The exploitation of ‘free’ wage labour – in Marx’s double sense of those workers ‘free’ to sell their labour to whom they choose and ‘free’ of any other means of reproducing themselves – is a core characteristic of capitalist relations of production. On more than a few readings, it is the defining trait of capitalism. Wage labourers in this narrow sense have almost always made up a small fraction of the workforce across sub-Saharan Africa. In one estimate from the late 1920s, the proportion of African populations employed in wage labour ranged from 0.4 percent in Nigeria to 8.2 percent in the South African Transkei. The most recent figures from the International Labour Organization (ILO) have 85.8 percent of African workers in ‘informal’ forms of work.
So, comparing African political economies to abstract models of capitalism assuming ever-widening proletarianization would seem unlikely to tell us much. In different ways, Kate Meagher, Stefan Ouma, Horman Chitonge, and Elisio Macamo have (rightly) pointed this out on this debate series on roape.net. Yet, as Pnina Werbner shows in an excellent recent piece in ROAPE, studies of African working classes in particular have a long history of falling into precisely this trap – studying African labour primarily by comparing it to the ‘normal’ trajectories of proletarian labour in Europe.
On the other hand, it would be hard to dispute that the history of African development has long been profoundly shaped by its place in a world economy that is undeniably capitalist. Indeed, the development of the contemporary capitalist world economy fundamentally depended on the mobilization of African labour through the slave trade and the colonial plunder of African resources. Equally, the present context is marked by, among other things, large-scale land grabbing, extractivist development models, increasingly volatile prices for agricultural commodities, and the vicissitudes of private foreign debt. It would be difficult, in short, to understand contemporary patterns of African political economy without reference to their location in capitalist circuits of accumulation. There’s a danger, then, that in jettisoning ‘capitalism’ altogether from our studies of African political economies we risk missing important dynamics. Yet, as Jörg Wiegratz – the editor of this series – illustrates in a recent post in this series, current debates in African studies have often fallen into this trap as well.
It would be hard to dispute that the history of African development has long been profoundly shaped by its place in a world economy that is undeniably capitalist.
So, we’re left with a paradox: African political economies, and especially their myriad labour regimes, don’t look much like conventional understandings of ‘capitalism’, but capitalism as a system of accumulation couldn’t exist in its current form without Africans and their (often non-proletarian) labour. Moreover, we can’t make much sense of the history and development of African political economies without some reference to capitalism as a system of accumulation on a global scale. I want to suggest in this post that the way forward here is, rather than asking what ‘capitalism’ tells us about Africa, we should be asking: ‘what does African labour tell us about capitalism?’
Placing African labour in capitalism
One promising direction here comes from critical political economists who have, in various ways, sought to place informal and unfree work in sub-Saharan Africa in the circuits of global capital. Marxian writers on unfree labour have pointed to the crucial role played by unfree forms of exploitation in facilitating contemporary global patterns of accumulation, including in Africa. ‘Informal’ work too, as Kate Meagher reminds us in her contribution to this debate series, is still often linked into global production networks through a variety of precarious forms of exploitation. For instance, seasonal agricultural workers play a vital role in producing cash crops for export; and labour brokers employing workers on hyper-casualized, temporary contracts are rife in the construction industry in many urban centres across the region.
Such interventions are vital, in no small part because these perspectives have enabled important critiques of the policy frameworks rolled out by the International Labour Organization (ILO), World Bank, and others around irregular forms – in which African labour has often played a central role. These frameworks have tended to treat informal economies, forced labour, and other forms of non-standard work as the products of the exclusion of certain workers from the normal workings of global capitalism. In 2002, for instance, in an ILO report on Decent Work and the Informal Sector, the relationship between informal work and ‘globalization’, is described as follows: ‘Where the informal sector is linked to globalization, it is often because a developing country has been excluded from integration into the global economy.’ The ILO increasingly suggests that these ‘exclusions’ from the global economy are compounded by ineffective regulation.
