State, region and revolution in African development

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.

For centuries Africa supplied slaves across the Atlantic, but also to the Indian Ocean and Arab worlds. The movement to abolish slavery was officially completed in the late 19th century. But emancipation is rarely as simple as that. In West Africa, abolition was a disaster.[iii] The internal drive to capture slaves continued apace and, despite a shift to their use in domestic production, supply soon exceeded demand. The price of slaves fell drastically, leading to their widespread abuse. Colonial empires were then justified by disorder in West Africa and by the drive to abolish the Arab slave trade in East Africa. But colonial regimes still often relied on indigenous slave masters. Much later, when these regimes fell, Africans were offered emancipation once more, this time through national independence. Most African economies then regressed for a half-century. Ghana had an economy bigger than Indonesia’s in 1960 and per capita income on a par with South Korea’s. Now, despite an economic recovery, the Asian countries are more than twenty times larger than Ghana on both counts. Apartheid was defeated in South Africa, but two decades later the country is more unequal and unemployment is massive, while the government shoots its own people if they complain. Writers coin metaphors for misrule throughout the continent: “The Postcolony”, “Politics of the Belly”, “Architects of Poverty”.[iv] Africans are still waiting for equal membership of world society. But they have never encountered more favourable conditions than now.

‘Africa’ is either a continental territory separated from the Eurasian landmass by the Mediterranean and Red Seas or the place that black people come from. But ‘the land of the blacks’ is hard to pin down. ‘Africa South of the Sahara’ may make sense from a European perspective, but not in the Northeast region, where the Nile links Egypt to Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and the Great Lakes. The African continent consists of three disparate regions — North, South and Middle (West, Central and East Africa); but a degree of convergence between them is now taking place. Preoccupation with Africa’s post-colonial failure to ‘develop’ has obscured what really happened there in the last century. The rise of cities has been linked to the formation of weak and venal states which depend on foreign powers and leave the urban masses largely to their own devices. The latter have generated spontaneous markets to meet their own needs which are now understood to constitute an ‘informal economy’.[v]

Jack Goody has tried to explain why the institutions of Africa South of the Sahara diverged so strongly from the Old World civilizations of Eurasia and North Africa.[vi] He based his explanation on low population density in Africa, so that people were scarcer than land there, intensification of production was weak and the property foundations of a class society were never developed. As shorthand for summarising the history of a highly variegated continent, I rely on three ideal types with parallels in the classical anthropology of world society: non-states, traditional states and modern states.  These types are not used here as stages of social evolution or to divide contemporary history into periods. Goody himself was rather vague about the time frame of his statistical analysis which was informed by his own ethnographic research among tribal peoples of Northern Ghana.  I distinguish between ‘classless societies’ based on kinship; ‘agrarian civilizations’ in which urban elites control the mass of rural labour; and ‘national capitalism’, where markets and capital accumulation are regulated by central bureaucracies on behalf of citizens. The first is as old as humanity itself; the second dominated Eurasia since the Bronze Age; and the third became the main form of economy in the 20th century.

In the twentieth century, a general population explosion saw a jump in Africa’s urban share from under 2% of the population to almost a half, compressing into one century what took much longer elsewhere. This urban revolution is not just a proliferation of cities, but also involves the installation of the whole package of pre-industrial class society: states, urban elites, intensification of agriculture and a political economy based on extraction of rural surpluses and the city bazaar.[vii] The classless type based on kinship predominated in Africa South of the Sahara before the 20th century; agrarian civilization was established in North Africa soon after the urban revolution in Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago; South Africa was the only country to adopt national capitalism (for whites only) from the late 19th century, at the same time as Europe, North America and Australasia. The predominantly egalitarian societies of Africa’s  Middle Belt made a belated transition to agrarian civilization in the course of the twentieth century, first under colonial and then post-colonial rule, while most of Asia adopted national capitalism as a model.  These developments brought North and Middle Africa closer together as pre-industrial class societies, while South Africa is now becoming more like the rest of Africa, following black majority rule. The fastest-growing economies today are not from the North (where popular insurgency has now taken hold) or South Africa (which shares the economic weakness of the Western economies), but the region in between.

