“We die thirsting for knowledge, yet it is all around us.”— Saki Mafundikwa
In Crazy Normal, Trevor Noah makes a joke about South Africa that I think applies to all of Africa. In his sketch, Africa responds to the world moving in one direction with, “Okay…we’re going to go that way,” pointing in a different direction. The ‘rest-of-the-world’ is perplexed and Africa reassures, “No, don’t worry, we’ll find you there.”
What Trevor Noah illuminates is the ‘elsewhere-ness’ of Africa. Africa has impressive political, economic, social-ecological and cultural diversity – a diversity that is often un-understood for its defiance to being mappable by narrow Euro-American standards and statistics. So much so that Africa is today more often described in negatives than in anything else: lack, poverty, failed, corrupt and crisis being some of them.
But being elsewhere is not being nowhere. Studying Africa’s history is sense-making of this reality and truth, especially for Africans who have grown up in colonially inherited institutions, and are therefore at risk of reproducing an inherited scarcity mentality and inferiority complex. Engaging with precolonial and colonial African history is to remove inherited glasses, whose field of vision limits the scope of where and how ‘being’ is possible.
I discuss here three interlinked reasons for historical study of Africa: agency, possibility and imagination. Recognising Africans’ agency allows recognition of the worlds Africans create/d and opens up imagination for the continued creation of African worlds. At a time of ecological, political, and socio-economic crisis, this is not just about reclaiming identity, but also about regaining footing to create and determine the new worlds coming.
Africa’s history has been human history for the 200,000 years that homo sapiens have been in existence. This makes African history the longest history of all the world. Precolonial African history makes up about 99.8 per cent of African history for the earliest colonised African entities, Madeira and Canary Islands (1420 and 1496, respectively), Kongo (1472) and South Africa (1652). Indeed, the term ‘pre-colonial history’ is a shorthand that centres European colonialism as Africa’s defining feature, rather than the 99.8 per cent of history preceding it.
Locating Africans’ agency through history counters the erroneous idea propagated by Western scholars that Africans had no history prior to Europeans. Interrogating multiple archives, including documents, environments, materials, practices, language, oral history and more shows Africans in their full range of humanity, a beginning point from which one can ask questions about what happened in the past rather than making assumptions.
Reflecting on the history curriculum I learnt in high school, I noticed that there were gaps. Kenyan history was taught separately from ‘world history’, and in it, we learnt about some ethnic communities’ cultural institutions; the Indian Ocean Trade emphasising Arab and Portuguese influence; and colonial encounters. Following the discussion of the local emergence of the homo species, history quickly propelled to a ‘world’ stage, represented by various linearly progressive revolutions: Neolithic-Agrarian-Industrial. These were described in a manner as to make one aspire to the ladder of progress they represented, but not to see what they left out – the gender and class stratifications and colonialism and slavery, and their ripple effects on injustice in the world today.
The curriculum only returned to focus on the local when there were particular interactions with foreign entities, such as with Portuguese influence on the East African coast in the 15th century, and with the later European colonisation of the African continent in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Between species evolution in East Africa hundreds of thousands to millions of years ago, and present-day Kenya, the only significant events taught had foreigners as the main characters: Arabs, Portuguese, British. Indigenous history was limited to an ahistorical view of some ethnic groups’ customs.
Such gaps make significant processes, events, and local agents invisible in the history of what would later become Kenya, thus creating an incorrect view that only foreigners were and can be agents of Kenyan history. This negatively biases students’ view of their own agency in affecting history, making it appear as though Africans ‘froze’ while history was happening elsewhere, and only re-entered history upon contact with foreigners.
This experience speaks to a larger institutionalisation of silences and misrepresentations. The bias is evident in policies and popular media that undermine communities’ indigenous livelihood strategies and knowledge, depicting them as destructive and in need of reform in the interests of ‘development’ and ‘conservation’ agendas, both of which are largely driven by foreigners and benefit a minority elite while harming a majority. These policies and narratives do not engage with indigenous histories to show the many ways in which Africans have been agents in engaging with and changing their environments with a variety of impacts, and not simply as passive responders.
They also don’t engage with colonial history that would show how Africans’ agency was hidden, diminished or skewed, and thus entrench denigrating and dangerous received wisdoms. For example, in learning about the Perkerra Irrigation Scheme in school, no mention was made of it being inspired by an indigenous irrigation system by ilChamus peoples, nor was there a discussion of the reasons why ilChamus practised irrigation, how they managed to produce significant surpluses, and how and why they turned to other livelihood strategies, and with what effects. There was also no mention of the subsequent exclusion of ilChamus peoples from the ‘modern’ irrigation scheme when it was started.