The main alternative to the ILO’s perspective in discussions of informal labour is the brand of institutional economics widely adopted by the World Bank. Here ‘informality’ becomes a form of poor people’s empowerment in the face of overregulation by the state, a reflection of entrepreneurial instincts to be encouraged by developing appropriate institutions. Policy initiatives to promote micro-enterprise development, access to credit, skills, and property rights follow logically from this way of thinking about the ‘informal.’ Here again, informality is understood in terms of exclusion from the normal operation of market forces.
African political economies, and especially their myriad labour regimes, don’t look much like conventional understandings of ‘capitalism’, but capitalism as a system of accumulation couldn’t exist in its current form without Africans and their (often non-proletarian) labour
In either case, policies designed without regard for the ways in which ‘informal’ work is embedded in wider capitalist economies are unlikely to be effective – at best they can offer half solutions that treat the symptoms rather than the causes of dispossession. Yet, there is still an important corollary that has often gone under explored. In practice, the lines between, say, ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ labour relations are indeed fluid and irregular forms of work are indeed integral to capitalist accumulation. But, as I argue in my recent book, The Global Governance of Precarity, the drawing of those boundaries themselves, and the implicit relegation of ‘informal’ or violent modes of exploitation to aberrant spaces outside the ‘normal’ workings of capitalism, are not just conceptual questions of concern to scholars of (African) political economy. They are fundamentally political ones, they are the artefacts of specific, historical, patterns of struggle and practices of governance. African labour, notably, has historically long been at the centre of debates around these questions on a global scale.
Placing African labour in capitalism, then, requires that we think seriously and in historical perspective about the politics of irregular forms of work. The kinds of work performed by African workers have often been key reference points in global debates about governing irregular forms of work. The ILO’s first convention on forced labour from 1930, for instance, was debated and negotiated through the 1920s in the context of growing concerns about colonial labour practices in Africa. But, as I show further in the remainder of this piece, such frameworks have always been contested, and often shaped in powerful ways by the unfolding and contingent relationships between the state and various segments of working classes.
The origins of ‘informality’
The concept of ‘informal’ work, to cite a particularly important example, was popularized in no small part by a major ILO mission to Kenya under the auspices of the World Employment Programme (WEP). This WEP mission to Kenya in 1972, relied quite centrally and explicitly on the assumption that the ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ were discrete spheres, the latter defined by its exclusion from the world economy. Hence, the core of the strategy laid out in the ILO report: ‘Our strategy of a redistribution from growth aims at establishing links that are at present absent between the formal and informal sectors.’
It’s worth pointing out that, while the concept of ‘informality’ was new in the 1970s, it clearly echoed colonial dichotomies between ‘modern’ (implicitly urban, capitalist, and Europeanized) and ‘traditional’ (rural, tribal, African) sectors of the economy. The fact that Africans were increasingly moving from supposedly ‘non-capitalist’ spaces in the countryside into ‘capitalist’ ones in the city was the source of much consternation for colonial officials and ILO staffers in the decade after WWII. ‘Development’ and economic growth were increasingly identified with the movement of people from (non-capitalist) ‘traditional’ activities in the countryside into (capitalist) ‘modern’ employment in urban spaces, and the concomitant increase in labour productivity– as in, for instance, W. Arthur Lewis’ seminal work. But colonial policy-makers increasingly fretted about how to manage these transitions, and how to govern those ‘classes of wage-earners who… could no longer rely on the solidarity engendered by the family or tribal community… and were consequently vulnerable to the ordinary risks of life and to the fluctuations of employment’, and about ‘the danger of permitting towns to expand beyond a certain limit; then they became unwieldy to administer and control.’
The preparatory work for the ILO mission to Kenya very clearly echoed similar concerns: ‘Perhaps more important than all the rest, there seems to exist, in Kenya, a very notorious dualism between the prosperous basis of certain aspects of the economic picture, highly productive farm units, relatively good infrastructure, sophisticated financial services, high-quality education, by European standards, in some schools, and the majority of the population.’ The concept of the ‘informal’ economy perhaps broke down the strict rural-urban dualism often implicit in these older statements – pointing, in effect, to ‘non-capitalist’ forms of work in urban spaces. However, it still very much framed the reduction of urban poverty in terms of finding ways of progressively incorporating African workers into global capitalism.