The anti-colonial revolution unleashed hopes for the transformation of an unequal world. These have not yet been realized for most Africans. But the model of development they were expected to adopt was ‘national capitalism’. Development in this sense never had a chance to take off. In the early twentieth century, African peoples were shackled by colonial empire and later their new nations struggled in a world economy organized by and for the major powers, then engaged in a Cold War. Africa’s new leaders thought they were building modern economies, but in reality they were erecting fragile states based on the same backward agriculture as before. Either some sectors of the economy had to raise productivity levels by adopting machine methods or the state would devolve to a level compatible with its small-scale productive base. [viii] This structural weakness inevitably led them to exchange the democratic legitimacy of the independence struggle for dependence on foreign powers. Africa’s new ruling elites first relied on revenues from agricultural and mineral exports, then on dubious loans funded by the oil surplus of the 1970s, finally on a financial licence to supervise their country’s relations with global capitalism. The bonanza was switched off in the early 1980s, when foreign capital felt that it could dispense with the mediation of local state powers and concentrated on collecting debts from them. Many governments were made bankrupt and some countries collapsed into civil war.

Concentration of political power at the centre in the post-colonial era led to primate urbanization, as economic demand became synonymous with presidential accumulation. The growth of cities should normally lead to enhanced rural-urban exchange, as farmers supply food to city-dwellers and in turn buy the latter’s manufactures and services.[ix] But this progressive division of labour requires a measure of protection from the world market at first and it was stifled at birth in post-colonial Africa by the dumping of subsidized food from the West and of cheap Asian manufactures. ‘Structural adjustment programmes’ imposed by the IMF meant that Africa’s fledgling national economies had no protection from the strong winds of world trade. A peasantry subjected to violence and political extraction had to choose between stagnation at home and migration to the main cities or abroad. Somehow the cities survived through markets that emerged to meet the population’s needs and to recycle the money concentrated at the top. These markets are the key to the economic potential of Africa’s urban revolution.

Africa’s urban informal economy everywhere supplies food, housing and transport; education, health and other basic services; mining, manufactures and engineering; and trade at every level, including transnational commerce and foreign exchange. But its scope varies. In West/Central Africa, where white settlement was minimal, the cities were substantially an indigenous creation and their markets were always unregulated. Foreign middlemen like the Lebanese flourished outside colonial controls. The great ports of the Atlantic seaboard always enjoyed a mercantile freedom that now underpins their contribution to Africa’s commercial growth. Angolan women jump on planes heading for London, Paris, Dubai and Rio, where they stock up on luxury goods for resale in the streets of Luanda. In Southern Africa, however, cities were built by white settlers who imposed strict controls on the movements of Africans. South Africa’s informal economy today is hedged in by rules and interests (not least the unions) designed to promote modern industry. Elsewhere, in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Kenya, the state has long played a more controlling role than would be considered normal today in Lagos or Dakar.

African nation-states have learned the hard way that they are not free to choose their own forms of political economy. When the world was divided by the Cold War, state ownership of production and control of distribution seemed to offer the best chance of defending national interests against foreign predators. This phase of post-colonial development was tolerated by the West until the watershed of the 1970s. The World Bank and IMF then imposed cutbacks on public expenditure and before long failed states became commonplace. From the 1980s, the mania for privatization led to ownership often being ceded to transnational corporations. Structural adjustment forced governments to abandon public services, lay off many workers and allow the free circulation of money. In countries that succumbed to civil war, informal mining and trade were encouraged, concentrating wealth and power in the hands of warlords and their followers. The situation is highly dynamic and variable.