Breaking the silence around indigenous Africans’ agency through integrating precolonial history into institutions, such as schools and the media, in ways that do not fall into either essentialising or negative stereotyping would counter damaging racist bias that Africa was a blank slate awaiting discovery and awakening by Europeans, or a ‘wrong’ place awaiting correction by the same.
In 2017, I studied permaculture, an environmental design-with-nature system articulated by the Australian Bill Mollison. The techniques and system, for which I was paying $400 to learn, I later found out, are part of a repertoire of indigenous agro-ecological techniques and social ethics developed and practised in various parts of Africa and elsewhere. These origins were not acknowledged in the teaching, and fellow students, myself included, were enthused by the ‘new’ knowledge we were gaining.
In my exploration of ecological, economic and social restorative technologies, I encounter a number of these systems articulated by Westerners drawing on often unacknowledged and/or unrematriated indigenous knowledges and practices, including those from this continent. Permaculture, as already mentioned, holistic rangeland management, a reformulation of pastoralists’ ways of working with livestock, family constellation therapy drawn from Zulu family healing techniques, bodywork techniques in process-oriented psychology, some drawn from unnamed Giriama healers, and restorative justice circles celebrate their often white, often male ‘inventors’ and have courses you can pay good sums for to learn these technologies.
Colonisation infused with ‘scientific racism’ placed Africans at the bottom of a ladder of humanity. It was unthinkable that Africans accomplished anything remarkable or constructive. This ladder perpetuated the myth that Africans don’t know and must be taught. Our knowledge and technologies are repackaged elsewhere and sold back to us at a premium, and we don’t recognise them. A permaculture practitioner I met in Tanzania, for example, confidently told a room of American undergraduates that there were no sustainable indigenous African food growing techniques except in her Chagga community. As Saki Mafundikwa comments, “We die thirsting for knowledge, yet it is all around us.”
By bringing agency and possibilities together, studying African history can reclaim our humanity and world-making over 200,000 years of living. Tracing past creativity, innovation, technologies, and their lifeworlds re-presents innumerable possibilities of being and doing. Importantly, it helps Africans step outside of disadvantageous psychological, economic and technological dependency.
Histories of indigenous food provision illuminate the variety of technological skills, and knowledge-based practices in use in different parts of Africa, how these developed, and where they were curtailed by colonial officers, thus hampering their efficacy. Looking only at agriculture, indigenous irrigation technologies, such as dams and irrigation canals, were/are in use in Marakwet, Pokot, Baringo, and at Engaruka in East Africa for many decades if not centuries.
Other forms of water management, including mulching, cover cropping, pit planting, terracing and weather manipulation, were in use across the continent, as were fertility technologies to manipulate soil chemistry, such as burning and tilling in of weeds and crop residues, creating areas of high fertility dark earths, using animal manure, and managing insects such as termites. Practices such as mobility, fallowing, and cultivating or encouraging a diverse range of plants and plant varieties harnessed land and climate variability. The latter also selected plants for taste, maturation, ritual suitability, colour, drought and pest tolerance, effectively making indigenous African farmers crop scientists par excellence.
Social-ecological innovations, like building partnerships across livelihoods to harness symbiotic benefits, were also food provision innovations. There are several examples of pastoralist-cultivators-forager partnerships, such as between the Maa-Agikuyu and Mukogodo-Maa peoples in East Africa, and Bambara-Fula and Bambara-Maure peoples in West Africa. Interrogating the development, context, and practice of these and more food provision technologies would illuminate useful knowledge for continued innovation. Histories of food provision would also include pastoralism and foraging, which are marginalised in popular and political discourse, perhaps because they are less easily dominated by capitalist commercialisation for export and state benefit.
Archaeological research indicates the depth of indigenous sciences knowledge in various parts of Africa. The bronze sculptures of Igbo-Ukwu that were created using the lost-wax technique and dating prior to 1000 AC (after Christ) are unique for their age, fine pattern detailing and technological skill. Similarly, Africans independently developed a wide range of iron smelting techniques (more diverse than anywhere else in the world) – including some unique in the temperatures they achieved – invented in central Africa at least 4,000 years ago. That indigenous African technologies, such as pyramid building in Kemet and Nubia, are yet to be deciphered, are a testament to their depth of skill and innovation. The presence of such sciences counters the received wisdoms that there is nothing to show for Africa in terms of indigenous innovation.
