Africans wait for emancipation in an unequal world
We live in a racist world. Despite the collapse of European empire and the formal adoption of a façade of international bureaucracy, the vast majority of black Africans are still waiting for meaningful emancipation from their perceived social inferiority. The idea that humanity consists of a racial hierarchy with blacks at the bottom is an old one. But the Caribbean economist, W. Arthur Lewis, argued that the division of the world economy between rich manufacturing exporters and poor raw material exporters became entrenched in the decades before the First World War.[i] That bipolar economic order has been shifting for some time now, largely as a result of the emergence of Asian powers as engines of capitalist growth.
Now there is much talk of economic growth in Africa. In the present decade, 7 out of the 10 fastest-growing economies (as conventionally measured) are African.[ii] In 1900 Africa was the world’s least densely populated and urbanized continent with 7.5% of the total. Today it is double that, with an urban share fast approaching the global average. According to UN projections, Africa will be home to 24% of all the people alive in 2050, 35% in 2100. This is because its annual population growth rate is 2.5% when the rest of the world is ageing. The Asian manufacturing countries already recognize that Africa is the fastest-growing market in the world. This could provide an opportunity for Africans to play a stronger hand in international negotiations. If they succeed in standing up for themselves, it would be a world revolution, the end of the racist world order, no less. Continue reading ‘State, region and revolution in African development’ »
I first explain what I mean by saying that the informal economy, a concept I was associated with coining in the early 1970s, has taken over the world, largely as a result of neoliberal deregulation over the last three decades. After a brief account of my own early exposure to West Africa, I turn to the question of how and why Africa has long been a symbol of global inequality. Even after independence, Africans are still waiting from emancipation. Even so Africa’s development prospects in the twenty-first century are brighter than for a long time. In the course of the twentieth century, regional differences in the forms of African political economy converged on the model of agrarian civilization that was once known as the Old Regime. The antidote to the Old Regime is a liberal revolution. Accordingly I next consider the role played by free trade and protection in the revolutions that made modern France, the United States, Italy and Germany, with particular reference to the latter’s Zollverein (customs union) in the nineteenth century. Turning to the Southern African example, which includes the oldest extant customs union in the world, I examine the organization of international trade there. In conclusion I review the prospects for greater integration of trade regimes in Africa. Is an African customs union possible or desirable? How might it come about? Continue reading ‘The case for an African customs union’ »
Edited transcription of an improvised talk for a seminar, “Social movements and the solidarity economy”, organized by Jean-Louis Laville and Geoffrey Pleyers, EHESS, Paris, 2 February 2012.
I was asked to report on the project I am involved in which has the same name as The Human Economy book; but, given this course’s focus on social movements, I decided that I should try to insert the perspective on economy I have developed into contemporary political processes and events. I have been writing, editing and researching about alternative approaches to the economy for a long time and blogging about politics more recently, but never the two together. In the last year, as a result of the North African revolutions and then the Occupy movement, I have come to see that the economic and political arguments have to be brought much closer together. Taking our lead from this moment in world history, we need to ask how the work that Jean-Louis and I have long been engaged in – on human economy, économie solidaire, social economy – needs to be modified in order to lend support to what has become a serious political movement at the global level. Continue reading ‘The human economy in a revolutionary moment: political aspects of the economic crisis’ »
The first Goody lecture given at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle, Germany on 1st June 2011. The lecture is available from the Institute in a handsome print version. I am grateful to Chris Hann for the chance to reflect here on the debt I owe to my teacher.
Part One Jack Goody’s Vision
In a short preface to Production and Reproduction, the first in his series of comparisons between Africa and Eurasia, Jack Goody (1976:ix-x) tells us that ethnography, the aspiration to write about another culture studied intensively through fieldwork, never defined his intellectual horizons. His subject has always been historical comparison and beyond that “the development of human culture”. He deliberately sets himself at odds with his greatest contemporary, Claude Lévi-Strauss (1962), as being uninterested in binary oppositions between the modern and the primitive. Rather he places himself as an actor in a historical period, coming of age in the Second World War, encountering the Eastern Mediterranean, escaping from a prison camp into the mountains of Abruzzo, entering Africa at the decisive moment of its anti-colonial revolution and in its epicentre, Ghana. With European empires collapsing everywhere, he rejects the eurocentric idea that the West is special, looking instead for forms of knowledge that are more truly universal, better suited to the new world society launched by the war. Continue reading ‘Jack Goody’s Vision of World History and African Development Today’ »
The governments of the Soviet Union and its East European dependencies fell in 1989-90 with almost no loss of life. How could the most powerful and coercive bureaucracies the planet has ever seen collapse so quickly and utterly? They ruled in the name of equality through surveillance and fear, but their structures had been hollowed out. They no longer provided the means of life and people filled the void with their own initiatives based on kinship, religion, locality, the black market and similar informal practices.
