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The Morality Debate and the Spirit of Capitalism

16 min read.

Public discourse on morality and individual virtue has long been emphasised. But as JÖRG WIEGRATZ argues, they only tell part of the story of human beings and human society. Indeed, capitalism and its current variant neoliberalism is a moral order that defines the standards of interaction within a neoliberal society.

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The Morality Debate and the Sprit of Capitalism
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“It is not from the benevolence (kindness) of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”  – Adam Smith: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

There is a common position in public debates in many contemporary societies – be it in Uganda, Kenya, Germany, the UK or the US – that we live in an age of moral decline and moral crisis. Typically, this is a more or less direct commentary on the global system that shapes all of these societies: capitalism. Well-known public commentators and analysts in these countries, such as Will Hutton in the case of Britain, will declare that current capitalism is morally bankrupt. Hutton writes: “’Modern capitalism’ has arrived at a moral dead end, interested largely in feathering the nests of its leaders while imposing enormous costs on the rest of society and accepting no reciprocal obligations.”

Others refer to capitalism as just plain immoral and evil; or assert that figures such as fraudulent bankers or hard core, ever-profit-maximising speculators, business owners and managers (who lay off thousands of workers, or close entire factories to move to countries with cheaper labour) have lost their moral compass. This is an argument that one comes across regularly when the latest scandals emerge around systemic, high-level, harm-producing fraud and corruption or when heartless profit-making schemes are exposed, with those paying the price for these schemes being the most vulnerable people, including patients, pensioners, children, poor communities or an unsuspecting public.

Often, the terms “greed” or “selfishness” are dropped somewhere in these analyses as well, which implies that the money-minded actors concerned are immoral greedsters. Other words one regularly finds in such texts are “shocking”, “disgusting”, “devil”, “soul-less”, “cold-hearted”, “inhumane”, “indifferent”, and the like, signalling a sort of (expressed) moral unease and outrage about the critiqued actors and practices. In society usually certain economic activities, certain ways of earning a living, of making money by some groups, get categorised as immoral by some other group. And when a society experiences the rise or becoming more publicly visible of certain – say, new, more innovative, blatant, or radical – forms of money-oriented activities or ways of thinking, you will soon find one commentator pulling the analytical card that has “immoral”, or “moral decline” written on it. Representatives of the state (and the political system more broadly), the church, or unions from time to time run this line in one form or another. Of course, when your analysis asserts that morals are at rock bottom, or have been crowded out, then the diagnosis is to inject “more morality”.

Let me then present some examples of this conventional type of reasoning in public debates from the African continent, more specifically South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Nigeria: “Is it that the moral fibre of our society is irrevocably broken…?”; “[Political leaders have] largely lost their moral compass”; “Our freedom of expression had started eroding our moral fabric”; “Poor parenting and moral decay in society are to blame for runaway corruption”; “[There is now] capitalism without a soul … capitalism has lost its moral shine”; “Nigeria is gradually moving into the future with greater number of its youths turning into drugs addicts and becoming morally bankrupt”; “Only immoral leaders would put politics ahead of Nigeria’s fiscal future”; “The loss of moral values threatens our common existence”; “Government will introduce an examinable subject in schools to teach students and pupils ethics in order to rebuild the country’s degenerating moral values and make the citizens appreciate honesty.”; “Rampant criminal activities… have been blamed on lapse in moral values.” And so on and so forth. Our world is full of such statements from public officials, church leaders, artists, scholars and other professional analysts.

Notably, the youth, or groups such as “drug users”, are regularly depicted as having lost their morals. So are categories of people who just go after money, who are just in it for the money, as they say. This debate is, for instance, existent in discussions about young women dating rich and powerful old men or looking for private sponsors/sugar daddies (“transactional sex”); or about the sex-for-university-marks or sex-for-a-job phenomena, be it in Kenya, Uganda, or Nigeria.

This debate came to the fore in Kenya recently when two women, Sharon Otieno and Monica Kimani, were killed mid last year, allegedly because of having sexual affairs with older men. Al Jazeera later ran an extensive special programme headlined: “Why are Africa’s ‘sugar’ relationships in the spotlight?”, and sub-headlined: “Murder in Kenya fuels conversation about partnerships where money and gifts are traded for sex and companionship.” And, the BBC published a long investigative piece about the phenomenon of sugar-baby-daddy/sponsor/blesser, titled “Sex and the Sugar Daddy’” around the same time. Did at least one of the commentators (in traditional or social media) run the moral decline/immorality argument in this particular case too to discuss the behaviour of the women, and the issue of money and sexual relationships?

Lots of observers and analysts seem to agree then that there is a spreading of immorality – especially in the world of business – and a sort of moral regression across modern society, and that this is the issue that needs sorting. In other words, morals are a good thing (and we need as much of them as possible), and something is attacking these morals, making them diminish. Picture a kind of downward spiral, an eroding kind of trend, a society (or particular groups such as “the youth”, or “bankers”) losing their moral values – something gets thinner by the day, something is in decline. The enemy here is immorality, not morality, or say, a specific type of morality. How easy and clear for an analysis – which one can run year in, year out – without even much need for empirical data to support the claims.

Lots of observers and analysts seem to agree that there is a spreading of immorality – especially in the world of business – and a sort of moral regression across modern society, and that this is the issue that needs sorting. In other words, morals are a good thing (and we need as much of them as possible), and something is attacking these morals, making them diminish.

But is this line of argument perhaps not as useful as it seems, as both diagnosis and prescription? Notably, whatever country you look at, very few commentators or scholars, let alone politicians, ever offer an analysis of capitalism and capitalist society as a moral order itself, as a moral system and moral economy with a moral grammar and all sorts of moral-economic milieus and cultures – across economic sectors, professions, locations. And, very few analysts would argue that what so many observers describe and interpret as a case of moral decline, crisis and bankruptcy, is actually a case or phenomenon of moral change in society, and what observers diagnose as a problem of immorality (or absence of morality) is actually a problem of morality, i.e. a problem of particular socially dominant and powerful moral cultures, moral milieus and moral economies in a capitalist society, of the type of moral views, justifications and priorities, of the type of moral actors that this particular social order – and capitalist polity and political economy – tends to bring about.

That said, to get a different analysis and debate concerning morals in today’s society, to move beyond the moral decline thesis and other conventional takes on the matter, three analytical insights or analytical starting points are crucial: capitalism is a moral order; the so-called bad/immoral actors are moral actors too; what is happening in front of our eyes can be treated analytically as cases of moral change, not moral decline or moral bankruptcy.

Capitalism is a moral order

One of the reasons for the popularity of the moral-decline/immorality argument is a particular understanding of morals that is apparently widespread in public discourse. According to this line of reasoning, morals are about being pro-social i.e. being good to other human beings; supporting others to flourish; being altruistic, caring, helpful, honest, selfless; foregoing one’s self-interest; not acting on the basis of self-interest; and so on. If one starts with such a notion of morals, then, of course, one might think that fraudsters or the super-rich are immoral or that our world is in moral decline – look at all the fraud, corruption, deception, violence, inequality, egotism, and narcissism in human affairs. And if you look through these analytical lenses at the history of humanity – i.e. at the actual practices of human beings and the explicit or implicit logics underpinning them – then you might indeed declare a large chunk of what humans do, of human history, as simply “immoral”, i.e. as immoral practice of immoral actors, as immoral decisions, immoral rulers, immoral government, immoral societies and so on.