Remarkable rock art is found in many African countries. These art forms were created using a variety of techniques and intents. Rock art also informs historical understanding of human movements. Saharan rock art from a wetter period than the present indicates the likelihood that Kemet (Ancient Egypt) was formed from people migrating from a drying Sahara. Rock paintings and a 100,000-year-old paint laboratory in southern Africa demonstrate the manipulation of various materials (including ochre, blood, egg yolk, shells, bone marrow and fats) to create different coloured paints, and the development of varied painting techniques, including fine line brush paintings, finger, and hand paintings, and the use of art to depict and enact complex cosmologies and healing arts.
The diverse ways in which Africans made worlds are openings for diverse ways of being and for understanding Africa’s technological legacy. They are also a basis for the imagination of alternatives to the present moment.
Africa’s colonisation ushered in a period of global homogeneity that solidified a global political (the nation-state) and economic (capitalism) template that has so dominated the global imaginary of the following 150 years that it seems nearly impossible to imagine alternatives to it. This has come with grave consequences, including the climate crisis we in Africa are increasingly going to bear the brunt of. Pre-independence African history is a key to breaking the totalising nature and lure of the present moment.
Studying pre-colonial and colonial history enables understanding of how the world’s narrative came to occlude Africa’s abilities and possibilities, and how this continues into the present. Looking at this history by focusing on agency and possibilities makes one realise that Africa’s pasts are not ‘less than’ but a resource to be built on.
Formal schooling, which focuses mainly on Africa’s post-independence history, can lead to feelings of impotence and resignation that make one believe that that is how things are in the present are how they will forever be. Engaging the 99.8 per of African history to know that things can be different – that as an African one is an agent, and that there is no dearth of examples of knowledge and skills from Africa – allows one to imagine something else in the present, and to “dare to invent the future”, as Thomas Sankara challenged.
Breaking the lure of the present moment involves countering the notion of African timelessness through attending to change in our pasts. For example, though we are often presented with African traditions as though they have been static, we know that practices are fashioned to respond to the goals of a group of people, and that both goals and practices can change. For example, many Bantu communities moving into eastern and southern parts of the continent did not practise circumcision as part of their rites of passage for young people coming of age. Circumcision was added onto pre-existing practices that varyingly included seclusion, adorning the body with clay and other emollients, ancestral and nature rituals, instruction from family, clan or community elders on new life responsibilities in adulthood, and the celebration of successful passage. Circumcision was added to pre-existing rites often as a result of mixing with non-Bantu communities who practised this, possibly due to, or to enable, intermarriages. Using analysis of divergences in words and ideas, historians show how even this inclusion waxed and waned with increasing and decreasing contacts with other communities.
Indigenous history provides an arena to destabilise European Enlightenment divides such as nature-culture, mind-body disciplines, and anthropocentric notions of agency, all colonial inheritances that continue to define the present and contribute to the ongoing crisis. The practice of acknowledging those who came first, including land and forest spirits, is common in various African communities. When Anlo-Ewe peoples migrated into lagoon areas in West Africa, they incorporated ritual knowledge and the sea deities of neighbouring peoples, thus enabling them to develop a maritime fishing tradition, which was previously non-existent amongst them.
African symbologies, syllabaries and alphabets, such as Adinkra, Nsibidi, Chokwe veves, and Ge’ez scripts, illuminate communities’ values as well as the design and communication principles used to communicate them. These carriers of peoples’ aesthetic thought and principles can be used today both as reminders and harbingers of alternative futures, as Saki Mafundikwa, a graphic designer, and Nnedi Okorafor, a science fiction author, are doing.
Breaking the lure of the present moment also entails complexifying grand narratives through attending to histories of the particular and of change. For example, Sundiata Keita is famed as a great ruler of the Mali Empire. A charter he pronounced upon ascending the throne is celebrated as one of the first ‘constitutions’ in the world, contemporaneous with the Magna Carta, and lauded for its humaneness because it instructed that slaves should get one day off a week and own the property of their bags. Sundiata, in fact, reinstated slavery, which the guild of hunters had abolished a few years earlier in a charter they delivered. This history points to the fact that life, and therefore history, is processual and encourages a shift from linear progression and teleological thinking.
Indigenous African polities demonstrate heterarchy as a form of societal organisation in which power is diffuse and vested in multiple spheres and people, none more important than the other, thus entrenching checks and balances. One person could belong to their family or clan lineage, an age-set group, a secret society, a knowledge or crafts guild, a deliberative body (e.g. council of elders), and a spiritual practice (e.g. a spirit medium or devotee) at the same time. Each of these institutions performed activities necessary for the health of the whole community rather than for the importance of single individuals, be they chiefs or kings. Amongst the Nanumba and others, chiefs were farmers like any other community member. Equally, deposition of leaders when they did not meet the reciprocal obligation to work for the health of the community was practised, as were migrations to start new communities in new areas.
