Cultural sources of a liberal revolution in Africa

By | January 26, 2011

The classical liberal revolutions were sustained by three ideas: that freedom and economic progress require increased movement of people, goods and money in the market; that the political framework most compatible with this is democracy, putting power in the hands of the people; and that social progress depends on science, the drive to know objectively how things work that leads to enlightenment. For over a century now an anti-liberal tendency has disparaged this great emancipatory movement as a form of oppression and exploitation in disguise; and, in common with many social revolutions, it this is partially true. Africa today must escape soon from varieties of Old Regime that owe a lot to the legacy of slavery, colonialism and apartheid; but conditions there can no longer be attributed solely to these ancient causes. It is possible that the example of the classical liberal revolutions, reinforced by endogenous developments in economy, technology, religion and the arts, could offer fresh solutions for African underdevelopment. These would have to be built on the conditions and energies generated by the urban revolution of the twentieth century.

We all know of course that power is distributed very unequally in our world and any new liberal movement would soon run up against entrenched privilege. In fact, world society today resembles quite closely the Old Regime of agrarian civilization, as in eighteenth century England and France, with isolated elites enjoying a lifestyle wildly beyond the reach of masses who have almost nothing. It is not just in post-colonial Africa where the institutions of agrarian civilization rule today. Since the millennium, the United States, whose own liberal revolution once overcame the Old Regime of King George and the East India Company, seemed to have regressed to presidential despotism in the service of corporations like Haliburton.

It has long been acknowledged that the rise of capitalism in Europe drew heavily on religion as one of its motors. Max Weber insisted that an economic revolution of this scope could only take root on the back of a much broader cultural revolution. If Africa’s informal economy has the potential to evolve into a more dynamic engine of urban commerce, what might be the cultural grounds for such a development? As I said, whatever happens next must build on what has already been put in place. The basis for Africa’s future economic growth must be the cultural production of its cities and not rural extraction or the reactionary hope of reproducing capitalism’s industrial phase. This in turn rests on:

1. The energy of youth and women

2. The religious revival

3. The explosion of the modern arts

4. The communications revolution

5. The new African diaspora linked to sub-national identities

I can only sketch an outline of what is a book-length argument.

1. African societies, traditional and modern, have been dominated by older men. Women have benefited less from their opportunities and are less tied to their burdens. In many cases they have been quicker to exploit the commercial freedoms of the neo-liberal international economy. Even when men and boys have plunged whole countries into civil war, thereby removing state guarantees from economic life, an informal economy resting on women’s trade has often kept open basic supply lines. The social reality of Africa’s cities is a young population without enough to do and a growing generation gap. The energies of youth must be harnessed more effectively and the chances of doing so are greater if the focus of economic development is on something that interests them, like popular culture.

2. The religious revival in Africa, both Christian and Muslim, is a matter of immense significance for the forms of economic development. This is in many cases founded on young people’s rejection of the social models and political options offered by their parents’ generation. Fundamentalist and less extreme varieties of religion make a different kind of connection to world society than that offered by the nation-state, based on the assumption of American dominance or its opposite. They help to fill the moral void of contemporary politics and often offer well-tried recipes for creative economic organization (e.g. the Mourides of Senegal, see below). Christian churches are usually organized and supported by women, even if their leadership is often male.

3. In all the talk of poverty, war and AIDS, the western media rarely report the extraordinary vitality of the modern arts in post-colonial Africa: novels, films, music, theatre, painting, sculpture, dance and their applications in commercial design. There has been an artistic explosion in the last half-century, drawing on traditional sources, but also responding to the complexity of the contemporary world. One recent example is the ‘Africa Remix’ exhibition that toured Europe and Japan, a hundred installations from Johannesburg to Cairo, showing the modernity of contemporary African art. The African novel, along with comparable regions like India, leads the world. I have already referred to the creativity of the film industry.

4. Africa largely missed the first two phases of the machine revolution, based on the steam engine and electricity; but the third phase, the digital revolution in communications whose most tangible product is the internet, the network of networks, offers Africans very different conditions of participation that they already show signs of taking up avidly. In origin a means of communication for scientists and the military, the internet is now primarily a global marketplace with very unusual characteristics. Like the informal economy, it goes largely unregulated; but this market freedom is harnessed to the most advanced technologies of our era. The internet has also generated new conditions for managing networks spanning home and abroad by radically shortening the time and space dimensions of communication and exchange at distance. The extraordinarily rapid adoption of mobile phones has made Africa a crucible for global innovations, such as the first multi-country network and use of phones for banking purposes in East Africa. Nor should we neglect the role of television as a transnational means of widening perceptions of community.

5. In the last half-century a new African diaspora has emerged, based unlike that formed by Atlantic slavery on economic migration to America, Europe and nowadays Asia. These migrants are usually known away from home by their national identity, but many of them by-pass the national level when maintaining close relationships with their specific region of origin. They are often highly educated, with experience of the corporate business world, while retaining links to relatives living and working in the informal economy at home. One consequence of neo-liberal reforms has been that transnational exchange is now much easier than it was, drawing at once on indigenous knowledge of local conditions and the expertise acquired by migrants and their families in the West. Remittances from abroad are of immense importance everywhere, but they are bound to play a major role in Africa’s economic future.

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