Human history then in many (not all) aspects looks like a story of moral decline, moral crisis, moral bankruptcy, going on for centuries. Humans inflicting misery and suffering on others, destroying families, villages, cities and countries; using, exploiting and humiliating each other – and destroying the environment and extinguishing species – because of this decline or absence of morals. In other words, all these practices – and respective repercussions for the well-being of others affected by them – exist because of other factors than (i.e. everything but) our morals. They exist not because of the presence of (particular) morals, i.e. not because of the dominance of specific morals over others in society. If you are a morality analyst that adopts this conventional angle – morals are about being pro-social – you can ignore that big chunk of our human history, because all this immoral or amoral stuff has nothing to do with our morals, and our moral order and moral culture more broadly, and the political, economic, social and psychological factors and conditions that bring these about. To study human morals, it is sufficient then to focus on fair trade, altruism, charity, solidarity, and the like, i.e. the pro-social practices; that is where the music plays.

However, you might take a different, more open, flexible understanding of morals that allows you to, analytically speaking, see morals and moral culture de facto everywhere where humans relate and interact with each other and thus matters of their well-being – and related matters of (in)justice, (un-)fairness, (in-)decency, (in-)authenticity etc. – come into play, are affected, are at stake, or are negotiated. This take would allow researching, seeing, discussing and critiquing the moral underpinning of the entire spectrum of social practices from good” to “bad”. It would see (as some movies and TV series do) the prime sites of fraud, corruption, boardroom sell-outs, violence, humiliation, oppression, and exploitation as moral sites as well, as sites where moral codes, views and priorities operate too just as in the boardroom of the altruists (though arguably different sort of morals). How is that possible, you wonder, to find morals where they are supposedly absent, where people operate who have lost, as we heard, their moral compasses? It really depends on the definition and take on morals one applies.

But note: when I talk of moral order I don’t necessarily mean a “good” (just, humane, fair, socially progressive) order. Instead, moral order or moral culture here refers, amongst others, to an order that has a wide range of existent – dominant and non-dominant, complementing, conflicting and competing – moral norms, interpretations, views, beliefs, claims, demands, tensions, contradictions, discourses, imaginations, and so on regarding matters of good/bad, right/wrong, acceptable/unacceptable, legitimate/illegitimate, and so on in social relations and practices, including in the economy. And, in this sense, capitalism, and its different variants from colonial to neoliberal capitalism, is (and has always been) a moral order, culture, system too; with a wide range of moral milieus and moral economies, with a wide mix of notions of right/wrong, good/bad, acceptable/unacceptable, praiseworthy/blameworthy, with various patterns and distributions of benefit and harm, of flourishing and suffering.

Morals don’t necessarily mean or imply pro-social practice (i.e. a practice that fosters the flourishing of others, is honest etc.). As human history and research shows, there are operational, actually-existing, on-the-ground morals in particular social settings that prescribe or advance that it is acceptable, right, good, and necessary to defraud (or intimidate, threaten, evict, exploit, enslave, etc.) and thus harm another human being or social group, for particular reasons. Professionals who work or have worked in fraud-invested companies or organisations at times say – once they face a judge, investigator, or reporter, or blow the whistle – that fraud was the culture in the place, i.e. that it is/was the tacit or explicit moral culture in the organisation or team to deceive, cook the books, take short cuts, short-change vulnerable customers, and so on so as to meet revenue and profit targets, beat competitors, get bonuses, and keep the job (and thus make family/region/nation proud, send the kids to good schools, save for the future and old age, look after extended family, etc.).

Morals don’t necessarily mean or imply pro-social practice (i.e. a practice that fosters the flourishing of others, is honest etc.). As human history and research shows, there are operational, actually-existing, on-the-ground morals in particular social settings that prescribe or advance that it is acceptable, right, good, and necessary to defraud (or intimidate, threaten, evict, exploit, enslave, etc.) and thus harm another human being or social group, for particular reasons.

That said, let’s look at this alternative definition or take on morals in more detail then: Morals, including morals on the ground, as expressed in actual practice, can be understood as being in many ways about how we treat one another (for instance in the economy) and how we deal with matters of (in)justice, (un)fairnesss, (dis)honesty/authenticity, solidarity, etc. in this context. Morals are about what is regarded as acceptable or unacceptable, as right/wrong, good/bad, proper/improper, legitimate/illegitimate, or praiseworthy/blameworthy. As you can perhaps sense already, in society, in a local market place, in a factory or in an office there are all sorts of views about what constitutes acceptable practice, what or who is moral and immoral, and so on. And you can bet that the ruling classes (the powerful, the dominant, the oppressors and exploiters) in any place have a somewhat different view regarding what is right, good, proper and acceptable than the subaltern classes (the oppressed, exploited, humiliated, beaten-up people). In other words, what different social actors regard as proper or acceptable depends on the actor’s power, position in society and economy, experiences in and perspective on life and society, and so on. All this is far more open to people’s views and interpretations – hence diverse, variable and changing – than the many voices in public debates want us to believe.

One of the shortest and cleanest formulations of this aspect is one by Monika Keller: moral norms are “standards of interaction concerning others’ welfare”. In this phrasing of what morals are, the emphasis is on how we treat each other (and thus affect the lives of those involved), and what is regarded as normal or acceptable in this regard. Using this angle, the pro-social element (being altruistic, solidaristic etc.) is not a necessary part of the understanding of “morals” anymore. The morals in place could be: your welfare doesn’t matter (too much; or not as much as our welfare anyway), because of x (you are…; we are…; the situation…), hence, we (are justified to) treat you in a particular way (exploit, defraud, torture, kill etc.). Morals are thus also about what are acceptable levels of interpersonal or social harm in various settings, from the battlefields in business to those in wars. With this analytical starting point, one can now begin to search for, analyse, and understand (as well as critique) morals – and moral orders, cultures, climates and economies more broadly – that underpin – i.e. render (sufficiently) acceptable, proper, right, normal, necessary – exploitation, fraud, intimidation, humiliation, violence and trafficking in the economy, or the practice of leaving people who seek refuge/survival/a better life in Europe to drown in the Mediterranean. The analytical and political question then is: what are respective moral climates and moral codes, and what/who (re-) produces them, and why?

That said, from an analytical perspective we can now relate for instance fraud to morals, i.e. to standards of interaction concerning fellow human beings (and their lives and well-being, and related interests) in a specific time-place context. This “standard”, for at least some actors in their respective social settings, could be that under condition x, it is okay, necessary, proper, right, or good to defraud another human being, social group or class, because of z. Or, in case of corruption-infested road construction projects, the standard of those directly or indirectly advancing the deal could be something in the direction of: it’s okay to get some good money (for purpose x, y, z), at the expense of future victims of road accidents due to the resulting poor roads (because part of the money meant for building material etc. was siphoned off). And this shared notion, understanding, norm or “standard” – this action justification – is of course a social phenomenon, i.e. is socially constituted: (re)produced over time by something and someone (beyond the individual fraudster, or group of fraudsters), including global, national and local politics, political economy, religion, you name it. Remember, norms (including moral norms) are “socially constituted action justifications”.
So, the point is to recognise that whatever the social practice in the economy, there is some sort of moral grammar – a notion of how to treat others, what is regarded as acceptable/unacceptable – underpinning it. And these views, understandings and justifications – how to treat others in economic sites ranging from agricultural fields to markets, factories, bank branches, domestic homes and so on – do not fall from the sky but are a product of society, including its history, class and power structure, and its mode of production, as well as, for instance, the global political economy that impacts this society.