Among the Alur, the power of the central polity increased rather than decreased as groups separated and left to start their own political formations. The hunter’s charter and ‘egalitarian/stateless societies’ like the Igbo of West Africa also provide examples of alternative political models. These different ways of organising the political can open up a discursive and praxis imaginary of the political that goes beyond the nation-state.
In many indigenous African societies, people, relationships and the knowledge embedded in them were more valued than material goods. The global capital system, however, has steadily devalued people, especially knowledgeable Africans who are placed at the bottom of a hierarchy, even while the system profits off the knowledge they hold in agriculture, medicine, knowledge production, and various other domains. In Equatorial Africa how much knowledge one had, understood as skilful generative action (not information) was highly valued. At present, however, extractive control over people, and the Earth, not the ownership of knowledge (productive skilful action) is what is more highly valued. A reframing of wealth using indigenous concepts of knowledge and skill might change how we organise our economies and societies, re-appreciating both the time and knowledge inherent in agroecological food production, craftwork, and forms of artistic production. It can also provide pathways out of global capitalism.
Statistics about Africa’s rapid urbanisation abound. Valuing and integrating indigenous forms of urbanism might hold answers to the challenges this presents. For example, urban agriculture was an integral part of several indigenous urban centres. Encouraging and supporting urban agriculture in African cities today might allow us to create cities that feed themselves. The floating city of Makoko in Lagos lagoon was settled 200 years ago. Today the ingenuity of design, construction, and socio-economic life in Makoko is under threat of demolition for ‘development’. A historical understanding of living in Makoko, coupled with an appreciation of the layers of knowledge and skill represented might allow imagination of indigenous urban development. Indeed, the residents of Makoko have been innovating it for 200 years already.
Tracing African pasts through the interlinked lenses of agency, possibility and imagination allows us to counter-narratives of Africa as a blank slate, to challenge the privileging of whiteness and Europeanness, and to debunk myths about Africans as people who are destructive or unchanging. It allows us to illuminate diverse possibilities of human living to build on against the hegemony of a present moment that unsees and devalues us. For Africans, studying African history is an opportunity to trace the stream of African living for the last 200, 000 years.
Unseeing was a colonial predicament. There is no reason why we must continue with these glasses on.
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The Continued Relevance of Pan-African Marxism in a Time of Crisis
Do we look back to the Pan-African Marxism of the moment of flag independence to address contemporary challenges to Pan-African liberation or do we need new ideas and new guiding insights in order to truly usher in the liberation that independence promised but has yet to deliver?
To celebrate African Liberation Day, I encourage us to revisit Pan-African Marxist theory to assess what it might offer us in the continued struggle for liberation. During the 20th century, as national independence movements were gaining ground on the African continent, anti-colonial intellectuals devised new ways of thinking about liberation in a Pan-African context. This theoretical tradition, sometimes called Black Marxism, Pan-African Marxism, or Anti-colonial Marxism, was developed to aid national independence movements in their more revolutionary aims through an analysis of the political economy and culture of Africa in the world system. Through an analysis of the history and political economy of the African continent, Pan-African Marxists rethought European narratives of Africa’s integration into the capitalist world system through European imperialism, revealing economic development to be a relative concept that hinged on the exploitation of Africa by Europe through colonialism and neo-imperialism.
Not only did Pan-African Marxist theorists describe the long history of African political economy as a way to build strategy for national independence movements in their fight against colonialism, but they also took up the question of how true liberation might be realised across the continent. One of the main tensions among Pan-African Marxists in thinking through the question of liberation after the end of formal colonial rule was between those who saw a return to pre-colonial cultural formations as a way toward liberation versus those who contended that the way forward was to embrace “the new”.
For Marxist thinkers such as Chiekh Anta Diop and Walter Rodney, recovering pre-colonial histories and culture was an important assertion of national identity and a way to overcome the colonial mentality that lingered after flag independence. Walter Rodney wrote that, “to know ourselves we must learn about African history and culture. This is one of the most important steps towards” liberation. For those who subscribed to this position, the process of recovering history and culture was, ultimately, the way to recover one’s humanity.