These perspectives were problematic. As a host of critics at the time – including figures like Colin Leys and Richard Sandbrook – pointed out, ‘informal’ economies often subsidized social reproduction in the context of low wages in the ‘formal’ sector. Among other things: street vendors provided cheap food and clothing, informal domestic labour directly enabled the reproduction of wage work, and ‘informal’ employment often supplemented the incomes for ‘formal’ workers and their households in the context of declining real wages. And in the region more broadly, dichotomies between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’, or ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ economies, or ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ sectors, tended to occlude the ways in which individual workers and households often relied on livelihood strategies that cut across these areas of activity. In short, the concept of the ‘informal’ neatly excluded the ways in which irregular forms of work in Kenya were already linked with properly ‘capitalist’ accumulation in Kenya, particularly in subsidizing the very low wages paid by multinational firms operating in Kenya.
The preparatory work for the ILO mission to Kenya very clearly echoed similar concerns: ‘Perhaps more important than all the rest, there seems to exist, in Kenya, a very notorious dualism between the prosperous basis of certain aspects of the economic picture, highly productive farm units, relatively good infrastructure, sophisticated financial services, high-quality education, by European standards, in some schools, and the majority of the population
But, contemporary critics, like present-day political economists, too often stopped the argument there. The very things that made governing the ‘informal’ an inadequate means of addressing poverty also made it an effective political tool – it blocked any serious consideration of the structural roots of poverty, focusing instead on a relatively narrow set of technical responses aimed at fostering ‘links’ between formal and informal activity. Framing urban poverty in terms of ‘informality’ dovetailed with and helped reinforce a structure of state authority that sought to restrict any independent voice for labour in shaping development strategy. The WEP mission, it is worth noting, followed a period of consolidation and depoliticization of the labour movement. Kenya’s Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU) had been formed in 1965 when the government dissolved the Kenya Federation of Labour (KFL) and the rival Kenyan African Workers’ Congress. The KFL had split over interlinked personal disagreements among the leadership, questions of international affiliation, and the ‘political’ independence of trade unions. The new COTU was led by the factions aligned to the government, and it was prevented from pursuing ‘political’ action. The government also identified unions the primary cause of unemployment in the 1970 report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Unemployment in 1970 – high levels of wage disparity between urban and rural areas, partly ‘as a result of the trade union activities’ were blamed for excessive rural-urban migration and the resort of capital to labour-saving technologies. The diagnosis of urban poverty as the result of the (non-capitalist) informal character of the forms of work performed by most Kenyans dovetailed well with this set of political dynamics.
Irregular work in neoliberal Africa
Irregular forms of labour have increased in numbers and political salience across much of sub-Saharan Africa in the neoliberal era. Structural adjustment brutally undercut working class livelihoods across the region, often prompting widespread protests and undercutting the legitimacy of many single-party governments. At the same time, the means through which postcolonial states had often disciplined strategically important segments of working classes – close links between trade unions and ruling parties in particular – were often severely damaged by structural adjustment. This pattern of failure, backlash, and state restructuring is crucial to understanding the re-articulation of policies towards ‘informal’ economies and ‘forced labour’ from the 1990s onwards. On one hand, neoliberal strategies of governance often shifted towards more localized, community-level interventions dealing with health, education, microfinance as mechanisms for poverty reduction in the aftermath of the failures of structural adjustment. On the other, the growth of irregular work and dismantling of postcolonial institutions often raised the strategic importance of finding new means of governing informal economies for African states. These dynamics have often dovetailed in the ILO’s work.
A useful example here comes via the ILO’s increasing promotion of ‘microinsurance’ policies as a means of providing social protection to ‘informal’ workers. Microinsurance refers to a range of simplified insurance products with very low premiums, targeted primarily at ‘informal’ workers lacking conventional social security. Officials in the Social Protection Department of the ILO initially used the concept of ‘microinsurance’ in the late 1990s to refer to means of providing alternative modes of social protection to informal workers left out of both state provision and market-based schemes, through ‘community-based’ forms of social protection. Since the early 2000s, microinsurance is increasingly promoted by a broader complex of organizations, including financial regulators, and framed in terms of ‘financial inclusion’, a shift that has been accompanied by a growing emphasis on promoting the development of commercial markets.
