If it is true that the ultimate value of any civilisation lies in what knowledge it produces or re-works from the rest of humanity and from which the planet we occupy may one day benefit, then perhaps we can now begin to talk about the West as an idea, in the past tense.
The late March announcement from the Vatican that the Doctrine of Discovery has been repudiated, brings value in two directions: the past and the future.
This “doctrine” is an item of European thought contrived to provide the justification by European powers to invade and seize the lands of indigenous peoples, and also enslave them, if necessary. It was basically a series of 15th century Papal pronouncements issued to justify the European exploration and conquest of, first, what is now known as the Americas. In practice, it functioned as the self-invented cover European power gave itself so as to organise a global land-grab and the attendant enslavement and impoverishment of others. It was the root of the notion of white supremacy.
“The doctrine was recognized as vesting a unilateral right of European colonial powers to claim superior sovereignty and rights over Indigenous Peoples’ lands and resources based on their supposed lack of civilisation and religion,” said Calí Tzay, himself an indigenous Mayan from Guatemala, and United Nations Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“The Catholic Church therefore repudiates those concepts that fail to recognize the inherent human rights of Indigenous peoples, including what has become known as the legal and political ‘doctrine of discovery’.”
This should be understood in terms of how far it can be taken, if all the fruits of the poisoned tree are put up for interrogation. Certainly, the indigenous activist groups of the Americas who have been calling for just such a repudiation will know what to do with this.
African native activism needs to understand this too. In particular, we need to recognize that there is a connection between the Catholic Church’s elevation of policy to a global plane (which is what the Doctrine effectively did), and the then emerging stirrings of what became the Enlightenment.
A standard definition of the Enlightenment could be understood as that period during which European intellectual, scientific and creative life leads a process of taking European thought out of the confines of a stifling and tired feudalism. It shaped European use and centrality of material science and scientific thought in addressing human challenges.
The European Enlightenment can also be taken as the development of the Renaissance period before it, in which time a flowering (or literally “rebirth”) of human curiosity and creativity was described as “a fervent period of European cultural, artistic, political and economic “rebirth” . . . taking place from the 14th century to the 17th century, the Renaissance promoted the rediscovery of classical philosophy, literature and art”. It was the parent of the Enlightenment that followed, where it distinguishes itself by adding on a transition to a primacy of science and reason, and also therefore a disruption increasingly to the European feudal political order.
It is in this way that the premier ideological bastion for all feudal politics in Europe, the Roman Catholic Church, becomes quite the intellectual schizophrenic. It needed to use the same ideology to facilitate the growing global economic ambitions of the ruling elites, and to also keep the populations under their rule obedient to them.
So, on the one hand the new lands to be exploited required scientific knowledge such as improved navigational information based on the reality that the earth was spherical and rotated around the sun, while on the other hand, it was necessary to promote the doctrinal view that the earth, as their creator’s home for humanity, was the fixed centre of the universe, and the sun rotated around it, and the church represented their creator on earth. Scientists like Galileo famously became victims of this conundrum.
As an illustration, one could imagine it to have long been in the position the Chinese Communist Party finds itself in today: using the language and imagery and culture of communist thinking to try and control the population, while at the same time engaging in an obviously non-communist economic program. For the Chinese intellectual, it may therefore be dangerous to be an actual communist, and risky to not pretend to be one.
These events, as one process melding into the other, form the foundations of what became the world we live in today. For ordinary white people, it has been a middling disaster, for peoples outside any kind of whiteness, it has been a 500-year catastrophe.
The announcement certainly opens up a whole range of new possibilities. We may have reached the point where it is time for African social science to begin to part company with Western social science, or to invite it to re-orient itself.
After 500 years of world domination, the confusion in Western Europe, coupled with the hi-tech barbarism in north America, shows a civilisation that has run out of answers. And if Western thought has become incapable of solving problems at home, then it is hardly likely to be able to solve similar, or other problems anywhere else.
For ordinary white people, it has been a middling disaster, for peoples outside any kind of whiteness, it has been a 500-year catastrophe.
Much as there is an argument to be made that the contemporary crisis across Africa is actually a manifestation of the failure of European thinking in Africa, the failure does not begin with the application of the ideas here. The failure began at the source.
African liberation, especially as conceptualised after 1945, has been founded on the wrong footing, informed as it increasingly came to be, from within the broad iterations of freedom as understood in Western thought.
The mistake was in seeking to locate our discourses in their discourses. Their bourgeois revolutions are over, their proletarian struggles are in crisis, and their post-industrialism culture is without direction.