Other Pan-African Marxists, however, such as Aquino de Bragança, Thomas Sankara, Amilcar Cabral and Frantz Fanon, for example, emphasised “newness” as the means to liberation. Fanon believed that recovering pre-colonial culture was not an effective strategy for liberation. In the face of systematic structures that assert the inferiority of the culture of the colonised, he contended, culture “solidifies into a formalism which is more and more stereotyped”. Instead of engaging in critique and evolution, the postcolonial intellectual who looks to the past for inspiration has a tendency to reify older cultural forms by combatting the colonial project to devalue culture on the terms delineated by the colonizer. In such reification, Fanon asserted, “there is no real creativity and no overflowing life”. In other words, in looking to the pre-colonial past for inspiration, the African intellectual renders themselves incapable of creating the new movements that will best critique colonialism and its remnants.
Fanon tells us that recovering a pre-colonial past is not enough to counteract the harm done by colonialism. Instead, he contends that we must be forward-looking and envision a future in which liberation triumphs over colonialism and its remnants. This vision for a new future must also look to other places within the Global South for affinity in grappling with similar problems such as “trade union questions” or economic issues stemming from a common colonial legacy.
Admittedly, the two different positions in this debate aren’t really that distinct. Both sides ultimately agree that the goal of recovering the history and pre-colonial culture of Africa is secondary to the revolutionary movement against capitalism and neo-imperialism. What is distinct, in these two positions, however is the means to this end of true liberation for Africa. And the key question around which this debate was centred remains: Is the way forward to liberation through recovering the past or is it found in creating completely new ways of thinking about the current situation?
Let us recall Marx’s famous quote from the 18th Brumaire; Marx writes that history happens, first as tragedy then as farce… The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things, in creating something that had never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them their names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.
Is the way forward to liberation through recovering the past or is it found in creating completely new ways of thinking about the current situation?
Here, Marx gestures to repetition through the cyclical nature of time, but each repetition, for Marx, is not a return, but instead a mimicry of previous moments of history. In attempts to create “the new” there is always necessarily a borrowing from and a simulation of the past. Jacques Derrida termed this genre of repetition hauntology. In this framework, Marxism is then a ghost whose expected return repeats itself again and again. That recurring return is not solely a reappearance, but also, each time, a new beginning.
To question what Pan-African Marxism still is, we need to understand how time operates within this concept of hauntology. Hauntology implies two temporalities: that which is no longer, but remains, and that which has not yet happened, but the idea of it exists. Marx describes a cyclical return where each new phase of the cycle is borrowed from the previous phase but is different from its previous incarnation because of our desire for newness coupled with an inability to conjure it without the old surviving within the new. Derrida delineates an expected return that never happens, but nonetheless clears the way for newness because there cannot be a return, only a new beginning in the guise of the old. But Mark Fisher sees hauntology as “a failed mourning. It is about refusing to give up the ghost or… the refusal of the ghost to give up on us”. Are we failing in our endeavour for a completely new politics, as Marx claims, or creating the new through the ghosts of the old as Derrida posits, or mourning the new futures we expected that never materialised as Mark Fisher suggests?
The key question is, then, what is the way forward? Do we look back to the Pan-African Marxism of the moment of flag independence to address contemporary challenges to Pan-African liberation or do we need new ideas and new guiding insights in order to truly usher in the liberation that independence promised but has yet to deliver? We need to revisit, assess, and debate this critical question on whether Pan-African Marxism can provide a way forward to liberation. As a launching point, I offer two examples through which we can start to think through how Pan-African Marxism might still be relevant in helping us develop solutions to pressing contemporary problems.
Frantz Fanon famously wrote about inequities in global health stemming from the colonial legacy in his essay, “Medicine and Colonialism”. This essay demonstrates, through several historical examples from colonial Algeria, how the relationship between African people and colonial healthcare is structured by the colonial relationship. Fanon points to “the inhuman methods” of colonialism that mediate African people’s experiences with the latest medical technology whether it’s through medical experiments conducted on colonial subjects, the historical legacy of French doctors aiding the colonial police and military in torturing FLN members, or through the denial of treatment to Africans in need. Based on what Fanon witnessed as a health care professional in Algeria, he concluded that one of the many key objectives for liberation and decolonisation involves disrupting Europe as an intermediary in bringing medical technology to Africa.