On a basic level, microinsurance boils down to an alternative, privatized means of providing social protection and healthcare, to informal workers not covered by conventional contributory social security. Making a market for small-scale, simplified insurance products, then, is a way of bringing excluded workers into the ‘normal’ workings of the state and market. It serves to deepen the commodification of labour insofar as it requires workers to find means of paying premiums on an ongoing basis even for the management of the vulnerabilities implicit in deregulated labour markets themselves.
As a means of reducing poverty and managing insecurity for ‘informal’ workers, microinsurance thus leaves a good deal to be desired. It is a quintessentially neoliberal solution which downloads responsibility for the provision of social protection onto poor individuals and communities, and again relies on an understanding of ‘informal’ workers as being excluded from the ‘normal’ workings of proletarian labour relations. It thus shares many of the same shortcomings as the related promotion of microcredit (expertly dismantled in Milford Bateman’s recent contribution to this debate). At best, this kind of scheme risks reinforcing a decidedly two-tiered system of social protection, with shrinking state pensions supporting a shrinking core of salaried workers and the remainder of the population covered by a privatized system partially underwritten by state subsidies.
Microinsurance makes sense as a political intervention in a context in which a growing proportion of the working population is involved in irregular forms of work. The rigid political distinction between formal and informal work implicit in the model of ‘responsible participation’ is no longer viable in the context of deindustrialization, privatization, and the casualization of work in a number of key industries. As with the Kenyan mission, the promotion of microinsurance diagnoses ‘informality’ as a result of exclusion from the normal workings of global capitalism and seeks to reduce poverty by forging new kinds of links. In obscuring the ways in which urban informality remains bound up with wider patterns of neoliberalization and capitalist restructuring, it similarly lends itself to depoliticized solutions.
I have two big points to underline here. First, debates about African labour and its links to global capitalism are never simply abstract or conceptual debates of purely academic interest. A big task for critical political economy needs to be confronting the ways in which the links between the irregular forms of work that are predominant in Africa (and increasingly elsewhere) and the global circuits of capital accumulation are governed and understood. These are crucial sites of political contestation and are closely entangled with broader patterns of political authority and state restructuring.
Second, and more broadly, if our frameworks for understanding ‘capitalism’ don’t allow us to make sense of African political economies, we should be reflecting on how African experiences push us to rethink those frameworks, rather than necessarily debating the value of ‘capitalism’ as a concept. One initial way of doing this, I think, is to suggest that the history of irregular work in Africa highlights the deeply political nature of our understandings of capitalism, and the contested understandings of the placement of irregular forms of labour performed by African workers in relation to global circuits of accumulation.
This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).
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Re-Reading History Without the Color Line: When Egypt Was Black
Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living Egyptians today with ancient pharaohs, emerged partly as an alternative to colonial British efforts to racialize Egyptians as people of color.
In his monumental 1996 book Race: The History of an Idea in the West, Ivan Hannaford attempted to write the first comprehensive history of the meanings of race. After surveying 2,500 years’ worth of writing, his conclusion was that race, in the sense in which it is commonly understood today, is a relatively new concept denoting the idea that humans are naturally organized into social groups. Membership in these groups is indicated by certain physical characteristics, which reproduce themselves biologically from generation to generation.
Hannaford argues that where scholars have identified this biological essentialist approach to race in their readings of ancient texts, they have projected contemporary racism back in time. Instead of racial classifications, Hannaford insists that the Ancient Greeks, for example, used a political schema that ordered the world into citizens and barbarians, while the medieval period was underwritten by a categorization based on religious faith (Jews, Christians, and Muslims). It was not until the 19th century that these ideas became concretely conceptualized; according to Hannaford, the period from 1870 to 1914 was the “high point” of the idea of race.
Part of my research on the history of British colonial Egypt focuses on how the concept of a unique Egyptian race took shape at this time. By 1870, Egypt was firmly within the Ottoman fold. The notion of a “Pan-Islamic” coalition between the British and the Ottomans had been advanced for a generation at this point: between the two empires, they were thought to rule over the majority of the world’s Muslims.