We have now arrived at an analytical point where we can shift gear: instead of mainly thinking about whose morals are right and wrong (from whatever political, philosophical standpoint), or what is moral/immoral, other questions to grapple with emerge: what are these specific morals in specific settings that bring about a certain social practice (that conventional analysis declares as immoral, inhumane etc.) and where do these morals come from, what/who (re)produces them, what has it to do with politics and capitalism, and so on. And: how do morals change over time, and why?

With this sort of take on morals, one can now understand better, and claim scientifically, that a particular set of morals (whether as an analyst one likes them or not) are actually present in the cases that much of public debate and commentators declare as immoral, amoral, or inhumane: from the cases of fraud, greed, exploitation, humiliation and intimidation in our high-stakes economies (where people relate and interact in order to make a living, survive, keep the job, ensure the bonus, escape poverty, get wealthy, strike riches etc.) to a capitalist economy, culture and society as a whole.

Of course, philosophers of war have for long run the line of argument that under specific conditions, for particular reasons (to protect/advance one’s country, king, god, etc.), it is good, necessary, legitimate, proper, or just to kill another human being, to kill (or imprison, torture etc.) others by the hundreds or thousands i.e. to harm others, to lower their welfare levels, to limit their flourishing. If war was one context and site where some scholars could construct an argument about the morals of harming others (aka, Just War) – which was of course not just a desk-based argument but somewhat reflected aspects of the historical situation on the ground where this war-is-moral was one of the existent morals at the time (arguably advanced, then as now, especially by rulers, and profiteers of war) – then the morals-of-harming-others analysis can be extended to other social sites, contexts and actor groups i.e. beyond war, soldiers, generals (or nowadays drone operators), enemies in the battlefield and so on.

Then there is an open analytical pathway, i.e. hope that the scholarly oddity – that we hardly study, let alone gather qualitative data on the morals that underpin the entire spectrum of human action (from so-called “good” to “bad” actions), across history – could be addressed, and perhaps amended over time. The oddity that there is so little theory and data on the moral underpinnings of a lot of social practices that humans in the millions and billions have very consistently, for a very long time, shown and opted for in their engagement with each other when matters of livelihood, poverty, survival, wealth, power, prestige, status, privilege, career and so on are on the line: these humans have deceived, exploited, intimidated, bought-off, bullied, defrauded, killed (with ever more effective weaponry), as well as conquered, colonised, enslaved, burned-the-place, and eradicated alternative, resisting, non-compliant cultures. Given the size, significance and importance of the phenomena of concern, it is odd that the (e.g. qualitative) data set about these aspects of the macro and micro moral climates, worlds and milieus of earning a living, of profit-making, of striking riches, of accumulation, of outcompeting others, you name it, is so astonishingly small.

Anyway, once one can hold this analytical point (regarding such a take on morals), one can engage with more unconventional analyses in order to learn something about the entire spectrum of moral orders and morals of human beings. For example, some scientists have explored moral systems and moral subjectivities related to “bad stuff” and “bad actors” outside the economy: cases here range from the mentioned soldiers and generals in war, to mass murders, terrorists, neighbours-as-killers in heightened social conflicts (in Rwanda, for example), Nazis and Nazi Germany, and so on. And some scholars have looked at the “moral worlds” of state institutions too, including police, courts, prison, social services, and mental health facilities, i.e. what some would regard as “bad” actors and practices. But this literature – especially the former that explores morals that prescribe significantly (and routinely) harming others – is generally not used in the scholarship, let alone in our public debates, about the moral order and dynamics in a capitalist economy and society.

Many positions in our public debates about morals in contemporary society are, in my view, so sterile, so stuck, so analytically flat, because they do not allow us to talk about, and thus understand, the social constitution, including the politics, of these sorts of morals: the morals of the small and large “wrong-doers”, such as the fraudulent (and/or “greedy”) bankers, insurers, industrialists, traders, speculators, tycoons, doctors, lawyers, or politicians, and the moral climate in the organisations and sectors they work and operate in. The debates, as outlined earlier, mostly say: immorality (or, out-of-hand greed, self-interest etc.) is the issue and problem at hand – and this can be cured by more morals, including an injecting of more morals into capitalist corporations and sectors. This closes off any engagement and debate with what is in my view the real issue: morals (of treating others, of making money etc., including deceiving, defrauding, taking advantage of, exploiting, and harming others) and moral order in a society shaped by capitalism.

Many positions in our public debates about morals in contemporary society are, in my view, so sterile, so stuck, so analytically flat, because they do not allow us to talk about, and thus understand, the social constitution, including the politics, of these sorts of morals: the morals of the small and large “wrong-doers”, such as the fraudulent (and/or “greedy”) bankers, insurers, industrialists, traders, doctors, lawyers, or politicians, and the moral climate in the organisations and sectors they work and operate in.

One more important point: morals – notions of what is acceptable, legitimate, normal, okay or necessary practice – are (i) political i.e. shaped by political and political-economic context, and thus matters of power and conflict, and (ii) co-constituted in a social process by a variety of social actors with different – and often competing and conflicting – moral views and priorities, and of course different and competing economic and political interests. There are always power structures and processes as well as social conflicts (regarding what is right/wrong, acceptable/unacceptable, legit/illegitimate) that underpin any dominant moral order, or specific aspects of that order. As an example: the absence of an effective minimum wage for decades now is a key characteristic of the moral order in neoliberal Uganda, backed, at the minimum, by a range of powerful actors and their moral views and priorities regarding right, good and acceptable and related political and economic interests.

Most public analysts that I read or listened to in our media over the years never really bothered to deeply analyse this collective nature of our actually existing morals in the economy. For instance, what are the societal processes and structures – and interplay of actors – that produce fraudulent bankers and fraud-invested banks? Crucially, economic activity takes place in an uneven landscape of power and resources in which social actors contest and negotiate over the boundaries of acceptable action. In other words, the moral order, the moral climate in the economy, or in specific sectors (say, maize production and trade in Kenya) is deeply shaped by politics and the political economy. What turns out to be the dominant practice, the dominant norm – i.e. the way things are done – is thus a “function” of power, or more specifically, of power structures and relations in a capitalist society. That basic insight makes the phenomenon and analysis of moral order so political; again, something most public commentators don’t recognise or make much of. So next time you are “shocked” about the practices and “immorality” of tycoons, bankers or managers, check out what their morals are and what they have to do with power.

To close the discussion of this point: according to theoretical and empirical scholarship, the current variant of capitalism, neoliberalism, is associated with or puts emphasis on morals that endorse matters, such as self-interest, individualism (with a focus on individual choice, gain and material success), personal enjoyment and achievement, self-actualisation, a focus on transactions and money, wealth accumulation, consumption, opportunism, cunning, low other-regard and empathy, low regard for the common good, and so on. Does some of this sound familiar when you look at your society, your town, your community? Of course, there is more to neoliberal moral order and neoliberal moral economy than I can outline here but these are some of the issues to start with.

