What is knowledge? Is knowledge as objective as mountains, valleys, oceans, lakes and rivers, or is what constitutes knowledge determined by culture? We usually presume that knowledge has to do with understanding the world as it is rather than as we might imagine it to be. Many of us assume that the more academic certificates one has, the more knowledge one possesses. Yet scholars now point out that knowledge can only be properly understood if we consider insights from a variety of disciplines, including history, sociology, psychology, economics, politics and philosophy, among others. In ancient Athens, “politics” was understood as the management of the affairs of the city-state (polis). However, in line with the thought of Niccolò Machiavelli, many now understand politics as the activities of acquiring and retaining coercive power, and it is in this latter sense that I speak here of the politics of knowledge production. “Economics” comes from the Greek words oikos (“household”) and nomos (“law”, “management” or “principle”), literally “the law, management or principle of the household”, but has come to refer to the management of a society’s resources.
Knowledge production directed by politics and economics
As I pointed out in “Concrete Data and Abstract Notions in the Philosophical Study of Indigenous African Thought”, knowledge production is an integral part of social processes, and therefore necessarily laden with social, moral, political, and, most importantly, economic considerations. As the late Nigerian social scientist Claude Ake observed in Social Science as Imperialism, science in any society is apt to be geared to the interests and impregnated with the values of the ruling class that ultimately controls the conditions under which it is produced and consumed by financing research, setting national priorities, controlling the education system and the mass media, and in other ways. Thus, the choices of subject matter and methodology are heavily influenced by priorities identified in specific economic, social and political contexts: this set of dynamic interactions with economics as its foundation is what the late Egyptian economist, Samir Amin, following Karl Marx, referred to as “political economy”.
Besides, the transmission of knowledge reflects a society’s economic structures. In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire memorably highlights the distinction between “banking education”, in which the learner is a docile and passive recipient of knowledge from the teacher, and which therefore reflects the capitalist power hierarchy, and “problem-solving education” entailing a dialogical approach in which both “teacher-students” and “student-teachers” teach and learn. Tragically but not surprisingly, six decades after formal independence, most schools and universities in Africa continue to deploy banking education in line with the capitalist power relations characteristic of the societies in which they function.
To illustrate the point that the production and transmission of knowledge are greatly influenced by politics, Leonhard Praeg, in A Report on Ubuntu, presents a hypothetical conversation between a South African philosophy professor of European descent and a young African postgraduate law student who is considering registering for a second master’s degree in philosophy. At one point, she challenges the professor’s presentation of philosophy as an objective and universal enterprise by highlighting the fact that the choice of who to include in any philosophical discourse is itself a political one:
Well, it seems obvious to me . . . that the most fundamental starting point for any philosophical conversation should be questioning the mechanisms that decide who is included and who is excluded from that conversation and whose traditions of thought will or will not be invoked in that conversation. Perhaps the most fundamental questions, the questions that every conversation should start with are political, questions such as: How is the difference between the included and excluded legitimized and what kind of institutional arrangements exist to safeguard and perpetuate certain kinds of knowledge at the exclusion of others?
Colonial devastation of indigenous systems of knowledge
In The Invention of Africa, the Congolese philosopher V.Y. Mudimbe explains that colonialism and colonization basically mean “organization”, “arrangement”. The two words derive from the Latin word colere, meaning to cultivate or to design.” He goes on to point out that the Western colonisers organized and transformed non-European areas into fundamentally European constructs:
[I]t is possible to use three main keys to account for the modulations and methods representative of colonial organization: the procedures of acquiring, distributing, and exploiting lands in colonies; the policies of domesticating natives; and the manner of managing ancient organizations and implementing new modes of production. Thus, three complementary hypotheses and actions emerge: the domination of physical space, the reformation of natives’ minds, and the integration of local economic histories into the Western perspective. These complementary projects constitute what might be called the colonizing structure, which completely embraces the physical, human, and spiritual aspects of the colonizing experience.