But British race science also began to take shape around this time, in conversation with shifts in policy throughout the British empire. The mutiny of Bengali troops in the late 1850s had provoked a sense of disappointment in earlier attempts to “civilize” British India. As a result, racial disdain toward non-European people was reinforced. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s works, these attitudes became overlaid with a veneer of popular science.
When a series of high-profile acts of violence involving Christian communities became a cause célèbre in the European press, the Ottomans became associated with a unique form of Muslim “fanaticism” in the eyes of the British public. The notion of Muslim fanaticism was articulated in the scientific idioms of the time, culminating in what historian Cemil Aydin calls “the racialization of Muslims.” As part of this process, the British moved away from their alliance with the Ottomans: they looked the other way when Russians supported Balkan Christian nationalists in the 1870s and allied with their longtime rivals in Europe to encroach on the financial prerogatives of the Ottoman government in Egypt.
Intellectuals in Egypt were aware of these shifts, and they countered by insisting they were part of an “Islamic civilization” that, while essentially different from white Christians, did not deserve to be grouped with “savages.” Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was one of the most prominent voices speaking against the denigration of Muslims at the time. His essays, however, were ironically influenced by the same social Darwinism he sought to critique.
For example, in “Racism in the Islamic Religion,” an 1884 article from the famous Islamic modernist publication al-Urwa al-Wuthqa (The Indissoluble Bond), Afghani argued that humans were forced, after a long period of struggle, “to join up on the basis of descent in varying degrees until they formed races and dispersed themselves into nations … so that each group of them, through the conjoined power of its individual members, could protect its own interests from the attacks of other groups.”
The word that I have translated as “nation” here is the Arabic term umma. In the Qur’an, umma means a group of people to whom God has sent a prophet. The umma Muhammadiyya, in this sense, transcended social differences like tribe and clan. But the term is used by al-Afghani in this essay to refer to other racial or national groupings like the Indians, English, Russians, and Turks.
Coming at a time when British imperial officials were thinking about Muslims as a race, the term umma took on new meanings and indexed a popular slippage between older notions of community based on faith and modern ideas about race science. Al-Afghani’s hybrid approach to thinking about human social groups would go on to influence a rising generation of intellectuals and activists in Egypt—but the locus of their effort would shift from the umma of Muslims to an umma of Egyptians.
In my book, The Egyptian Labor Corps: Race, Space, and Place in the First World War, I show how the period from 1914 to 1918 was a major turning point in this process. At the outbreak of the war, British authorities were hesitant to fight the Ottoman sultan, who called himself the caliph, because their understanding of Muslims as a race meant that they would naturally have to contend with internal revolts in Egypt and India. However, once war was formally declared on the Ottomans and the sultan/caliph’s call for jihad went largely unanswered, British authorities changed the way they thought about Egyptians.
Over the course of the war, British authorities would increasingly look at Egyptians just as they did other racialized subjects of their empire. Egypt was officially declared a protectorate, Egyptians were recruited into the so-called “Coloured Labour Corps,” and tens of thousands of white troops came to Egypt and lived in segregated conditions.
The war had brought the global color line—long recognized by African Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois—into the backyard of Egyptian nationalists. But rather than develop this insight into solidarity, as Du Bois did in his June 1919 article on the pan-Africanist dimensions of the Egyptian revolution for NAACP journal The Crisis, Egyptian nationalists criticized the British for a perceived mis-racialization of Egyptians as “men of color.”
Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living in Egypt today with the ancient pharaohs, emerged in this context as a kind of alternative to British efforts at racializing Egyptians as people of color. Focusing on rural Egyptians as a kind of pure, untouched group that could be studied anthropologically to glean information about an essential kind of “Egyptianness,” Pharaonism positioned rural-to-urban migrants in the professional middle classes as “real Egyptians” who were biological heirs to an ancient civilization, superior to Black Africans and not deserving of political subordination to white supremacy.