Conclusion

Those who study and emphasise pro-social morals are not wrong, but they only tell a part of the story of the morals of human beings and human society. The economy (or polity for that matter) of your country is full of and overflowing with morals (not all “good” ones, I give you that, but morals still), with millions of actors with morals and moral compasses; even the notorious, hard core fraudster has a compass, a particularly skewed one perhaps but a compass it still is. Try to go through everyday reality and observe fellow human beings and their practices through this lens for a day or two. You might find it insightful.

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Dr. Jörg Wiegratz is a Lecturer in Political Economy of Global Development at the School of Politics and International Studies (POLIS), University of Leeds

Ideas

The Roaming of Colonial Phantoms and a History of Resource Plunder

Since colonization, Africa has provided its best raw materials for the global North. Can countries finally break this pattern?

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The struggle for control over Africa’s natural resources has raged since the colonization of the continent. It continues today as the forces that undermine Africa shift from the former colonizers to transnational corporations, and the ideology that underpins the global economic order morphs from blunt “flag” colonialism to the hegemony of neoliberalism. The effect is still the same: the underdevelopment of African economies and undermining of state capacity to meet peoples’ needs. The following unpacks the roots of this persisting problem and offers some lessons from the early post-independence era, when governments across Africa recognized these issues clearly and enacted revolutionary policies to confront them.

Prior to colonialism, the countries of Africa were economically, politically, and sociologically structured organically around their internal needs and demands, meeting internal material and social challenges. This is not to say these societies were devoid of internal contradictions, conflicts between them, or engagement with the wider world––indeed, trade routes certainly extended beyond the continent. But on the whole, the economic structures and relationships that developed were shaped by dynamics and demands within African societies.

This was forcefully upended with the onset of colonialism, as African economies were extroverted, destroyed, and fragmented. A new structure was put in place in which African economies were inserted in the global economic order as providers of raw materials for the development of other countries––basically for imperial Europe. This has relegated the vast majority of the continent to a political economy structure of primary commodity export dependence.

Within this structure, African countries became dependent on the export of a small basket of barely processed minerals, timber, and agricultural products (cocoa, coffee, bananas, etc.) as raw materials to feed the industries of the global North. In return, Africa became dependent for their consumption needs on the import of the goods manufactured in the North, most often made using African raw materials.

This enforced “unequal exchange” of unprocessed so-called “low-value” raw materials for “high-value” processed goods has become the basic mechanism of unequal economic relationships between Africa and the advanced industrial capitalist North, and the means of continued appropriation of the wealth created in Africa by the North. This undermines the accumulation of wealth in Africa and its reinvestment for renewing, upgrading, and expanding productive capabilities of the societies on the continent, and therefore of their ability to meet the changing needs of the people. On the contrary, African countries and opportunities for their people have become trapped in the vicissitudes of the global market for their commodities over which they have little control.

The colonial restructuring of Africa’s economies and their orientation to the external needs of European industrialization have devastating consequences for the internal dynamics of the economies and the societies, marked by two key features:

First, as products which were before used and processed for an internal economy came to serve merely as unprocessed raw materials for Europe, the internal usage of these products was subverted. Iron, which was processed into agricultural tools and other mechanical tools, was now mined only to be carted out in raw form. Agricultural products which before were processed in wide-ranging forms for food, clothes, shoes, were now only exported in their raw forms. As a result, the chain of processes, skills, and knowledge of these products and their uses through the domestic economy was broken. Instead of being maintained and upgraded over time, the capabilities and capacity have become degraded.

Second, the relationships that existed between different types of economic activity and “sectors” of the economy were fragmented. The chain of mining, smelting, and crafting iron to supply the technological need of agriculture, such as tools for farmers, was fragmented during the colonial economy. Agricultural supplies to iron crafters were also equally disrupted. This shifted the overall nature of African economies so that these sectors no longer met the needs of and reinforced one another, helped each other grow, or evolved according to African needs.

As different sectors of the economy were no longer “speaking to each other,” the range of internal exchanges became limited and the overall economy became more shallow and weaker. For instance, farmers who now only sold their products to an external (North) market didn’t necessarily have an internal market for their products so that they could also expand their production and opportunities for livelihood. This led to a common belief that African countries have small markets, erroneously attributed to small national populations, and that there is simply nothing that can be done about it. But contrast this with global North countries such as the Netherlands or Denmark: their populations are smaller than many African countries, but because of the coherence in their economies they are able to have a deeper domestic market which allows for expanded production. Their economies were not fragmented and reoriented in the same way.

Such internal fragmentation and consequent shallowness of the African economy is aggravated by the artificial borders inherited from colonialism. Before colonialism, what now constitutes the national border between Ghana and Togo was a common space of economic interaction among societies. By being forced to operate behind new artificial borders also limits the range of exchange and economic depth.

Historically, the mining sector has been the focal as well as entry point for the construction of the primary commodity export dependent political economy. From South Africa to Zimbabwe to Ghana, colonization was consolidated as a process of European companies, supported by their governments, exercising possession and ownership of Africa’s minerals and expropriating the locals. This was replicated as more minerals were discovered in addition to gold, diamond, coal, and oil, and every time a new mineral is demanded by the global North, this dynamic is asserted anew.

However, primary commodity export dependence is not simply a reduction to the specific mineral or agricultural or other natural resources involved. Rather, it is the totality of relationships and dynamics of the appropriation of wealth, the extroversion of the economic dynamics, and fragmentation of African economies. This allows us to see how these dynamics extend beyond natural resources to other economic sectors, such as tourism, telecommunications, and finance. In tourism, for example, it is widely known that the higher end of the value-chain is dominated by a handful of transnational operators, who then appropriate the overwhelming bulk of the wealth generated, leaving Africans little out of it.

In this neoliberal era, the problem of primary commodity export dependence has been ignored at best and celebrated at worst. Promoted first by neoliberal economists and North policy institutions, an insidious narrative has proliferated that African countries should rely on their “comparative advantage,” recommending that they make better and more efficient use of their export of primary commodities. The power of this narrative has ensured that the transformation of primary commodity export dependence and its attendant problems as outlined above has ceased to be a central aspect of African policy making in the neoliberal period.

Echoing the neoliberal suppression of policies aimed at dismantling primary commodity export dependence, at the onset of neoliberalism the World Bank told African governments to abandon any notion to use mineral resources to serve social priorities or developmental priorities, and give up their running and management of minerals and mineral wealth to transnational companies. As the Bank stated:

The recovery of the mining sector in Africa will require a shift in government objectives towards a primary objective of maximizing tax revenues from mining over the long term, rather than pursuing other economic or political objectives such as control of resources or enhancement of employment. This objective will be best achieved by a new policy emphasis whereby governments focus on industry regulation and promotion and private companies take the lead in operating, managing and owning mineral enterprises.

Paradoxically, even the revenue from the export of primary commodities has been undercut through World Bank-promoted programs of lowering corporate taxes and royalties, and giving many concessions and incentives to transnational mining companies in the name of attracting foreign investment.