It is easily forgotten now, but the advent of Uganda’s National Resistance Movement—after years of war around the same period as the fall of Apartheid in South Africa, the overthrow of the Mengistu dictatorship in Ethiopia, and the end of the then Zaire and Rwanda dictatorships—was heralded as some kind of new dawn for African politics. In fact, the failure by analysts and commentators across the region and beyond to correctly read the meanings of this regime, signified a collapse of the Western Humanities as far as African challenges were concerned.
European thinking cannot now solve even the most basic human problems faced by Europe, such as homelessness, or the wider economic crisis in which they have been trapped since 2008.
In practice, Western freedom stems from the defeat of feudalism and the concessions ordinary people were able to obtain from victorious bourgeois capitalist society, which, having taken over state power, then placed limits on the very freedoms it had promised to the masses in order to mobilise them to overthrow the feudal order.
Their bourgeois revolutions are over, their proletarian struggles are in crisis, and their post-industrialism culture is without direction.
In their—and therefore, our—21st Century sense, this also meant there was a need to first assert the right to assert our rights, which gave rise to the modern framing of politics. All the fundamentals are taken as fixed and finished. The job of the activist is to simply find and secure their place within them.
But whatever Western freedom did offer has become obsolete anyway. It came with three problems: it was extremely human-centred; it was premised on a separation of social life from productive life; and it conceptualised change around production, and industrial production in particular.
It was all of a piece, from Martin Luther all the way to Karl Marx (and his subsequent derivatives), with an increasing emphasis on materiality as the basis for progress, and the understanding of progress as an almost exclusively human concern.
As a result, our own problem solving is standing on a wrong premise. We have been led to locate our discourses in their discourses. But the present difficulty and the difference stem from production and domesticity becoming separated in the Western economy and the Western mind. From the decline of the cottage industry to full industrialization.
Once the maintenance of human consciousness is separated from the defining act of human production, which has largely been the experience of the industrialised world, you get problems. To civilizationally organise the African family, as was originally the case with most communities of the world, is to organize production. The act of organizing the home is at the same time the act of organizing production, because they take place in the same location.
The concept of justice also emerged from production; after value has been created, how can it be shared out in a way that is fair to all? And if a sense of unfairness emerges with that process, how is it resolved? This brings the challenge of power, and its management.
This is all part of the act, or process, of becoming civilized.
To organize the contemporary European family is to attempt to manage idleness. The Western home is a place for idle leisure and sleep. Of which they have had plenty more since they moved beyond industrial life. Much of their current politics is actually about the management of idleness. That is why habits considered “idle” and degenerate just a generation ago (such as taking drugs, all-day drinking, etc) are now being made legal, and fully grown adults play computer games.
Evidence of this is in how now, 250 years later, people forced back into the home due to post-industrialism, tech, unemployment and even the pandemic, are facing mounting problems. They cannot fit together, physically, ideologically, psychologically or socially. Most homes were dormitory spaces.
The act of organizing the home is at the same time the act of organizing production, because they take place in the same location.
This is not a temporary situation, but a terminal one. The broad scope of modern Judaeo-Christian thought, rooted in the Enlightenment, has reached the end of whatever useful life it had. This is the meaning of the war in Ukraine. Under the leadership of the (Neo-European) United States, they have now started another war of the type they end up calling “world wars”.
With the ever-expanding theatre that began in eastern Ukraine, but is now likely to end up in at least two other western European countries and merge with the conflicts that have been stewing in the northern part of the middle-east and central Asia, we can see a failure.
First, it is failure of their own much-vaunted values of “freedom”, peace and progress. The Zelensky regime is the product of the coup, and had been waging war on the peoples in the eastern part of the country for years before the current flare-up. With European citizens everywhere confronting a “cost-of-living crisis” through strikes and civil unrest, the war in the Balkans looks likely to spread.
This is because the essential problem now is that this economic system can only stay afloat by making its populations poorer. This is why we are seeing a lot of political drama around matters like pensions, health provision—and the cost of living generally—right across western Europe.
Second, it is also a failure of learning. The roughly 70-year period between 1945 and 2012 was actually the longest period that the European landmass had traversed without a (major) conflict compared to the preceding 200 years. This was a major achievement, given their generally war-like behaviour, and the scale on which they fight their wars, when they have them.
This conflict is sure to spread even further, as it is driven by numerous economic imperatives in which the Western political system is permanently trapped.
As mentioned above, the one key thing post-1945 Western Europe used as evidence of the superiority of its values was the higher standard of living it could guarantee its populations. All other policy understandings—from deciding what foreign aid should look like, to designing their immigration policies—flowed from that. The “Western lifestyle” was the Holy Grail of all political planning. The idea was for the whole world to become like them.
This conflict is sure to spread even further, as it is driven by numerous economic imperatives in which the Western political system is permanently trapped.
What is generally referred to as “modern thought” is actually Western European thought rendered on a near-universal plane.