Tax collection in Africa was never as regular as in Eurasia; and governments still rely on whatever they can extract from mineral royalties and the import-export trade. New urban elites live off these revenues in a patrimonial regime propped up by foreign powers. Rents secured by political privilege are the chief source of wealth. This constitutes an Old Regime ripe for liberal revolution. This is why the recent insurgencies in North Africa are significant for the continent as a whole.[x] The new states and class structures of Africa’s urban revolution are entangled in kinship systems that remain indispensable to the social organization of the informal economy. The middle classes pass off exploitation of cheap domestic labour as an egalitarian model of African kinship; while ‘family business’ has never lost favour and child labour is widely acceptable. Formal bureaucracy is hostile to kinship, where it is normally viewed as corruption. In the absence of a welfare state, Africans rely on kinship to see them through the life cycle of birth, marriage, childrearing, old age and death; and control over access to the land reinforces the power of rural elders over young men and women.

Hernando De Soto has pointed out that, whereas developing countries like Peru were once stuck in a colonial mercantile system, they are now stifled by an international bureaucracy that works only for the rich countries who would never have developed, if their infant capitalist economies had been saddled with similar encumbrances.[xi] The imposition of taxes on international trade goes to the heart of this crisis for democracy today. Politics is still mainly national, but the economy has gone global. It is both over- and under-regulated at the same time. Nowhere is this problem more urgent than in Africa.

African development in the 21st century

Every person of African descent, whatever their actual history and experience – they could be Barack Obama, for example — suffers the practical consequences of being stigmatized by colour in a world built on racial difference. This situation will only be ended when economic development guarantees Africans political and cultural equality in that world. Many citizens of the rich countries believe that growth is no longer a priority and should be reversed, but the world’s poor know what they are missing and that ‘development’ is the answer. So what does development mean in the African context and how is it to be achieved in the century to come?

In 1800 the world’s population was around one billion. At that time less than 3% of humanity lived in cities; the rest extracted a livelihood from the land. Animals and plants were responsible for almost all the energy produced and consumed by human beings.  A little more than two centuries later, world population has reached 7 billion. The proportion living in cities is about a half. Inanimate energy converted by machines now accounts for the bulk of production and consumption. Taking the period as a whole, the human population has been growing at an average annual rate of 1.5%; cities at 2% a year; and energy production at 3% a year. Many people now live longer, work less and spend more as a result. But the distribution of all this extra energy has been grossly unequal. A third of humanity still works in the fields with their hands. Americans consume 400 times more energy than the average Ugandan.

‘Development’ thus refers first to this hectic dash of humanity from the countryside to the city. The engine driving economic growth is assumed to be ‘capitalism’. Development then means trying to understand how capitalist growth is generated and how to make good the damage it causes in repeated cycles of creation and destruction. A third meaning refers to the developmental state of the mid-twentieth century, the idea that governments are best placed to engineer sustained economic growth with redistribution. Pioneered by Fascist and Communist states, this model took root in the colonial empires around the Second World War,  was adopted after it by the leading Western industrial societies and then became the norm for developing and newly independent countries until the 1970s.

The most common usage of ‘development’ over the last half-century, however, refers to the commitment of rich countries to help poor countries become richer. This commitment was at first real enough, even if the means chosen were often flawed. But after the watershed of the 1970s, it has faded. If, in the 1950s and 60s, the rapid growth of the world economy encouraged a belief that poor countries too could become rich, from the 1980s onwards ‘development’ has more often meant freeing up global monetary flows and applying sticking plaster to the wounds they inflicted. Development was thus the label for political relations between rich and poor countries after colonial empire.

There have been massive discrepancies in regional development since the collapse of the European empires. Many Asian countries installed successful capitalist economies, with and without western help, triggering an eastward shift in the balance of global economic power. But Africa, the Middle East and much of Latin America, stagnated or declined since the 1970s – a pattern from which Africa now seems to be rebounding. Various development models have emerged from this regional divergence, with an Asian emphasis on authoritarian states being opposed to Western liberalism and radical political alternatives coming out of Latin America.