Many of the best tools to fight against dependency, such as development planning and import-substitution-industrialization, have either been actively repressed by programs like structural adjustment, or pushed into the margins by the dominance of neoliberal thought and “free market” policymaking practices. These tools were widely deployed by early post-independence governments to assert sovereignty over natural resources, before they were truncated by neoliberalism, which has reasserted extractive colonial dynamics.

In the early post-independence period, after formal decolonization, there was wide recognition from governments, across Africa and across ideologies, that the key task for development was to confront primary commodity dependence and its binding economic constraints. Kwame Nkrumah recognized the problem clearly in stating: “Africa is a paradox which illustrates and highlights neo-colonialism. Her earth is rich, yet the products that come from above and below the soil continue to enrich, not Africans predominantly, but groups and individuals who operate to Africa’s impoverishment.”

This recognition across the continent and the global South reverberated into mainstream policy institutions established in this era, such as the UN Conference on Trade and Development Planning or the African Institute for Development Planning. A key lesson from this era is the critical importance of restoring this recognition of the structure of African economies as a starting point for policy and activism.

Early post-independence governments worked to ensure that their economies accumulated for themselves by taking over the commanding heights of the economy strategically. This required asserting sovereignty, and therefore control, over their natural resources. The key mechanism for this was vesting the mineral wealth of their economies in the state. In Ghana, for instance, laws were implemented to declare that the mineral wealth or the wealth under the soil is vested in the Republic of Ghana and, it is the president who has custodianship.

Crucially, this nationalization extended beyond minerals to the mines themselves, even those already constructed. Taxation and royalties were also implemented to fund development and social programs, and the transfer of skills and technology was carefully facilitated.

Early post-independence leaders also saw beyond the hard economics of natural resource sovereignty to recognize its social dimensions. For instance, Kwame Nkrumah bought British mineral mines, which the UK had wanted to close as they did not make any profit. It came as a surprise to many that Nkrumah would purchase unprofitable mines, but his goal was not simple profit, but to create jobs as a social act to expand employment opportunities for the people.

This understanding of the social dimensions of dependency is key for the Post-Colonialisms Today project, as feminist politics is a central pillar. The basic recognition of dependency and its social dimensions, and the need to assert African agency over resources, provides a stronger basis to ensure power and agency for African women. At the same time, post-independence leaders must be critiqued for their patriarchal policies and tendency to sideline African women after independence despite their prominent role in anti-colonial struggles.

The early post-independence era also offers lessons on confronting the fragmentation of African economies. Their approach centered on industrialization: building African capacity to meet Africa’s needs rather than rely on the North to import high-value products.The key challenge many governments faced was generating the resources to support industrialization. Profits from exports from producing primary commodities were leveraged to support building factories, establishing institutional mechanisms, and funding social policies. The widespread use of tools such as the taxation of transnational corporations, protective tariffs, and royalties also generated resources.

However, a deeper problem often remained even as important efforts towards transformation were funded and planned: restoring internal linkages to African economies and making different sectors “speak” to each other once again. This challenge is particularly difficult and one many post-independence governments did not tackle sufficiently. As Post-Colonialisms Today researcher Akua Britum details, post-independence governments had to explore methods for funding development beyond taxation, such as reinforcing social programs to meet workers’ needs without reliance on large cash incomes.

Some countries paid particular attention to restoring these linkages. Post-independence Botswana, for instance, enacted policies to ensure the processing of minerals mined in the country must take place, at least in part, domestically. They also insisted that the procurement of inputs for mining must be sourced in Botswana. This meant that while the economy was temporarily reliant on producing minerals, they could still build up their industrial capacity and promote structural transformation.

There are limitations and layers of complexity to approaches in the post-independence era though: as Post-Colonialisms Today researchers Kareem Megahed and Omar Ghannam point out, post-independence land distribution in Egypt from landowning elite to the peasant class was reversed as peasants only received flimsy usufruct ownership. Under Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia nationalized their mines but still remained deeply controlled by international mineral value chains, meaning that even though they owned the copper mines outright, transnational copper companies managed to undermine their capacity.

Both the strengths and limitations of early post-independence policies offer a wealth of lessons for today’s struggles for control over Africa’s resources. Critically, the clarity in that period around the importance of African state control over natural resources offers a path forward for contemporary efforts––it must be wrestled away from transnational corporations today just as it was wrestled from colonial forces. With basic policies such as nationalization being halted outright, as seen recently in Zambia, this task remains as urgent as ever.

This article is part of the “Reclaiming Africa’s Early Post-Independence History” series from Post-Colonialisms Today (PCT), a research and advocacy project of activist-intellectuals on the continent, working to recapture progressive thought and policies from early post-independence Africa to address contemporary development challenges. It is adapted from a recent webinar on natural resource sovereignty which you can listen to here. Sign up for updates on the project here.

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The Imperialist Soul of Social Democrats

Alfie Hancox writes how the apparently progressive post-war government in the UK which delivered unprecedented social security simultaneously undermined progressive political futures in the Global South – national liberation movements for land and resource sovereignty were thwarted. Hancox reveals Labour’s Aneurin Bevan’s role in deepening British imperialism.

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The Imperialist Soul of Social Democrats
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The working-class vision of socialism during this period may be blurred by the corruption of the ‘welfare state’—Kwame Nkrumah

As the popular national story goes, after the Second World War the British working class, seeking a just reward for their sacrifices, came together to win a fairer society by voting in the Labour government which built the welfare state. At the heart of this reputed ‘Spirit of ‘45’ was the architect of the National Health Service (NHS), Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan (1897–1960). Bevan has pride of place in the romanticised pantheon of the Labour left, and he is widely held to epitomise the party’s ‘socialist soul’. While often memorialised as a class warrior who once called for ‘the complete political extinction of the Tory Party’, behind ‘the myth of the miner prophet’ there lies a much more complex and contradictory picture of Bevan the statesman.

Britain’s post-war welfare settlement emerged against the backdrop of negotiated decolonisation – which was by no means a peaceful or straightforward process – and class compromise within the bounds of the capitalist nation-state was mediated by an enduring relationship with Empire. For Bevan, socialism was above all a ‘language of priorities’, and a critical overview of his parliamentary career reveals that colonised peoples in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean were often a subordinate element in his considerations, despite his long-standing friendship with Indian independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru.

It is also often forgotten that the welfare state was serviced by a migrant workforce extracted from Britain’s colonial ‘dependencies’, who were greeted upon arrival with racial-exclusionary impulses which were at times reinforced by Bevan himself. Similar ‘nativist’ tendencies remained present in the recent social democratic revival, demonstrating the need for an interrogation of the traditional Labour movement’s entanglement with imperialism.

The welfare state as neocolonial compact

Social welfare reforms delivered by the state have a contradictory class character. On the one hand, they constitute immediate gains for workers, but at the same time they assist in the reproduction of a value-creating labour force and represent concessions which may boost the legitimacy of capitalism. Welfare measures thus play a mediatory function in the push and pull of class struggle, the surge forward and the reactive containment. Interwar Britain was not wholly immunised from the social convulsions that shook continental Europe, and one wartime Conservative Member of Parliament warned in a famous speech: ‘If you do not give the people social reform, they are going to give you social revolution.’