Indeed, the Western imperialists only left their colonies in Africa and elsewhere after putting in place numerous structures to ensure their ongoing, albeit covert, control of the economies of the said territories. For example, in the late 1930s France created the CFA Franc Zone, comprising 14 West and Central African countries as well as the Comoros, bound by a monetary cooperation policy ostensibly to ensure the financial stability of its members, all of who used one or other of the two versions of the CFA Franc as their currency. Both CFA Francs have a fixed exchange rate to the euro —real evidence of what I would refer to as “chains that bind”. Similarly, in the 1950s, the Swynnerton Plan in Kenya sought to mitigate the unpopularity of the British colonial regime by creating an African land-owning petty middle class that would be driven by an imperative to protect its property, and thereby view itself as having shared interests with the European settlers after the country’s independence.
Furthermore, the Western imperialists “left” only after ensuring that their former colonies adopted liberal democratic constitutions based on individualist capitalist values rather than on the communalistic outlooks of the peoples of Africa. They also ensured that the colonial territories embraced Western legal systems. For example, on 12th August 1897, the British invaders declared what they called The Reception Date, referring to the decree that the English statutes of general application passed before 12th August 1897 are law in Kenya, unless a Kenyan statute, or a latter English statute made applicable in Kenya, has repealed any such statute. In short, the British invaders declared the legal systems of the peoples of present day Kenya null and void, or, at best, relegated them to the status of “customary law” presumed to be inferior to the British legal system. This situation still holds to date, as evident in the way in which advocates and judges in Kenya frequently refer to English law, but very rarely to the jurisprudence of Kenya’s various peoples. No wonder “customary law” remains a highly marginalised area of study in most universities in Africa decades after independence.
Both CFA Francs have a fixed exchange rate to the euro —real evidence of what I would refer to as “chains that bind”.
Similarly, the colonisers demeaned the diverse intellectual inventions and innovations of the peoples of Africa in areas such as medicine, environmental conservation, culinary arts, and creative works (such as songs, poems, fables and legends) among others. For example, they used the paradoxical and pejorative term “witch-doctor” to refer to indigenous healers, thereby deliberately conflating the restorative roles of healers with the destructive acts of wizards and witches. Indeed, due to that outrageous deliberate colonial conflation, most Kiswahili speakers in Kenya now do not appreciate the distinction between mganga (“healer”) and mchawi (“witch/wizard”), thereby failing to appreciate that even a medical doctor trained in a Western-type medical school is a mganga, and only refers to him or her as daktari from the English word “doctor”. No wonder it has been so easy to convince most people in Africa that their own indigenous systems of medical care are utterly hopeless in the face of COVID-19, or that any innovations they might develop to manage the scourge must be validated in Geneva, Washington DC or elsewhere outside the continent or under the direction of institutions based outside the continent.
No wonder it has been so easy to convince most people in Africa that their own indigenous systems of medical care are utterly hopeless in the face of COVID-19.
A crucial component of a people’s culture is their language; apart from being pivotal to their group identity, it is the storehouse of their accumulated knowledge and wisdom. The colonial establishments therefore systematically downgraded indigenous languages, referring to them as “vernaculars”—a term used to denote languages spoken by “uncivilised” communities and contrasted with “literary” or “cultured” languages. Thus, the typical child in Africa undergoes instruction at school using English, French, Portuguese or German, thereby losing his or her cultural grounding through the lack of proficiency in his or her mother tongue; and it is much worse than that, for he or she begins to disparage indigenous languages. Many of us have heard the claim by our compatriots that the languages of the peoples of Africa are incapable of mediating scholarly discourses. This claim is oblivious to, or deliberately ignores, the fact that the Western languages with which many associate academic discourses have acquired their proficiency in scholarship only because of borrowing heavily from a variety of languages, and nothing, except a colonised mentality, prevents speakers of the indigenous languages of Africa from enriching them in similar fashion.
Unshackling contemporary scholarship in Africa from Western hegemony
In The Invention of Africa, V.Y. Mudimbe is particularly unhappy that, long after political independence, African studies continue to be conducted within the colonial framework that views African systems of thought and practice as primitive and savage:
The fact of the matter is that, until now, Western interpreters as well as African analysts have been using categories and conceptual systems which depend on a Western epistemological order. Even in the most explicitly “Afrocentric” descriptions, models of analysis explicitly or implicitly, knowingly or unknowingly, refer to the same order.