There are two pressing features of our world: the unprecedented expansion of markets since the Second World War and massive economic inequality between (and within) nations. Becoming closer and more unequal at the same time is a recipe for disaster. Forbes magazine reported in March 2009 that the top ten richest individuals had a net worth between them of $250 billion, roughly the annual income of Finland (population 5 million) or of middle-ranking powers such as Venezuela (28 million), South Africa (49 million) and Iran (72 million). The same quarter trillion dollars equals the annual income of 26 Sub-Saharan African countries with a combined population of almost half a billion. Providing adequate food, clean water and basic education for the world’s poorest people could be achieved for less than the West spends annually on makeup, ice cream and pet food. Car ownership in developed countries is 400 per thousand persons, while in the developing countries it is below 20. A report published just before the millennium claimed that world consumption increased six times in the previous two decades; but the richest 20% accounted for 86% of private expenditure, the poorest 20% for only 1.3%. Africa, with a seventh of the world’s population, then had 2% of global purchasing power.[xii]

What could Africa’s new urban populations produce for the world economy? So far, countries have relied on exporting raw materials, when they could; minerals clearly have a promising future owing to scarce supplies and escalating demand. The world market for food and other agricultural products, however, is skewed by western farm subsidies and prices are further depressed by the large number of poor farmers trying to sell their crops. Conventionally, African governments have aspired to manufacturing as an alternative, but here they face intense competition from Asia. It would be more fruitful for African countries to argue collectively in the councils of world trade for some protection from international dumping, so that their farmers and infant industries might at least supply their own populations first.

Exchange between cities and their hinterlands has so far been frustrated for post-colonial Africa whose fragmented sovereignty leaves its 54 countries in a poor international bargaining position. Any collective appeal for greater protection would require serious political coordination of a sort not seen before. The world market for services is booming, however, and perhaps greater opportunities exist there. The fastest-growing sector of world trade is the production of culture: entertainment, education, media, software and a wide range of information services. The future of the human economy lies in the infinite scope for us to do things for each other — singing songs or telling stories — that need not take a tangible form. The largest global television audiences are for sporting events like the World Cup or the Olympic Games. Any move to enter this market will confront transnational corporations and the governments who support them. Nevertheless, the terrain is less rigidly mapped out here than in agriculture and manufactures. Africans are well-placed to compete in this field because of the proven global preference for their music and plastic arts.

Classes for and against a liberal revolution

The liberal revolutions that launched modern western society between the 17th and 19th centuries 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 how things really work. 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 just to these crimes against humanity. The socialist revolutions of the 20th century – and the ideologies that sustained them – are less relevant to Africa’s current circumstances than classical liberalism. The energies generated by Africa’s urban revolution are already manifested as endogenous developments in economy, technology, religion and the arts; and they could be harnessed to radical change if freed from constraining ideologies.[xiii]

Any new movement would soon run up against entrenched privilege of course. It is notable, however, that world society itself today resembles the Old Regime of agrarian civilization, with isolated elites enjoying a lifestyle beyond the reach of masses who have almost nothing. Rousseau’s condemnation of 18th century France rings as true for our world as for then: “It is manifestly contrary to the law of nature, however defined… that a handful of people should gorge themselves with superfluities while the hungry multitude goes in want of necessities”.[xiv] The institutions of agrarian civilization are alive and well, not just in post-colonial Africa. Since the millennium, the United States, whose own liberal revolution threw out the Old Regime of King George and the East India Company, is now a rent-seeking plutocracy that regressed under George W. Bush to monarchical politics in the service of corporations like Halliburton. The greatest riches are no longer acquired through selling products cheaper than ones competitors; rents secured by political privilege — such as Big Pharma’s income from patents, Hollywood’s monopoly revenues from DVDs or tax revenues used to bail out the Wall Street banks – keep the superrich afloat today.[xv]