The reforming Labour government of 1945–51 adopted a carrot and stick approach to class compromise, as the expansion of social housing and public education, and advent of free healthcare, was accompanied with a consolidation of workplace discipline. Bevan claimed to have received his political training in Marxism, but his true faith was in parliamentary democracy, and he believed that national industrial management laid the foundations for the construction of socialism ‘from above’. As a member of Clement Attlee’s Ministerial Emergencies Committee, the erstwhile trade union militant helped defeat a strike wave in the newly nationalised industries (a response to efficiency drives), using the Supply and Transport Organisation which two decades earlier helped beat back the General Strike of 1926.

Britain’s post-war welfare settlement emerged against the backdrop of negotiated decolonisation – which was by no means a peaceful or straightforward process – and class compromise within the bounds of the capitalist nation-state was mediated by an enduring relationship with Empire

While welfare concessions reflect the domestic class balance of forces, this is only one part of the story. As the British New Left historian John Saville identified in 1957, ‘the flexibility and manoeuvrability of the ruling class’ in charting a new social consensus had ‘been derived from the possession of the world’s largest Empire.’ It was this situation which enabled the Labour government to square the circle of maintaining (relative) class peace at home, without eliminating capitalist exploitation. The Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah, in his seminal 1965 study Neo-Colonialism, explained how the governing elite in Europe and North America found a means to deal with social demands at home after the war:

A deliberate attempt was made to divert colonial earnings from the wealthy class and use them instead generally to finance the ‘Welfare State’ … this was the method consciously adopted even by those working-class leaders who had before the war regarded the colonial peoples as their natural allies against their capitalist enemies at home.

Immediately following the war, Britain was facing a currency balances crisis that called Labour’s social plans into question. Bevan was not explicit about where the money for Attlee’s ‘New Jerusalem’ would come from, but his colleague Evelyn John Strachey, a former Marxist and Labour’s Minister of Food, was more forthright. During a parliamentary debate on a Colonial Development bill in 1948, the year of the NHS’s founding, Strachey concluded that ‘by hook or by crook, the development of primary production of all sorts, in the Colonial areas, Colonial territories and dependent areas in the Commonwealth … is, it is hardly too much to say, a life and death matter for the economy of this country.’

A deliberate attempt was made to divert colonial earnings from the wealthy class and use them instead generally to finance the ‘Welfare State’ … this was the method consciously adopted even by those working-class leaders who had before the war regarded the colonial peoples as their natural allies against their capitalist enemies at home.

The Attlee government essentially pursued a policy of issuing ‘IOUs’ to the colonies in return for the dollars earned from key exports such as rubber and tin from Malaya and cocoa from Ghana. Britain’s post-war reconstruction employed ‘a more systematic exploitation of colonies than at any previous time in imperial history’ – with the active support of the labour bureaucracy. The trade union leader, Ernest Bevin, declared: ‘I am not prepared to sacrifice the British empire [because] it would mean that the standard of life of our constituents would fall considerably.’ As the Trinidadian Marxist George Padmore put it, these labour lieutenants of imperialism wanted to turn the British working class into collective ‘shareholders of the Empire.’

British socialism’s civilising mission

Writing in the socialist newspaper Morning Starthe trade unionist and historian Graham Stevenson has attempted to defend the legacy of the welfare state, and detach it from Attlee’s imperialist adventures in Korea, Malaya and Iran, by arguing that ‘foreign policy was not in Nye Bevan’s remit’. It is well known, however, that Bevan had wanted the Colonial Office, and he was an influential voice in international affairs as the charismatic leader of the ‘soft left’ Tribune faction.

Though Bevan’s rejection of the pre-war colonial status quo did put him at variance with the Labour right, he nevertheless stressed he was ‘against any proposal for complete self-government’ until the colonised countries had endured sufficient tutelage under British parliamentary democracy. He believed in the civilising mission of the ‘Socialist Commonwealth’, and in 1948 declared that with the advent of the National Health Service Britain had achieved ‘the moral leadership of the world’. This paternalistic mindset, which smacked of the ‘white man’s burden’, was typical of the ethical socialist tradition in Labour, and distanced Bevan from the approach of the Comintern-affiliated League Against Imperialism and the Manchester Pan-African Congress, which both rejected the ‘Enlightened’ colonial doctrine of trusteeship.

Bevan never challenged the unequal economic relationship with the ‘dependencies’ which characterised Britain’s free trade imperialism, or what he preferred to call ‘the legitimate claims of world commerce’. The superior British capacity for ethicizing self-interest was shared by Bevan’s wife and fellow MP Jennie Lee, who said at Labour’s annual conference in 1956, without a hint of irony: ‘We have to work for the day when there will be a higher standard of living here, a higher standard of living in the colonies, and when as free and friendly nations they will want us to be their bankers.’

It was in his attitudes to the Middle East that Bevan’s more overtly imperialist leanings came to the fore. While opposing the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt, Bevan nonetheless expressed his outrage when President Gamel Abdel Nasser, who he racistly dubbed ‘Ali Baba’, nationalised the Suez Canal used to transport ‘our oil’. In justifying the Zionist colonial project that violently displaced 700,000 Palestinians, Bevan also argued in the Cabinet that ‘it was not necessarily true that we must avoid estranging Arab states. A friendly Jewish state would be a safer military base than any we should find in any Arab state’. He thought that Europeanised Jewish settlers could shake up the ‘semi-medieval institutions’ of the Arab world and prepare the grounds for socialist democracy, betraying a racialised view of civilisational development.

Bevan’s wavering stance on colonial liberation didn’t make him an outlier on the Labour left. For example, it was the former treasurer of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, Anthony Greenwood, who as Labour’s Colonial Secretary oversaw the ousting of British Guinea (Guyana)’s socialist Premier Cheddi Jagan. The Communist Party theoretician Rajani Palme Dutt identified this tried and test pattern of western social democracy, whereby ostensibly left-wing spokespersons are ‘given positions in the imperialist machine such as would not only gag them from expressing anti-imperialist sentiments but compel them to undertake the official duty of defending imperialist policies’.

As the British New Left historian John Saville identified in 1957, ‘the flexibility and manoeuvrability of the ruling class’ in charting a new social consensus had ‘been derived from the possession of the world’s largest Empire

Ultimately, the government that delivered unprecedented social security at home simultaneously thwarted progressive political futures in the Global South – national liberation movements for land and resource sovereignty, and regionalist aspirations like those fleetingly concretised in Nkrumah’s Union of African States. Labour’s inglorious colonial record came up one time when Bevan was lecturing the Conservatives on their imperial policy. When he mentioned the imprisonment of Nkrumah, Tory members opposite reminded him that the Attlee government he served in as Health Minister was responsible! Bevan brushed this off, replying: ‘Well, we shoved him in gaol. If honourable members will restrain their hilarity for a moment, I said that this is part of the classic story of these struggles.’ This glib response omitted the killing of unarmed protestors in Ghana, which took place months before the arrest of Nkrumah. The West African Students’ Union, of which Dr. Nkrumah was a former member, noted that US imperialism often appeared a lesser threat to colonial independence than ‘British Socialism’.

