrissa on the Sahel, and in particular on the conflicts taking place in a tri-country region stretching across Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso which adds up to “the periphery of the periphery,” to quote Idrissa’s recent New Left Review essay.

Listen to this week’s episode here.

A feature of these episodes is not just their geographic range, linking peripheries and cores — it’s also their uncommon historical reach. This week’s interview opens in the fifteenth century, offering an unfamiliar perspective on a region now most commonly thought of in the West as a hotbed of jihadist terrorism. When Europeans first traveled to the Sahel, they stumbled into a post-Songhay Empire world which struck them as incredible in its communication technologies and its separation of religion and state. Venturing outside the modern world system in this way allows us to see the deep origins of the Sahel’s present crisis — the slow, uneven spread of Islam, or the region’s fitful incorporation into the modern imperial system — while also alerting us to historical change. Without this historical view, the present can feel intractable.

This was precisely Idrissa’s worry when he emailed Dan after the recording to emphasize that despite the “perfect storm” afflicting the region — terrorism; French, US, and Russian neo-colonialism; ecological change and demographic growth-spurred conflict between herders and farmers — there remain resources of hope.

One source in particular stands out. Today’s world system totters in a state of disorientation, Idrissa says, creating at once zones of despair and zones of possibility. Wary of turning its chronic military incursions in the Sahel into an Afghanistan-like quagmire, France now promises to shift imperial strategies — to scale back intervention and focus instead on extending state resources into the Sahel’s service-deprived periphery. This, Idrissa writes in NLR, “gets close to one of the root issues of the Sahel, which is extreme government scarcity, even if Paris may not have a real understanding of the implications.”

They may not, but the very consideration of such an approach provides an opening for demands at odds with the neoliberal world order, from expanded state subsidies to debt abolition, that just yesterday wouldn’t have seen the light of day.

Further reading and listening

You can read Idrissa’s recent New Left Review essay here. And take a tour back through The Dig’s archive to listen to the world-system theory–adjacent episodes here: Kojo Koram on Britain after empire, Ho-fung Hung in China (part 1 and part 2), Ayşe Zarakol’s on Asian empires before Western imperialism, and Margarita Fajardo’s on the origins of world-systems theory.