In The Wretched of the Earth,[xvi] Frantz Fanon provided a blueprint for class analysis of decadent societies ripe for revolution, in his case the anti-colonial revolution. Political parties and unions were weak and conservative in late colonial Africa because they represented only a tiny part of the population: the industrial workers, civil servants, intellectuals and shopkeepers of the town, classes unwilling to jeopardize their own privileges. They were hostile to and suspicious of the mass of country people. The latter had customary chiefs supervised by the military and administrative officials of the occupying power. A nationalist middle class of professionals and traders confronted the superstition and feudalism of traditional authorities. Landless peasants moved to the town where they joined the lumpenproletariat. Eventually colonial repression forced the nationalists to flee the towns and take refuge with the peasantry. Only then, with the rural-urban split temporarily healed by crisis, did a mass movement take off.[xvii] We must replicate Fanon’s method if we wish to identify the potential for another African revolution.

The independent African states likewise rely on chiefs to keep the rural areas insulated from world society’s unruly currents. Where the state has failed, warlords take their place. Since the ‘structural adjustment programs’ of the 1980s, international agencies have approached rural populations through NGOs, the missionaries of our age, rather than departments of national government. World trade is organized by and for an alliance of the strongest governments and corporations. Some of the latter, especially in remote extractive industries, operate as independent states with the state. Bloated cities still sustain a very small industrial workforce, since mechanized production is poorly developed in post-colonial Africa. The civil servants have been ravaged as a class by neoliberal pressure to cut public expenditures. This leaves the informal economy of unregulated urban commerce. Clearly, trade and finance are not organized, in Africa or 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. If Africans want to have a say in what happens to them next, they will have to develop their own transnational associations to combat the huge coalitions of imperial power that would deny them self-expression.

Panafricanism, which sustained the anti-colonial revolution,[xviii] gave way to aspirations for national capitalism half a century ago because world society was not then organized to accommodate it. After the ANC won power in South Africa, non-racial nationalism took over from the anti-apartheid movement’s global appeal. Even so, one of the strongest political movements today is the formation of large regional trading blocs in response to neoliberal globalization: the European Union, North American Free Trade Area, Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Mercado Commun del Sur. So now is a good time for Africans to renew the movement for greater continental unity. A national framework for development never made sense in Africa and it makes even less sense today. The coming African revolution could leapfrog many of the obstacles in its path, but not if African societies continue to wear the national straitjacket they inherited from colonial rule.

Freedom and protection in the early modern revolutions

The American, French and Italian revolutions all combined mass insurgency with an extended period of warfare focused on removing fragmented sovereignty, unfair taxes and restrictions placed on movement and trade, while German unification has a similar focus, but followed a different political trajectory. The success of the British in establishing a global free trade regime in the 19th century, following Adam Smith’s arguments in The Wealth of Nations, as well as the revival of that regime as economic orthodoxy in the last few decades, has obscured the complex dialectic of freedom and protection in the early modern period whose imperatives were laid out in Sir James Steuart’s Principles of Political Economy, published a decade before Smith’s.[xix] The first problem to be overcome was impediments to trade caused by divided sovereignty within and between states. Development under these circumstances was seen to depend on removing these barriers to trade. At the same time, these incipient free trade areas needed a measure of protection from unregulated global flows of commodities and money, so that their own agriculture and manufactures could benefit from supplying newly consolidated home populations. The case of the French revolution is particularly illuminating on this point.

