Classes for and against a liberal revolution

By | January 26, 2011

You may well ask how these separate factors might generate sustainable forms of enterprise capable of raising African economies to new levels in the near future. Economic success is always a contingent synthesis of existing and new conditions. There is no model of successful enterprise, just many stories of economic innovation waiting to be discovered by those who will look. Thus the Mourides, a Sufist order founded in the early twentieth century, constitute an informal state with the state of Senegal. Their international trading operations are capable of influencing national economies, as when they recently shifted shoe supplies to the USA via Harlem from Italy to China. A similar network of North African Muslims has been running cars and car parts illegally from Europe to Africa through Marseille on such a scale that the French car industry has moved some of its production South to meet the demand.

Pioneering communications enterprises in Kenya and Ghana are beginning to attract notice from far afield for their exciting mix of local cultural resources and modern technologies. Mpesa is the world’s leading example of mobile phone banking and Ghana’s gross national product was recently increased by 75% through counting the telecoms sector, for example, which had been previously left out. The Nollywood phenomenon offers morality plays to African audiences at an affordable price. It is often under-estimated in part because Lagos and Nigeria are perceived as being chaotic. Yet in seventeenth-century London, while England was going through its political, commercial and scientific revolutions, herds of wild pigs savaged unwary pedestrians to death and the water supply was undrinkable. The development standard for Africa is set today by the bureaucratized societies of the West, by a type of anaesthetized experience that goes by the name of ‘world-class city’. But it may be that earlier phases of the West’s development offer Africans a more appropriate framework of comparison.

In the second chapter of The Wretched of the Earth (1961), ‘Spontaneity: its strengths and weaknesses’, Frantz Fanon provides an excellent blueprint of how to go about analyzing the class structure of decadent societies that are ripe for revolution, in his case the anti-colonial revolution. He points out that political parties and unions are weak and conservative in late colonial Africa because they represent a tiny part of the population: the industrial workers, civil servants, intellectuals and shopkeepers of the town, a class unwilling to jeopardize its own privileges. They are hostile to and suspicious of the mass of country people. The latter are governed by customary chiefs supervised in turn by the military and administrative officials of the occupying power. A nationalist middle class of professionals and traders runs up against the superstition and feudalism of the traditional authorities. Landless peasants move to the town where they form a lumpenproletariat. Eventually colonial repression forces the nationalists to flee the towns and take refuge with the peasantry. Only then, with the rural-urban split temporarily healed by crisis, does a mass nationalist movement take off. This compressed summary does not do Fanon’s analysis justice. I introduce it as an example of what must be done if we face up to the real possibilities for another African revolution now.

The African states brought into being by independence likewise rely on chiefs to keep the rural areas insulated from the more unruly currents of world society. Where the state’s writ has been fatally undermined, warlords take its place. Since the ‘structural adjustment’ policies of the 1980s, international agencies have systematically preferred to approach rural populations through NGOs, the missionaries of our age, rather than national governments. World trade is organized by and for an alliance of the strongest Western governments and corporations. Some of the latter, especially in remote extractive industries, operate as independent states with the state. The cities, massively expanded in size, still sustain a very small industrial proletariat, since mechanized production is poorly developed in post-colonial Africa. The civil servants have been ravaged as a class by neo-liberal pressure to cut public expenditures. This leaves us with the informal economy of unregulated urban commerce, a phenomenon that is not best summarized by the pejorative term, lumpenproletariat. Clearly, trade and finance are not organized, in Africa or in the world at large, with a view to liberating the potential of these classes. It is not likely, therefore, that a liberal revolution could succeed by relying solely on a popular economic movement from below. There are larger players on the scene and their influence too must surely be felt.

South Africa, the one African country to make a go of ‘national capitalism’ and probably the last, is well-placed to lead the next stage of African development as a whole. This reflects of course former President Mbeki’s vision of an African Renaissance. Since 1994, a new national bourgeoisie has begun to emerge there, consisting of old white capital, black politicians and Indian businessmen, linked to Asian and Western sources of capital and with a new opportunity to expand rapidly into their continental backyard. Capitalist development along these lines cannot remain for long satisfied with a political regime granting ultimate power to national sovereignties. Moreover, it is in South Africa’s interest for such expansion not to be seen in exclusively national terms. It should rather be represented, on an analogy with Prussia’s role in German unification, as a drive for African unity initially in a limited economic sense, led by the strongest black government with a Pan-African agenda. And indeed the two most significant continental institutions, the African Union in Addis Ababa and NEPAD (the UN funding body) in Johannesburg are beginning to talk about coordinating their functions. If Africans want to have a say in what happens to them next, they will have to tap old and new social forces to develop their own capacity for transnational association, in the face of the huge coalitions of imperial power mobilizing at this time to deny them that opportunity for self-expression.

Pan-Africanism gave way to the aspiration for national capitalism half a century ago because world society was not organized then to accommodate it. When the anti-apartheid movement led to African independence in South Africa, global thinking took second place to the non-racial nationalism that was always espoused by the ANC. But, as a result of neo-liberal globalization, one of the strongest political movements today is the formation of large regional trading blocs: the EU, NAFTA, ASEAN, Mercosur. This is a good time for Africans to renew the movement towards greater continental unity, at first in economic affairs and as a complement to, not replacement for national governments, since the rest of the world is doing the same thing and they would inevitably lose out again if they fail to do so. If we needed any reminder of the contemporary salience of Pan-Africanism, we have only to note the USA’s recent formation of a unified African military command, with the aim of controlling access to mineral resources there in competition with China.

I have focused on the possibilities for dramatic developments in Africa since, it seems to me, so much thinking about the future there is timid, being limited to ambitions for reprising some earlier phase of the West’s economic history when the door is effectively closed to newcomers. Ideally such developments would be an expression of Africans’ drive from below for democracy and economic freedom; but it is unlikely to take place except within the framework of a revolution from above drawing on forces both external and internal to the continent. I have tried to draw attention here to scenarios that go beyond the limits of current conventional thinking. Africa could make rapid economic advances in the coming decades through a mixture of top down and bottom up forces. But this would require both a radical shift in development strategy and willingness to confront, by whatever combination of peaceful and violent means, the entrenched institutions of economic backwardness. Above all, it is vital for Africans to gain historical awareness of the global context for whatever they attempt locally and regionally. This perspective has largely been missing before.

Real economic progress requires us to go beyond merely documenting the scope of informal economic activities. We need to discover the social and cultural dynamism that underpins its most progressive clusters. What are the social forms that already organize the informal economy and how could their prospects for engaging fruitfully with the national, regional and global economy be enhanced in partnership with the regulatory agencies? Ongoing research into what we may call ‘the human economy’ or ‘economics with people in’ is indispensable to such a programme of development.

It was never the case that a national framework for development made sense in Africa, except possibly for South Africa, and it makes even less sense today. The coming African revolution could leapfrog many of the obstacles in its path, but it will not do so by remaining tied to the national straitjacket worn by African societies since they won independence from colonial rule.

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