Understanding Pharaonism as a type of racial nationalism may help explain recent controversies that have erupted in Egypt over efforts by African Americans to appropriate pharaonic symbols and discourse in their own political movements. This is visible in minor social media controversies, such as when Beyoncé was called out for “cultural appropriation” for twerking on stage in a costume depicting the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. But sometimes, social media can spill over into more mainstream forms of Egyptian culture, such as when the conversation around the racist #StopAfrocentricConference hashtag—an online campaign to cancel “One Africa: Returning to the Source,” a conference organized by African Americans in Aswan, Egypt—received coverage on the popular TV channel CBC. While these moral panics pale in comparison to American efforts to eradicate critical race theory, for example, they still point to a significant undercurrent animating Egyptian political and social life.
Writing the Human: A Person Is a Person Through Other People
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.
“Are we fighting to end colonialism, a worthy cause, or are we thinking about what we will do after the last white policeman leaves?”
Several decades after he wrote these words, these sentiments from Frantz Fanon remain an urgent challenge for postcolonial societies. In 2022, austerity measures implemented by multilateral organisations are back in countries like Kenya which are arguably still recovering from the devastation of the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1980s. Echoing colonisation, extractive economics framed as development and investment is everywhere, from natural resources to digital platforms. Black people are once again on sale as domestic and construction workers in countries that refuse to provide them basic human rights protections, and recently as potential conscripts in wars that have nothing to do with them. Nearly eighty years after Fanon articulated the demands of independence from colonisation, countries of the global south are still struggling to extricate themselves from the deeply unequal global dynamics. History is repeating itself.
When does the “post” in “postcolonial” begin? When do we get free?
Somewhere on the journey to the postcolony, the freedom dreams of so many societies in the world seem to have lost their way. To borrow from Fanon, it is evident that several societies did not give enough room to articulate and nurture freedom dreams beyond the desire to watch the last white policeman leave. Many of our revolutionaries like Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral and Steve Biko were assassinated because the size and scope of their dreams was a threat to the global hegemons. Others, like Winnie Mandela and Andree Blouin, suffered intense personal attacks, and exile and isolation from the sites of their work. And others like Robert Mugabe became consumed with the idea of power at all costs, trading freedom and the greater good for personal accumulation and military power, refusing to cede even an inch of power to anyone. The freedom dreams atrophied in the shadow of these losses, and today the map to the “post” remains buried in the sand.
It’s difficult in this day and age to write an essay about freedom when the word has been co-opted by so many people who use a bastardised definition of the word to advance the destruction of others. In Western countries, right-wing movements routinely use the word to refer to selfish ambitions to protect wealth and exclude others. Freedom has unfortunately become synonymous with selfishness in too many places around the world, with extremists using it to justify laws and policies that destroy social protections for the poor and marginalised. Tragically, the word needs some qualification and contextualisation before it can be used sincerely to engage with the realities unfolding around us.
And yet freedom remains a deeply necessary project. The desire for freedom is what transforms individual desires or ambitions into social projects. Freedom is a lot like being in love. It’s difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t yet experienced it but once you’ve experienced it even once you feel its absence keenly. It’s the peace of knowing that you are in a community that is working towards something greater than just survival, but is instead imagining and building a world in which everyone thrives. It is mutual support and solidarity. It is care and concern. It is an obsession with justice and inequality not just for those who have access to the levers of power but for everyone. It is more than meaningless numbers and empty promises of development. Freedom is truth telling and accountability, but also connection and restoration. Freedom is living in a society that recognises your personhood and that wants to make room for everyone to live fully, audaciously and joyfully. Freedom is a social concern that cannot be achieved as an individual. Human beings are social creatures. You are not free because you live outside the constraints of a society: you are free because you live in a society that values your existence and allows you to maintain meaningful connection with others.
Freedom dreams are a crucial part of attaining the “post” in postcoloniality. The desire for freedom is what pushes people to coordinate around lofty ambitions and develop a programme of action for achieving them. The desire for freedom pushes us into deliberation and debate about what our societies can represent, but they also push us into introspection about our personal role in achieving those goals. Freedom dreams are more than just flights of fancy. They are invitations to coordinate and participate in social life. Freedom dreams are like a compass. They give a collective perspective on what we need to do in order to build the kind of society in which we can all thrive.