In 1793, the Terror was unleashed on several targets including the Girondins, a moderate faction based around Bordeaux. At the same time, the Bretons raised a ‘Royal and Catholic Army’, supported from the sea by Britain, against which the revolutionary Republic sent out an army of its own to fight in a terrible conflict, known as the War of the Vendée.[xx] The port city of Nantes, at the mouth of the Loire, was France’s largest, being heavily involved in slavery and trade with the Caribbean. It stood out for the Republic and was besieged by the Royalist army. The battle for its relief was decisive for the revolution, as was the shippers’ financial support for the Republican army. Some 4,000 Catholics and presumed Royalists were publicly executed by drowning inside the city, an episode that came to be known as ‘the national bathtub’. Why did the Nantes bourgeoisie risk so much for the Revolution? One main reason is that France, although centrally administered by the monarchy, was then a patchwork of local fief-holders, each of whom exacted what they could from people and goods moving through their territory. The Republic promised to end all that. This was after all a liberal revolution whose aim was to abolish restrictions on movement. The Nantes shippers had an interest in reducing the costs of moving their trade goods inland and so they allied themselves with the forces of democracy.

In what became the United States, after American and Dutch smugglers led resistance to the East India Company’s tea monopoly and to British taxes offsetting the crown’s military costs, the revolutionary government faced rebellions of its own over excise duties imposed on alcohol production. The Italian Risorgimento too was backed financially by the industrialists of Milan and Turin who wanted a unified national home market and unrestricted access to world trade instead of Austrian protectionism and internal territorial divisions. In all three cases, the power of merchant and manufacturing capital played a decisive part in the revolution.

Long before the European Common Market became the European Union, the Prussian Zollverein was launched in 1818 and culminated in the German Empire. In each case political unification was preceded by a customs union lasting half a century.[xxi] The Zollverein was a piecemeal attempt to harmonise tariffs, measures and economic policy in scattered territories controlled by the Prussian ruling family. Overrun by Napoleonic conquest and British commercial expansion, the Germans attributed their vulnerability to extreme political fragmentation. Prussia’s main aim was to expand a protected zone of internal free trade from which the Austrians were excluded. By the 1860s, most of what became Germany had joined the customs union. Their leading economist, Friedrich List, proposed a ‘national system’ of political economy designed to prevent Germans from becoming just “drawers of water and hewers of wood for Britain”.[xxii] List emphasized the scope for innovation within an expanded free trade area protected from the cold winds of the world market. Similar proposals were espoused by Americans like Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay.

Towards greater integration of African trade

The Union of South Africa was founded in 1910. Its structure was federal, bringing together provinces with disparate histories, geography and populations, while being linked to a patchwork of neighbouring territories under British rule. A South African customs union (SACU) was formed in 1889, the oldest of its kind extant.[xxiii] This was tightly controlled from Pretoria; but President Thabo Mbeki wanted to make relations with South Africa’s neighbours more equal, democratic and consensual; so members were granted more independence in their trade relations. The smaller countries signed separate agreements with the European Union, subverting South Africa’s attempts to control their entry and draw revenues from their importation. As a result SACU is now in disarray.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has been expanded greatly since the fall of apartheid to make it the largest regional grouping in Africa. But the reality is a maze of national restrictions on the movement of people, goods and money, crosscut by bilateral deals of bewildering variety. Under the ANC, the sense of division between South Africa’s own citizens and the many Africans who come there to live and work has been heightened. Somehow South Africa must break with ‘capitalism in one country’ and its plethora of confusing and contradictory bilateral deals. In fact, under President Mbeki, not much happened at the level of SADC, since his attention was firmly focused on reforming regional cooperation at the continental level.[xxiv]

Mbeki’s idea of an ‘African renaissance’ expressed the belief that a black majority government in South Africa might be a leading catalyst for an African economic revival based on greater political coordination between what had before been easy pickings for the world’s great powers. The Organization of African Unity in Addis Ababa was reconstituted as the African Union (AU), with the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) as its economic arm in Johannesburg and the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) as its political arm. A Pan African Parliament (PAP), composed of representatives nominated by member states, also sits in Johannesburg. The principal economic measures proposed were a single currency for Africa as a whole, a continental central bank and trade harmonization. Thabo Mbeki’s initiative was aimed exclusively at the very political class that has failed Africa so often since independence. He did not factor civil society movements into his plans.