There are many theories as to why this became a predominantly Western European experience, especially since must of the seed knowledge that fed into the Enlightenment came from outside Europe. Dr Muhammed Suliman has written on how an identical process was underway in Arabia, but failed due to Arab feudal resistance. I am not entirely sure why Western Europe in particular became the site of this rapid unfolding.
What is now ending is the power of that entire historical process. The question “What is the lifetime of your lifestyle?”, regularly put by 1970s Native American activists to the custodians of the American power system, has finally been answered.
Knowledge is neutral, but is not handled in a neutral way; different socioeconomic interests seek, understand and deploy knowledge according to their perceived goals and interests.
Western European intellectual culture became a sponge for knowledge from all other parts of the world, be it manufacturing methods and materials from China, to medical knowledge from the Americas and the Pacific, culturally expressed—as a fetish for explorers and discoverers—as folk heroes.
It was able to re-purpose all this knowledge for the primary goal of ever-larger profit-making that eventually occasioned the need to physically control the entire planet in terms of labour, materials, finances and, therefore, territory.
This is reflected, for example, in the confidential correspondence by David Livingstone (1858), a man assumed to be merely a Christian missionary to Africa. In his correspondence, he reveals himself as a scout for Western industry carrying a scientific interest in the materials and geographic features of Africa.
A purpose of scholarship is to help solve such problems. Western social science is now found wanting in respect to its own society. Despite this, many remain wedded to the precepts of Western social science to contemplate not just Western society, but even non-Western societies where this science was never (fully) applicable in the first place.
That was then. This is now.
The application of knowledge as defined officially in Africa is not meeting the challenge, and this is partly why meaningful socioeconomic change has remained so elusive. “Development Studies” is partly premised on the myth that only certain peoples have problems that need to be studied and solved in order for them to become like the hardly/never-studied peoples. “Development Studies” is also the intellectual expression of the continuance of the Enlightenment in Africa.
A key flaw in the overall European “liberatory” conception, was a cluster of assumptions in which white humans, and white male humans especially, combined with the centring of the primarily white experience of production in the industrialised countries, and therefore the centring of the politics of the Western white industrial working-class culture, thought and peoples, all combined to form the only “acceptable” basis and framework for political engagement.
Western social science tended to understand progress, or even liberation, as a workplace-based activity. At the peak of Western European industrial life, as documented by writers like Orwell and others, people tended to only meet at home in the evening and on weekends, following on from the clearance evictions from the countryside. This led to the further atrophy of family relations. The family was left to wither on the vine.
So, the science of managing the family, of managing each other, is relatively impoverished. They may not yet be failed states, but they are increasingly failed societies. Therefore, on top of not understanding the problem to begin with, Western thinking continues to sell this failure, now lost and mired in identity politics hijacked by high finance, especially by the medical insurance industry, as a solution globally.
Humanity has many lessons to learn from the last 500 years—apart from what has historically been taught. This will be a particular challenge for Western post-industrial societies where a 500-year cultural momentum has shaped them to see themselves as teachers and leaders.
Knowledge does not come from books; it comes from life-engagement. Knowledge is not new, just added to, or refined. Knowledge solves problems of the past, problems of the present, and the anticipated problems of the future. Books merely capture some of that for sharing and supporting the development of other practice. We derive knowledge from other knowledge; what is important is to recognize the underlying intentions and themes.
Therefore, we also need to organise knowledge, be it our own or “other peoples’” in a way that serves us as we address our challenges. Our primary challenge is to recover from the colonial experience and that of enslavement before it, re-learning what we originally knew in order to then learn again from that.
The first collective human consciousness was spiritual, and original spiritual beliefs revolved around nature, since humans were then still intertwined with and directly dependent on it, and since production was premised on an engagement with nature.
This consciousness has remained among many of the formerly colonized, never-properly “proletarianized” peoples.
However, with respect to social science, and particularly the political economy aspects of European knowledges, these are vital for developing any understanding of the nature of the presence of the European/Western hegemon insofar as it applies to Africa and other previously colonized places of the world over the last half-millennium, and will remain useful in that respect.
They may not yet be failed states, but they are increasingly failed societies.
But the problem is that just because that is what the products of the very same Enlightenment say it was, does not mean, in the wider scope of looking, that that is indeed what it was. Or even all it was. The now formerly European-colonized spaces of Asia, Africa, the Americas and the Pacific carry knowledge and bear witness to what else the 500-year momentum of the Enlightenment was. They also carry knowledge of what else the world could have been like without it.
This does not mean that the knowledge in general, and of social science in particular, from Europe as developed there, is of no value: all human knowledge is a development of the knowledge before. All human knowledge belongs to all humanity to make their best possible use of it.
But this must now begin with a recovery of our own knowledge and a separation from the idea of the assumed primacy of theirs.