An additional pillar of Attlee’s foreign policy was the backing of Western Europe’s remilitarisation under the US Marshall Plan, enabling the British Communist Party to declare that Labour’s welfare state was really a ‘warfare state’. Before WWII, Bevan had alienated the Labour leadership by calling for a United Front with communists against the fascist threat in Europe. However, his sympathies had changed with the onset of the Cold War, as anti-colonial movements supported by the Soviet Union destabilised the hegemony of the western imperial powers; and the Bevanites became enmeshed in an ideological struggle pitting Occidental social democracy against Marxism-Leninism. Bevan’s 1951 ‘rebellion’ against Labour’s militarism was not a protest against the genocidal proportions of the Korean War – he had in fact fully supported the Anglo-American invasion of the Peninsula – but because bloated defence spending was now cutting into his health service.

Empire and the National Health

The welfare state also carried the imprint of Empire domestically. While healthcare is a basic social necessity, historically the state provisioning of medical services has been framed in terms of labour productivity and, from the late-nineteenth century, imperialist ideologies of racial hygiene. The Liberal economist William Beveridge’s 1942 blueprint for the welfare settlement recommended that ‘good stock should be allowed to breed while bad stock would be ameliorated through state intervention’, and similar eugenics-influenced sentiments permeated the Labour movement through the Fabian Society.

The nationalisation policies in 1945–51 were not in any meaningful sense socialist, being administered from above by the capitalist state. While Bevan described the National Health Service as ‘pure socialism’, it was compromised from the start by the continued existence of independent contractors and retention of private practice. Nevertheless, the post-war reforms were a step forward in terms of collective social security, and they boosted loyalty to the nation-state that administered them: welfare came ‘wrapped in the Union Jack’. The language of socialism was co-opted and degraded by what Tom Nairn termed Labour’s ‘nationalization of class’, and lost in the process of the patriotic social compact were the Marxist values of working class self-empowerment.

Notions of national belonging and entitlement in Britain became increasingly racialised after the war, and as Satnam Virdee reminds us, the apogee of British social democracy ‘was also the golden age of white supremacy [and] legal racist discrimination’. When migrant workers from the non-white ‘New Commonwealth’ were induced to bolster Britain’s public services and stagnating industries, they were met with a racist ‘colour bar’ in employment and housing, often reinforced by the white-dominated trade unions. In 1948, a year that saw violent attacks on Black residents in Liverpool, Bevan wrote that if ‘colonial subjects come here on their own responsibility’ they ‘cannot complain if it is not all plain sailing’.

An informal caste system was built into the NHS itself, with workers of colour restricted to the lowest-paid employment grades, regardless of their level of training. A Brixton-based Black feminist group described how the health service was like a colony in the way it was run: ‘in the head of the black nurse from the Caribbean is the echo of slavery; in the head of the Asian nurse is the servitude to Sahib and Memsahib.’ Britain was simultaneously draining skilled medical labour from developing countries, the effects of which were described in Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. The hyper-exploited labour of Black and Brown women was unacknowledged by Bevan, who ascribed the NHS’s success to ‘the vitality and genius of the British people’.

Healthcare was quickly propelled to the centre of popular anti-immigrant discourses, and only a year after the NHS’s inception Bevan succumbed to nativist pressures by assuring voters that he’d ‘arranged for immigration officers to turn back aliens who were coming to this country to secure benefits off the Health Service’. The image of non-British ‘foreigners’ exploiting the NHS was a trope later deployed to great effect by Conservative MP Enoch Powell in his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.

The welfare state also carried the imprint of Empire domestically. While healthcare is a basic social necessity, historically the state provisioning of medical services has been framed in terms of labour productivity and, from the late-nineteenth century, imperialist ideologies of racial hygiene.

Bevan’s capitulation reflected a failure to offer a principled counter to anti-immigration rhetoric. His celebrated essay ‘In Place of Fear: A Free Health Service’ was riven by a tension between the defence of ‘the collective principle’ in terms of socialist universalism, and a cost-benefit approach that stressed immigrants’ contributions to ‘national revenues’, and the expenses that would be incurred by passport checks at hospitals. When Bevan rebuked the Trades Union Congress’s call for immigration restrictions after the 1958 racist riot in Notting Hill, this was not on grounds of proletarian internationalism, but the potential damage it would do to the image of the Commonwealth as ‘the greatest constitutional experiment in the history of nations’.

The legacy of Empire persists in the health service today, as demonstrated by the revival of medical racism in the Coronavirus context. The NHS is also still dependent on the labour of precarious migrant workers, now extracted from developing countries such as the Philippines and Nigeria. The present struggle to defend healthcare services in Britain thus needs to be coupled with a historical awareness of the inherent dangers of seeking social reform within the confines of the imperialist nation-state. We should look beyond the elitist parliamentary socialism of Bevan, to the alternative politics of metropolitan anti-colonialists like Dutt and Padmore who sought not a class settlement within the parameters of capitalist competition, but the levelling of wages and conditions across national and racial boundaries. The experiences of the 1970s–1980s further demonstrated that rank-and-file struggles in the health sector, often instigated by low-paid Black ancillary workers, can galvanise the labour movement in a profoundly progressive manner. We can draw on these lessons, and reconnect with more radical, worker and patient-driven visions of socialist healthcare which target the social roots of ill-health intrinsic to capitalist exploitation.

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy Journal.

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Neocolonial Components of Algorithmic Capitalism in Africa Today

More than half a century after Kwame Nkrumah first articulated his magisterial critique of neocolonialism, Scott Timcke argues his critique remains just as relevant in the analysis of present-day developments of capitalism in Africa.

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Neocolonial Components of Algorithmic Capitalism in Africa Today
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The present convergence of finance and wireless technology has generated considerable enthusiasm in development circles about the promise of connectivity and FinTech to improve quality of life and create wealth on the African continent. The prototypical example that proponents point to is M-Pesa, a service run in Kenya by Safaricom. Launched in 2007, M-Pesa is a form of mobile banking which uses cellphone accounts as a financial service, permitting transfers and credit extension facilities. Initially funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), the service was commercialized through a joint venture by Vodafone and Safaricom.

By 2018 there were 30 million customers and 6 billion yearly transactions. By most assessments, the service is a success. This blogpost revisits that conclusion by asking how these kinds of FinTech technologies, in their current configuration, perpetuate neocolonial relations. Replacing direct military rule, neocolonial relations can be understood as the coordinated exploitation of developing countries by advanced capitalist ones through their clout in international political economy. If such a claim at first appears like a stretch because it appears conspiratorial, it is worth recalling how European imperial and colonial practices were naturalized and normalized for most of modernity.

While ‘the methods of neo-colonialists are subtle and varied’ let us begin with the obvious. Desires to ‘bring Africa online’ in the 2000s had to confront stark realities born from both (i) the legacies of colonial infrastructure planned primarily to support resource extraction or settler communities, and (ii) the IMF imposed structural adjustment policies that slashed state maintenance budgets and social, economic, and political infrastructure. So, when digital neo-modernization advocates maintained that without access to the internet people in the Global South would face a digital divide which would exacerbate poverty that stemmed from the already asymmetrical relations in the global system, they overlooked the very history that gave rise to those inequalities and deficiencies in the first place. But this rhetoric of digital inclusion tended to overlook the historical materialist method at the heart of discussions about digital inequalities. Indeed the ‘connectivity paradigm’ currently promoted by the World Economic Forum and Facebook focuses on building infrastructure to create markets and customers, which will bridge the digital divide. However, this conceptualization ignores the insights of the scholarship around uneven and combined development or the research on the spatial fix required by capitalism to stall social problems in metropoles. In other words, for all the discussion about connectivity when digital neo-modernizers deny the connections of history; they deny how some polities are rich because others are poor.