Africa currently consists of a labyrinthine confusion of regional associations which do little to strengthen their members’ bargaining power in world markets. On the ground, however, African peoples maintain patterns of long-distance movement and exchange developed over centuries despite their rulers’ attempts to force economy and society into national cages. This is one major reason why so much of the African economy is held to be ‘informal’: state regulations are routinely ignored, with the result that half the population and most economic activity are criminalized and an absurd public effort is wasted on trying to apply unenforceable rules. Classical liberalism offers an answer to this chaos — the widest area possible of free trade and movement with minimal regulation by the authorities.  Paradoxically, three decades of neoliberal globalization have done much to discredit this recipe, since political initiatives, even in pursuit of free trade, are anathema. Yet the policy conclusion is inescapable: the boundaries of free commerce and of state intervention should be pushed beyond the limits of existing sovereignties.

A single currency and central bank are inappropriate to this stage of Africa’s development, given the disparities between member states. The global economic crisis has shown up vividly the limitations of such institutions for the Eurozone.[xxv] The existing distribution of regional associations needs to be rationalized, administration simplified and rule conflicts abolished. In South Africa’s case, SACU should probably be abandoned so that SADC might be built up as an effective customs union with one set of rules for all members. The present need for visas to travel between many SADC countries and the maze of bilateral deals and tariff barriers make a mockery of the ‘economic community’. A consistent policy of trade liberalisation would free up the movement of people, goods and capital within the region and allow existing informal practices to conform more closely to economic rules. Then perhaps SADC could reach out to other African regions such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) – dominated by Nigeria, with whom South Africa already has an economic alliance. The political elites can’t be kept out of all this, but the driving force for regional integration on this scale would have to be a broadly-based social movement animated by Africans’ drive for self-determination.

The AU and especially its economic arm, NEPAD, could try to persuade the rest of the world that Africa’s poverty is a drag on the growth of the global economy. If Africa’s infant agricultural, manufacturing and service industries are to develop, there must be international agreement that the continent deserves special protection, at least for a period. Making such arguments more persuasive than they are at present is the context for a revival of Panafricanism. To that end, continental and regional strategies need to be pursued side by side.


Africa’s current advantage is its weak attachment to the status quo. The world economy is in crisis for sure, but Africans have less to lose. The old Stalinist ‘law of unequal development’ reminds us that winners and losers can easily change places.[xxvi] Africa’s healthy prospects for rapid economic improvement soon seem counter-intuitive to many, given its historical role as the symbolic negation of ‘white’ superiority. Rather than face up to Africa’s rise and Europe’s corresponding decline, the whites prefer to dwell on the continent’s misfortunes. Failed politicians and ageing rock stars announce their mission to ‘save’ Africa from its presumed ills. The western media represent Africa as the benighted battleground of the four horsemen of the apocalypse: conquest, war, famine and death.

It is a curious fact that China occupied a similar slot in western consciousness not long ago. In the 1930s, people in the West often spoke of the Chinese as they do of Africa today. China was then crippled by the violence of warlords, its peasants mired in the worst poverty imaginable. Today the country is an economic superpower, its manufactures making inroads into western dominance on a scale far greater than Japan’s. This profound shift in power from West to East does not guarantee that Africa will escape soon from the stigma of inferiority, but the structures of Atlantic dominance that once seemed inevitable are perceptibly on the move; and that makes it easier to envisage change. Humanity is entering a new era of social possibility. Africans’ drive for emancipation from an unequal world society affects all of us. In that sense an African revolution would be a world revolution. I have argued here that the 18th and 19th centuries may offer Africans more suitable

[i] W.A. Lewis The Evolution of the International Economic Order (Princeton, 1978).