So, the increasing absence of freedom dreams in the way our ideas of progress or development are articulated is more than rhetorical loss. It’s not simply sad that today we talk about GDP and economic growth as measures of progress, and not welfare and inclusivity. It is a loss of orientation. It is what makes it possible for people to use money as a shorthand for all the things that we need to make social life make sense. Instead of universal health, people try to get wealthy enough to opt out of poorly funded public health systems. Instead of facing the calamity of climate change together, wealthy people build bunkers to allow them to survive in the apocalypse. Instead of thinking about conflict as a collective tragedy, wealthy countries see it as an opportunity to make money. And instead of seeing a global pandemic as an opportunity to reset and reinforce social systems that have for too long excluded the needs of the chronically ill and disabled, the elderly, and even children, we double down on the misguided idea that an advanced species is one in which the most vulnerable are allowed to die. All of these outcomes are united by the underlying fallacy that securing money can ever be a shorthand for the freedom dreams of living in a just society.
Within the postcolony, there has probably never been a greater need for freedom dreams than now. In Africa, the absence of a broad unifying orientation means we might quite literally become fodder for other people’s projects. Right now, young men and women are being enticed to fight for both Russia and Ukraine, neither of which has expressed particular concern for the wellbeing of Africans in the past. Russian mercenaries are wreaking havoc in several African countries; Ukraine is one of the biggest arms providers to African conflicts. Young Africans continue to die unnecessary deaths on the Mediterranean Sea because of unfounded fears of invasion, even as the West opens up its doors to tens of thousands more Ukrainian refugees. As Western countries try to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas, Africa is once again on the menu as an alternative source for these raw materials. There is an unspoken expectation that countries of the global south must stoically bear the burden of these inequalities because the freedom dreams of others are somehow more valuable than ours.
And in the absence of governments that care about our own freedom dreams, it is unclear what we will look like at the end of this period of global uncertainty (if there is one — climate change is still an omnipotent threat). Our freedom dreams are being bartered for trinkets by leaders who wrongly believe that wealth and proximity to power in another part of the world will ever be as meaningful or taste as sweet as building freedom where you are rooted. Are we entering another period in which authoritarians will double down on violence against us and remain unchallenged because they say the right things to different parties to the conflict? Watching leaders of India, Uganda, Sudan and more line up behind Russia certainly does not bode well. Will this season birth another era of Pinochets, Mengistus, and Mobutus? Will we watch once again as our freedom dreams are subsumed in global conflicts from which only the most greedy and violent will profit?
Our freedom dreams remind us that we have work to do that is bigger than this historical moment. The work is not to build the wealthiest country or the biggest army. The work is to build societies in which money isn’t a gatekeeper to living a decent life. The work is resetting our relationship with the natural environment so that the measure of our lives is not simply reduced to our unchecked ability to consume. Angela Davis reminds us that our freedom dreams cannot be constrained to our own lifetime but must be anchored in a desire to leave behind a world worth living in for future generations. We need our freedom dreams.
The freedom dreams of those who resisted and rejected colonisation seem a world away from the meagre ambitions of many of today’s leaders. Whereas previous generations fought for dignity and holistic defence of human life, today our dreams are organised around depoliticised ambitions like development or gender equality. The radical demands of rejecting systemic racialised violence and institutionalised exclusion have been deescalated into calls for scraps from the table.
And yet, looking around at the trajectory the world is on, freedom dreams have never been more urgent or important. It is tempting to resist the urge to deliberate and deconstruct, because it is labour. In a world that increasingly wants to turn everything – including our leisure time – into labour, the desire to disengage is deeply seductive. But freedom dreams cannot be defined in isolation.
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.
This essay is part of the “Futures of Freedom” collection of Progressive International’s Blueprint pillar.
Kwasi Wiredu’s Lasting Decolonial Achievement
The greatest achievement of Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu was to recast African knowledge from something lost to something gained.
Ask ten people what decolonization means, and you will get ten different answers. The term’s incoherent resurgence has sparked an understandable backlash, with complaints directed mainly against its liberal and or neoliberal defanging. When attempts to pin down decolonization’s meaning pit “real” material work against mere theory, staking out a position feels easy enough. Things are harder to parse where the object of concern is knowledge itself.