Take the case of rising household over-indebtedness mediated by micro-lending platforms like M-Pesa. Sociological studies of the working-class in Kenya, like that by Kevin Donovan and Emma Park, demonstrate how these digitally mediated financial markets create debt traps for this class. In effect their earnings are used to pay off debts and more loans are taken against future earnings to service existing debts. This digitally mediated indebtedness of the working class is facilitated by the combination of the increase in the volume of rents extracted in the modern financial economy as well as, crucially, analysis of user generated data to assess their creditworthiness. In short, social reproduction is articulated through the logic of this financial system in turn causing severe maldistribution. Through this employment of FinTech ‘poverty is understood as a new frontier for profit-making and accumulation.’ These are the kinds of processes that Dan Kotliar and Abeba Birhane have in mind when they write about data orientalism and the algorithmic colonization of Africa respectively.

While the excellent critical literature on FinTech in Africa is growing, too often this work is lost in the analytical (and political) noise of neo-modernization. As the connectivity paradigm illustrates, this ideology has a naïve comprehension of technology as a social form. By contrast, when approached from a critical perspective, FinTech is not confined to reconfiguring or extending new services. Rather it involves creating new markets, introducing new machinery to reduce labor costs and more generally aiding inter-sector competition. But most importantly, FinTech is concerned with enclosing and capturing the value in existing informal lending practices the African working class has already built themselves. For example, South African informal saving networks are estimated to hold US$3 billion. To put it another way, the purpose of FinTech is to readjust the balance of power between capital and labor. This means that the central issue is not about the outcomes this technology produces, nor is it even a matter of access. The fundamental question is about how control rights of this technology reside with a minority of shareholders and how their interests are adjacent to the interests of their firms’ customers. And through indebtedness, FinTech is effectively creating a ‘digital-creditor-debtor-divide’ in Africa.

There is considerable value in revisiting Kwame Nkrumah’s Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism to understand the neocolonial components of algorithmic capitalism (informational or cybernetic capitalism). Published in 1965 and written in the wake of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s 1960s Wind of Change speech in the Parliament of South Africa in which the Conservative British government signaled that is would no longer actively oppose independence movements, neocolonialism as Nkrumah described it, was a technique of indirect rule kept in place through a combination of economic arrangements and treaties, innovations in communication technology, and with the assistance of local sympathetic agents. In short, Nkrumah argued that European politicians like Macmillan and Charles de Gaulle offered disingenuous statements about the formal end of colonial rule, in part because newer mechanisms of colonial exploitation were possible to implement.

As a quick illustration of the durability of neocolonialism as a form of imperial rule, consider how, sixty years after formal political independence, the CFA franc has kept former French colonies under the influence of France monetary policy and structuring the economic relationship between France and these former colonies. Fanny Pigeaud and Ndongo Samba Sylla’s recently published Africa’s Last Colonial Currency concretely shows how 162 million people in 15 states have France mediate their monetary policy. When paired with the frequent military interventions that still take place, as Nkrumah accounted for, African populations continue to be subjects of scientific and financial experimentation by global powers.

Even reviewing Nkrumah’s sequence of chapters gives an early indication of the larger argumentation and stakes of his thesis. “Exercised through economic or monetary means” and “by a consortium of financial interests” imperialist finance and its currencies enable capitalists to establish corporations dedicated to extracting raw materials from concessions. By pressing labor—whose wages are artificially depressed through monopoly in economic sectors and the monopsony of labor (a market situation in which there is only one buyer) like in many African extractive economies—the profits of which are repatriated to metropoles through monetary zones and foreign banks. Indeed, at the time the book even caught the eye of the CIA in November of 1965. Nkrumah’s government would not last even four more months. It was deposed in February 1966 by a military coup. While it is difficult to adequately discuss Ghanaian politics in the 1960s in this venue (and more generally we must resist mono-causal explanations) it is nevertheless telling that Nkrumah’s removal set in motion a ‘diplomatic realignment’ that benefited the West.

Indeed, it is this kind of protracted material struggle between oppressor and oppressed that gave rise to the neocolonial critique. In the 1989 edition of The Black Jacobins, CLR James included an appendix ‘From Toussaint L’Ouverture to Fidel Castro’ in which he writes that about the intellectual encounter between the West Indians like Marcus Garvey and George Padmore and Africans like Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah. Calling this “one of the strangest stories in any period of history”, James described how encounters between sets of migrants in European cities led to the formation of groups like the International African Service Bureau, as Theo Williams has previously discussed on roape.net. Being in metropoles these Pan-Africanists had front row seats to witness the transition from ‘the old colonial system’  that had stood since the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference to ‘neocolonialism’ that emerged after World War Two. Through their ‘criticism of the weapon’—to employ a line from Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right—the Pan-Africans made their theory ‘a material force.’

While there are several tendencies in African studies, neocolonialism and neo-modernization represent two divergent conceptualizations of actions occurring on the continent. Despite protestations otherwise, neo-modernization is institutionally, philanthropically, and academically entrenched. It provides the initial frame of reference for design of empirical studies. And it is precisely “because they have already established a near monopoly of what is written on the subject” to enroll some of Walter Rodney’s remarks, that space is made for the neocolonial critique. This critique can, for example, show how local intermediaries facilitate neocolonial rule. Walter Rodney called these local agents’ allegiance to, or cynical cooperation with neocolonial powers, part of the ‘elementary conditions’ of neocolonial rule. For example, as it applies to algorithmic capitalism, the Kenyan government owns 35% of Safaricom. This means that the state gains revenues from the indebtedness of its citizens and the commodification of their data that Donovan and Park describe. But here arises a contradiction, because these revenues may be offset by costs spent to address the social consequences of indebtedness like homeless and mental illness. Indeed, depending upon their mandate, parts of the Kenyan bureaucracy are likely working at cross purposes from one another. This adds conflicting interests to any intra-governmental discussions on how (or if) to regulate lending apps like M-Pesa.

To recap, aside from the skews and parameters that arise from internal properties, it is true that there is nothing intrinsically exploitative about digital technology. That said, due to the global supremacy of the private property regime, the meaning and operation of these digital infrastructures is overdetermined by capitalist values. Accordingly, using neocolonialism in studies of digital sociology can help us focus less on the mechanisms of this or that platform, and more on how platforms are part of the basic forms of a society that shape social relations. In this vein, neocolonialism provides a different methodology—a counter-narrative that foregrounds the experience of the oppressed—that comes to vastly different conclusions to the neo-modernization perpetuated in the elite ‘fintech-philanthropy-development complex’.

This complex promotes platforms to advance economic liberalization and skirting existing regulations believing that such policy courses can nominally improve material conditions for Africans. However, in practice due to platform mediated financialization setting up conditions of perpetual insolvency, the lived-experience of the African working class is delimited by the interests of metropolitan capital, an arrangement that is reminiscent of the same kinds of subordination that Nkrumah described in the latter half of the 20th century. Much like in the 20th century this most recent iteration of neocolonialism will have long reverberations.

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy Journal.

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