We see today, in the case of COVID-19, that Fanon’s assessment of the healthcare system in colonial Algeria is markedly pertinent. Access to COVID-19 vaccines is mostly mediated through the United States and Europe. This situation in which African countries have to go through the former colonial power for access to vaccines is something that Fanon’s essay predicted. Preventing such a situation in which Africa needed to go through Europe to access the latest medical technologies is something that, furthermore, Fanon identified in the late 1950s as a key problem that African liberation movements should take up in order to ensure Africans’ access to just and plentiful healthcare. While he may not have predicted the specificities of vaccine hoarding by the Global North along with patent laws that restrict the ability of Global South countries to produce their own affordable vaccines, Fanon did warn us in the 1950s of the pressing need to be able to access the latest medical technology without having to rely on Europe as a mediator.
One of the many key objectives for liberation and decolonisation involves disrupting Europe as an intermediary in bringing medical technology to Africa.
But the failure of national liberation to be realised today is not for lack of trying. In the contemporary period we have witnessed many movements for liberation in North Africa, Sudan, and elsewhere, along with vibrant student movements across Sub-Saharan Africa and a variety of other contemporary movements aimed at realising liberation of various forms. But contemporary movements, particularly political movements aimed at regime change, have been limited by authoritarian rule and particularly by religious nationalist forces that have hijacked the more revolutionary aims of contemporary movements.
Here too, however, Fanon provides a way forward. In his essay “On Violence” (1961), he posed a very critical question for independence movements, that is, to paraphrase, what was the point of fighting for independence if not much had changed in the period following? Fanon, of course, was talking about the class structure that remained in place after flag independence and posed this question as a critique that while formal political rule by Europe may have ended, independence movements did little to combat capitalism and imperialism. In several of my books and essays, I’ve contended that we need to push this important question a bit further and also need to consider how the revolutionary promise of national independence soon eroded into the proliferation of dictatorships across the continent. Local-born leaders oppressed the very people who had just won their independence in a manner similar to that of the colonial rulers they fought for freedom from. And today we see a resurgence in movements looking to now realise the quality of freedom independence promised but in so many instances has failed to deliver. Yet, in the current moment, this political freedom still remains an open question as far-right forces seek to limit political freedom but movements for liberation wage on.
There are infinite possibilities for the future and the goal of political action is to begin with a workable possible and then transform that possible into the future real. In this endeavour to imagine possible futures, theory is crucial. Futures are not “waiting for us ready-made like heavenly bodies… They must be invented, fabricated, or rather created”. Through Pan-African Marxist theory, we can begin to imagine new possibilities outside of historical capitalism and imperialism. Capitalist imperialism may seem insurmountable but that is only because of our inability to imagine. We can’t imagine liberation because we are unable to conceive of new possibilities.
Samir Amin’s Radical Political Economy
Samir Amin’s legacy provides a lighthouse for those who not only want to understand the world, but fundamentally change it, by combining rigorous scholarship with political commitment and action.
In moments of great uncertainty there is refuge to be found in the work of intellectual titans like Samir Amin. After the sad news of his passing in August 2018 in Paris, aged 86, we began thinking about how best to explore the enduring relevance of his analysis and concepts to make sense of contemporary crises.
The pertinence and analytical heft of Amin’s work is particularly important in the contemporary period marked by the interconnected crises related to COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, the climate emergency, and looming debt crises across the periphery. In the years ahead, confronting these multiple and intertwined crises will require the kind of commitment to combining research with political engagement that Amin demonstrated.
Amin’s ability to weave together thorough analysis of the polarising effects of capitalism with concrete political projects for an international radical left makes his work particularly relevant in our quest to understand capitalism, its particularities across the world, and oppositions to it. There is a younger generation of scholars, of which we are a part, that is particularly hungry for Amin’s perspectives, one that came of age in a time where the universities have been thoroughly marketised and moulded by neoliberal processes, and where intellectual production and debates are not necessarily embedded within social struggles.
What is Samir Amin’s approach to Political Economy?
Amin pushes us to think creatively in structural, temporal, and political ways that often defy disciplinary boundaries. The combination of truly global perspectives with analysis that is finely contextualised within particular geographical locations, and mindful of the complex nature of political conflicts and different class interests, makes his contributions to dependency theory especially rich.
While Amin developed many concrete concepts and shed light on many concrete issues, it is his approach to political economy that is the most inspiring for us and that we believe holds the most promise for driving radical political economy in his spirit forward. His approach entails thinking structurally, thinking temporally, thinking politically, and thinking creatively.
At a time when much of social science has come to be centred around either methodological individualism or methodological nationalism – the notions that individuals and nation states, respectfully, are the most relevant units of analysis – Amin’s attention to global structures, that underpin an international system of exploitation, is a much needed contrast. In Amin’s work, both the structure of the global economy and the structural prejudice of eurocentrism, are key.