Tunisia is a small country of no obvious strategic significance, but in post-colonial Africa and the Arab world, it pioneered the single-party state. After his medical coup d’état against Bourguiba, Ben Ali ruled through police violence and surveillance by the party. We are fortunate to have available a wonderful dissection of the techniques of repression deployed by the Ben Ali regime. Béatrice Hibou’s The Force of Obedience (Polity, 2011) was first published in French in 2006, but her analysis shines a bright light on the Tunisian revolt and its aftermath. Continue reading ‘What do the Tunisian people want from their election?’ »
“A commendably hopeful essay. So far the Egyptian initiative has lofted a Mubarak stooge in his place and the elevated overt military control. These are not hopeful yet, and based on past examples of exactly these non-revolutionary, reactionary shifts, not much can be expected… There is little chance of ensconced and comfortable intellectuals to forego their perks… Al Jazeera is a lucrative business not a public service, and in that it is merely another self-promoting journalistic conceit like CNN, NYT and the others… It is disheartening to see Obama and others citing the giants of dissent, metronomically, stupidly… But then Obama is a millionaire, as the giants became as their hard-fought individual efforts became national and global enterprises. So what else is new.”
Thanks for taking the time to comment, John. It is interesting that several nettimers have written to me privately to say that they like and agree with what I wrote, but yours is the only response to be posted so far. Your comment seems to hinge on the optimism/pessimism pair. I have often been called hopeful or optimistic, even once Dr. Pangloss. But I believe that hope is only worthwhile if it comes with a large dose of realism. We are or could be engaged in constructing paths from the actual to the possible, from the real to the imagined. I consider it a waste of time to try to predict the outcome of events like those the world is experiencing now and we are right to fear the worst. Continue reading ‘The Americo-Middle Eastern superstate’ »
“I have been wondering about how to tie the Egyptian revolution into the larger world system. I was not aware that CLR thought there would be two more revolutions, one being Russian and other being American. Yet, as you rightly point out, the America that we understand extends beyond the borders of the geographic America. What does this mean for the potential of a second American revolution? Where would it be triggered? Much as the Egyptian revolution was triggered by the events in Tunisia it is possible that America’s revolution would be triggered from a far-off land.”
Saul, Now that the Egyptian revolution is definite, we can pose your question in a new light. Everyone likens events there now to 1989, not least Obama, who also links Egypt to Gandhi, King and the Ghana revolution. If the fall of the Berlin Wall was the beginning of the second Russian revolution, could Tahrir Square be the beginning of the second American revolution? After all, it wasn’t Russians who started the former, but Germans and Czechs, the Eastern European victims of the Soviet empire.
We know that the American empire was launched by World War 2 and has gone through two phases since. The French called the first les trente glorieuses from 1945 to roughly 1975, which was the heyday of the Cold War, but also a period marked by a developmental state on both sides of the Cold War committed to expanding public services and the purchasing power of working people. It was also the time when European empire was abolished by the anti-colonial revolution. After the watershed of the 1970s, we went through three decades of what came to be known as neoliberal globalization in which the power of big money to organize the world for its own benefit was unfettered. The end of the Cold War, the rise of China, India and Brazil as economic powers and the digital revolution in communications speeded up the formation of world society under American hegemony, even as these developments undermined it. This ended with the financial crisis of 2008 and we are now in the uncharted waters of the third period which might take in a full-scale depression, world war, a global democratic revolution, the end of life on earth, who knows? Whatever happens, it will be different. Continue reading ‘The second American revolution?’ »
Events in Tunisia and Egypt have brought back the issue of revolution to international debate. Already I can feel my book, which was once called The African Revolution and has since become Africa’s Urban Revolution, moving with the times. It is too early to say whether North Africa’s “revolutions” will change the world as profoundly as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid in 1989-90. A counter-revolution may yet succeed in either or both places. But the challenge posed by popular mobilizations to autocratic regimes is already an irreversible fact.
I vividly recall watching the events in Tiananmen Square on TV with an old West Indian revolutionary in his cramped Brixton bedsit. His name was C.L.R. James, it was April 1989 and he died the next month aged 88. Who can forget the Chinese man who stopped a line of tanks by running in front of them? We both felt that this was a historical turning point, as did the whole world. James thought that the Chinese government would probably succeed in putting down the student rebellion; but their protest coincided with an international meeting to which the Soviet leader, Gorbachev, came and CLR told me that Eastern Europe could never be held by the Soviet Union after this. It took a bit more than half a year for the East Germans to bring down the Wall. Continue reading ‘CLR James and the idea of an African revolution’ »
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. Continue reading ‘Classes for and against a liberal revolution’ »