What exactly counts as “decolonizing” in the resolutely immaterial domains of concept, culture, or moral life? Because this question must be hard to answer, the certainties with which it is often answered fall short. It is typical of our moment that Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu’s death this year was met with much-unqualified praise of his “decolonial” status, with that descriptor confirming countless more specific—and discordant—views.
In Wiredu’s agile hands, the decolonization of knowledge was a distinctive method: it entailed clear analytic steps as well as safeguards against cultural romanticization. This means that it can be learned, given the time and commitment, and indeed must be learned regardless of one’s cultural starting point. In this sense, Wiredu was a staunchly disciplinary thinker even as his political ideals have far-reaching resonance. Trained at Oxford mainly by philosopher of mind Gilbert Ryle, Wiredu’s writing is marked by what Sanya Osha recently described as “a matter-of-fact fastidiousness and tone.” The difference between Wiredu’s disarmingly lucid philosophy and the more abstract, even poetic modes of decolonial thought now in broader circulation is the difference between grandiose calls for the world’s “unmaking” or “delinking” and the painstaking disaggregation of cultural wholes into constituent parts. Wiredu’s hallmark move was to break down “culture” into particular traditions, beliefs, and phrases, which could then be evaluated on their own merits. He was a master of “showing his work,” and the sheer amount of labor he expended to do so in print makes his work unsuited to an age of easy excerpts and virtual point scoring.
Wiredu’s method is most fully worked out in two books, Philosophy and an African Culture (1980) and Cultural Universals and Particulars (1997), but many of his essays have also stood the test of decades. One of the most memorable examples of how he takes his native Akan (and specifically, Asante) heritage apart to assert its philosophical importance appears in a 1998 article titled, “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.” Wiredu here wields insights into the nature of Twi syntax to present the Akan God as an architect rather than an ex nihilo creator.
Whereas the Christian God is linked to a Western metaphysics of being that can, in principle, be unmoored from context, Wiredu argues that the nature of the verb “to be” in Twi or Fante—expressed as either wo ho or ye—necessitates some kind of pre-given situation. (I cannot, in Fante, state simply “I am,” or “she is.”) Whereas the Christian God can thus be imagined to have made the world from nothing, the Akan counterpart is assumed to have worked with pre-given materials in its construction. By extension, whereas the Christian tradition prioritizes miraculousness, the Akan tradition puts more weight on design and ingenuity. Neither one is right or wrong, intrinsically better or worse. Wiredu’s agenda is to make clear the level of conceptual distinction and follow-through required to place them in an equal-footed conversation.
This penchant for linking fine points to grand plans is also on full display in a late-career, 2009 essay called, “An Oral Philosophy of Personhood: Comments on Philosophy and Orality.” Here, Wiredu turns to the Akan tradition of talking drums to refute simplistic ideas of cultural uniformity. Using a well-known drum text rife with metaphysical implications, Wiredu concludes that the drums’ theology is in fact opposed to the broader Akan belief system. (The drum text is in his view pantheistic, while Akan religion is theistic as he describes it in “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.”) His reading yields a few important insights, including into the formative role of intra-cultural disagreement in what might later appear to be shared oral traditions.
The main thing to emphasize, however, is that Wiredu’s deep dive into Akan knowledge results in its destabilization. This does not mean that Akan culture, such as it may be said to exist, is somehow “not real” by virtue of being complexly constructed; this is true of all cultures, everywhere. It means, instead, that it is robust enough to withstand real pressure on pieces of it in order to think seriously about the whole. While acknowledging the colonial odds historically stacked against African knowledge traditions, Wiredu’s philosophical approach to Akan concepts insists that intellectual work can and must do more than reflect this injustice.
Kwasi Wiredu’s lasting decolonial achievement—and that which must be widely memorialized—is to recast African knowledge from something lost to something gained. He refused to treat it as fragile, even as he stared down the many ways it has been sidelined and subjugated. To be “decolonized,” for Wiredu, is to think with extreme care about each and every practice and position, equally open to radical change and renewed conviction. Worship traditionally or as a Christian, he wrote, but in either case really know why. Getting there on his model is daunting, but at the end of the exertion is moral and cultural reciprocity that cannot be claimed lightly. Or, as Wiredu once put it, it yields “the golden rule that gives us the basis … to consider every person as one.”
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