Taking the structure of the global economy as a starting point led Amin to explore concepts such as core-periphery relations, imperialism and unequal exchange. He recognised that the global capitalist system is polarising and that the polarisation between the centre and the periphery was a key part of this. Note that Amin went beyond thinking only in core-periphery terms – which dependency theorists are often critiqued for – as he identified a range of classes of importance across both the core and periphery. It is also worth noting that thinking structurally does not mean thinking deterministically. While Amin was ‘capable of a very high level of abstraction’, as Ghosh has written, and some could see his characterisations as sweeping, he was always ready to adapt his categories and understandings as the world changed, and his understanding of how outcomes were shaped was first and foremost dialectical – which led him to critique World Systems Theory for being static and for prioritising global relations over domestic.
In this issue, Fathima Musthaq’s and Ndongo Samba Sylla’s articles apply a structural way of thinking about financial and monetary dependencies. Mushtaq explores how Amin’s work on imperialist rent can be extended to understand financial dependencies and hierarchies in a financialised global economy, while Sylla explores Amin’s approach to the monetary mechanisms and functioning of the banking sectors in peripheral countries which contribute to keeping them underdeveloped, with a specific focus on the CFA Zone. Similarly, Macheda and Nadalini’s investigation into how China was able to integrate itself into the global economy without abandoning its strategy of delinking from imperialism opens up space for further research and theorising about how different strategies for national development can be anti-imperialist.
What’s more, identifying eurocentrism as a structural prejudice allowed Amin to show how social theories disguise the imperialist and racist foundations of the capitalist system. This allows us to see that the Enlightenment values and promise of rationality and universality are actually heavily biased and founded on a colonial and racist project. This is key for understanding why societies cannot develop by imitating the West. Generally, eurocentrism has been taken as an important starting point for scholars who build further on Amin as well as critics. Ndlovu-Gatsheni in the Special Issue, for example, revisits Marxism and decolonisation via the legacy of Amin to re-evaluate Amin’s critical Marxist political economy in the context of epistemology, to unmask racism and the trans-historic expansion of colonial domination.
Thinking temporally was key for Samir Amin’s understanding of the world, and more specifically, thinking in longue durée terms. This is an important entry point for exploring contemporary problems, because it opens the door for analysing how imperialist relations have historically and contemporarily shaped the possibilities for development in the Global South. In this issue, Jayati Ghosh lays out how Amin’s approach to imperialism remains relevant across key axes such as technology, finance, and the search for and effort to control new markets, despite changing global configurations such as the ‘rise’ of the BRICS.
Francisco Pérez’s and Ndongo Samba Sylla’s articles are also particularly good illustrations of how a historical perspective is important for understanding contemporary problems. For example, Pérez’s explanation of the East Asian ‘miracle’ starts from how those countries developed historically and geopolitically. Pérez also demonstrates how China’s contemporary delinking must be understood by starting from their attempt at socialist delinking in 1949, and the complex battle between statist, capitalist, and socialist forces that played out since then. Similarly, Sylla’s article shows how the colonial origins of the CFA is key for understanding how it operates today. Tracing the history of the CFA also makes it painfully clear why defending the monetary status quo for Amin amounts to defending the perpetuation of the old colonial order.
In line with Marx’s famous phrase, interpreting the world is important, but ‘the point, however, is to change it,’ Amin never shied away from admitting that his work was driven by political ambitions to change the world. Indeed, Amin was a socialist from an early age and was concerned with responding to and building emancipatory social movements throughout his life.This was reflected in his life-long organising efforts and activism, across a wide range of platforms and organisations, including the establishment of the Third World Forum in Dakar, where he helped set practical and intellectual agendas for socialist transformation on the continent, the establishment of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), which became an important vehicle of radical social science research and analysis in Africa, and his active engagement in the World Social Forum.
We find such explicit acknowledgement of political commitment especially inspiring and necessary at a time when the economics field in particular likes to cloak itself in deceitfully ‘objective’ language, even though knowledge production in the social sciences is necessarily ideological.
In Amin’s book on Delinking, he provides a tangible and critical assessment of ways to promote autonomous development in the periphery. Far from any call for autarky, delinking entails “the refusal to submit national-development strategy to the imperatives of ‘globalization’” and the promotion of popular and auto-centred development rather than unilaterally adjusting to the demands of the global economic system. Both Pérez’ and Macheda and Nadalini’s articles in this issue, which centre on delinking strategies, demonstrate how social science research is often used for political ends given how Chinese and East Asian delinking strategies are often misunderstood (or miscommunicated) in mainstream narratives about their ‘success’.