[ii] According to The Economist (6th January 2011), Africa had six of the top ten fastest-growing economies in 2001-2010 and is expected to have seven in 2011-2015. The latter consist of Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Congo, Ghana, Zambia and Nigeria in that order; the other three are China, India and Vietnam.

[iii] Keith Hart Waiting for emancipation: between slavery and freedom in West Africa (1996)

[iv] Achille Mbembe On the Postcolony (London 2001); Jean-François Bayart The State in Africa: Politics of the Belly (Cambridge, 2009); Moeletse Mbeki Architects of Poverty: Why African capitalism needs changing (Johannesburg, 2009).

[v] Keith Hart‘Informal income opportunities and urban employment in Ghana’, Journal of Modern African Studies 11.3: 61-89 (1973); ‘Bureaucratic form and the informal economy’, in B. Guha-Khasnobis, R. Kanbur and E. Ostrom (eds) Linking the Formal and Informal Economies, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 21-35 (2006); ‘Africa’s urban revolution and the informal economy’, in V. Padayachee (ed) The Political Economy of Africa, Routledge: London, 371-388; ‘The informal economy’, in Hart, Laville and Cattani (eds) The Human Economy: A citizen’s guide, Cambridge: Polity, 142-153 (2010).

[vi] The first volume of a score of books was Production and Reproduction: A comparative study of the domestic domain (Cambridge, 1976). Keith Hart Jack Goody’s vision of world history and Africa’s development today, 1st June 2011

[vii] Childe’s ‘urban revolution’: V. Gordon Childe What Happened in History (London, 1954).

[viii] Keith Hart The Political Economy of West African Agriculture (Cambridge, 1982).

[ix] This focus was advocated by Sir James Steuart Principles of Political Economy, Edinburgh: Cadell (1767).

[x] For a prescient study of the Ben Ali regime’s techniques of domination, Beatrice Hibou The Force of Obedience: The political economy of repression in Tunisia, Cambridge: Polity (2011).

[xi] Hernando de Soto The Other Path: The economic answer to terrorism, New York: Basic Books (1989); The Mystery of Capital: Why capitalism triumphs in the West and fails everywhere else, London: Bantam (2000).

[xii] United Nations Development Program Human Development Report (1998).

[xiii] A fuller treatment of these and related issues may be found in ‘Two lectures on African development’ (2007)

[xiv] Jean-Jacques Rousseau Discourse on Inequality (London, 1984 [1754]: 137).The classical source on 18th century France is Alexis de Tocqueville (F. Furet and F. Mélonio eds) The Old Regime and the Revolution (Chicago, [1856] 1998).

[xv] Dean Baker The End of Loser Liberalism: Making markets progressive (Washington DC, 2011).

[xvi] Frantz Fanon The Wretched of the Earth (New York, [1961] 1970], chapter 2 ‘Grandeur and weakness of spontaneity’.

[xvii] Mahmood Mamdani bases his argument in Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the legacy of late colonialism (Oxford, 1996) on this need to heal the rural-urban divide.

[xviii] C.L.R. James The History of Panafrican Revolt (third edition, New York, 2012 [1938]).

[xix] See Note 10; Adam Smith An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (London, 1961 [1776]).

[xx] Victor Hugo’s last novel, Ninety-three (1974), reconstructs these events.

[xxi] W.O. Henderson The Zollverein (Cambridge 2013 [1939]).

[xxii] Friedrich List National System of Political Economy: Volume 1 History (New York, [1841], 2005).

[xxiii] Keith Hart and Vishnu Padayachee South Africa in Africa: from national capitalism to regional integration, in V. Padayachee (ed) The Political Economy of Africa (London, 2010), Chapter 22.

[xxiv] Christopher Clapham, G. Mills, A. Morner and E. Sidiropoulos Regional Integration in Southern Africa (Johannesburg, 2001).

[xxvi] Neil Smith Uneven Development: Nature, capital and the production of space (Athens GA, 1984).

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