Finally, it is important to be creative in the way we apply Amin’s method to understand social phenomena. Amin called himself a ‘creative Marxist’, by which he meant he would start from, rather than to stop at Marx. We find this approach from Amin to be particularly relevant to understand contemporary problems and especially from a Global South perspective. Starting from Marx allows for an understanding of class struggle, exploitation, and the polarising tendencies of capitalism, while going deeper into structural inequalities associated with imperialism, sexism and racism. Amin started this work, but we believe it is relevant to go beyond Amin. Indeed, we find it relevant to start from Amin, not to stop at Amin.
Beyond Samir Amin
Several contributions to this special issue take Amin as a starting point for further exploration and theoretical development. Some also point in the direction of key critiques that have been levelled at Amin’s work, notwithstanding his powerful and incisive theoretical and analytical interventions on how developing economies relate with the North.
For example, although Amin himself did not include gender in his analysis – indeed, his analysis had glaring blind spots related to gender – his analysis can be enriched and extended to include gender hierarchies and a fuller recognition of gender’s place in the mode of production. Catherine Scott’s article is crucial for opening this door to understanding both the limitations to Amin and how gender can be approached from within his framework of analysis. She asks, for example, how gender may be included in analyses of delinking and the importance of discussions about relations in the households when considering how a revolution may occur.
Furthermore, in a historical moment where we cannot speak about autonomous industrialisation without considering ecological destruction, the need to explore how the two are interrelated and both shaped by imperialism is more important than ever. Max Ajl’s article starts from Amin’s theories of ecology to make broader analyses of the currents of ecological dependency that developed out of North African dependency analysis. He shows how Amin’s theoretical framework can be connected to that of Mohamed Dowidar, Fawzy Mansour and Slaheddine el-Amami and their advancement of the case for smallholder-centred national development. Given the urgent need to tackle climate change, its imperial characteristics, and the uneven geographical impacts of the destruction it causes, Amin’s framework serves as a useful starting point for thinking about ecological unequal exchange. As Ajl writes, ‘If Amin could not see the entirety of the necessary developmental path, he still illuminated its borders with a brilliant radiance…’.
What’s more, given the partial retreat and limited autonomy of the peripheral state in the context of the increasing power of international finance, Amin’s view of the state’s power to delink and stimulate auto-centric industrialisation must be scrutinised. We appreciate Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s contribution here, as he takes Amin as a point of departure while also somewhat diverging from Amin’s political orientation towards the nation state. He points to Amin’s commitment to a polycentric world as a departure point towards de-imperialisation, deracialisation, depatriarchisation, decorporatisation, detribalisation and democratisation, where the core is the internationalism of people, not of states. This is important in light of critiques of Amin’s conceptualisation of delinking as a process that holds the state as the locus of change.
Meanwhile, Fathima Mushtaq creatively adapts Amin’s categories to a financialised global economy, as she explores how imperialist rent is not limited to labour arbitrage but also includes financial arbitrage. Her article thus provides “an updated understanding of dependency in the context of financialisation,” as she centres financial factors to demonstrate how they contribute to reproducing global inequalities and the periphery’s subordinate position. This is of particular relevance given the important role that capital flows, interest rates, and exchange rates play in reproducing subordinate relations today.
What’s more, Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s work on decoloniality shows the need for decolonial knowledge production in order to break with eurocentric approaches, which is especially important given that Amin’s work on Eurocentrism has itself been criticised for demonstrating economic reductionism. This is yet another area where we believe Amin opens the door for important reflections and debates about how racism, eurocentrism, and capitalism are intertwined, but that we must move beyond his initial reflections to broaden the debates about how racism and imperialism shape society.
We hope this Special Issue will inspire more scholars and activists to engage with Amin’s ideas and also explore their relevance for emerging social and political problems. Amin’s methods of inquiry provide avenues towards doing research that transverses disciplinary boundaries and that aims to interrogate the social world as a whole. Notwithstanding important critiques of Amin’s work, the articles in this issue engage with his core concepts and demonstrate both their potency and how they can be creatively expanded and built upon. Amin’s legacy provides a lighthouse for those who not only want to understand the world, but fundamentally change it, by combining rigorous scholarship with political commitment and action.
The full Special Issue can be accessed for free until the end of March here.
This article was first published by ROAPE.
Africans after the Enlightenment
The broad scope of modern Judaeo-Christian thought, rooted in the Enlightenment, has reached the end of whatever useful life it had. It is time for African social science to begin to part company with Western social science, or to invite it to re-orient itself.
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.
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