This sorry situation, Mudimbe tells us, is partly due to the fact that “[S]ince most African leaders and thinkers have received a Western education, their thought is at the crossroads of Western epistemological filiation and African ethnocentrism.” He also points out that the structures of the colonial establishment remained firmly in place after formal political independence:
In the early 1960s, the African scholar succeeded the anthropologist, the “native” theologian replaced the missionary, and the politician took the place of the colonial commissioner. All of them find reasons for their vocations in the dialectic of the Same and the other.
Mudimbe further observes that colonialism creates an imaginary African past in a bid to fabricate “the other”, perhaps best exemplified by tourist art. He notes that in this subjugating environment, any solid evidence of science or philosophy in Africa is dismissed by the colonisers, as illustrated by the case of Dogon astronomy which holds that the planets rotate around their axes and revolve around the Sun, but which Western authors such as Carl Sagan explain away as knowledge obtained from a Western visitor to the Dogon. Mudimbe is emphatic that anthropology was specifically designed as a tool of Western imperialist domination with which to paint the peoples of Africa as frozen in a stage of “development” long transcended by Western societies.
A crucial component of a people’s culture is their language; apart from being pivotal to their group identity, it is the storehouse of their accumulated knowledge and wisdom.
According to Samir Amin, current academic programmes in the social sciences in African Universities have been prescribed by the World Bank and allied authorities in order to destroy any capacity to develop critical thought. Unable to understand concrete existing systems that govern the contemporary world, the brainwashed cadres are reduced to the status of “executives” implementing programmes decided elsewhere, unable to contribute to changing that world rejected by their own people. Similarly, Claude Ake observes, “The West is able to dominate the Third World not simply because of its military and economic power, but also because it has foisted its idea of development on the Third World through the institutions and activities of knowledge production.”
The humanities (such as literature, music and philosophy) are not doing any better, as the Western canons continue to enjoy an exalted status in the various disciplines under this category: many philosophers from Africa still take great pride in their knowledge of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Mill, and so on, while thinking very little of philosophical works by scholars from their own continent, and much less of the intellectual creations of their compatriots with no Western-type formal education. In like manner, many literary critics from Africa enjoy a sense of great accomplishment from their mastery of European literary classics while tacitly believing that nothing of similar grandeur is to be found among their own peoples. Besides, many scholars in Africa take great pride in having their works published in Western Europe and North America by what they happily refer to as “international journals” and “international publishers”, while considering publications from university presses in places such as Kigali, Dar es Salaam or Harare as of inferior status, thereby continuing to lend credence to the almost hegemonic Western system of knowledge production decades after formal independence.
Yet another important aspect of the hierarchical process of knowledge production has to do with the way in which events are reported. Many think that reports in media such as books, print and electronic news outlets are objective sources of knowledge. However, scholars of critical discourse analysis have repeatedly illustrated that such reports promote the interests of the economically dominant classes. Thus in a capitalist context, the bulk of mass media promotes the interests of the owners of capital. For example, where the police violently stop a workers’ demonstration, the media are likely to report “Four Demonstrators Shot” rather than “Police Shoot Four Demonstrators”, thereby suppressing the fact of who shot them. Similarly, school textbooks covertly and overtly promote capitalist values and advance the view that any challenge to such values is a threat to “stability”.
Long after political independence, African studies continue to be conducted within the colonial framework that views African systems of thought and practice as primitive and savage.
In Fourth Industrial Revolution: Innovation or New Phase of Imperialism?, I pointed out that humanity is currently confronted by a world dominated by artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things and blockchain, resulting in a fusion of technologies that is integrating the physical, digital and biological spheres. Think of how all manner of people can determine where you are if you forget your mobile phone “Location” function on, or listen to your conversations and view your actions if you unwittingly allow an app to access your microphone and camera. Already phone manufacturers are including contact tracing apps in their devices, and many phones now have the option of a fingerprint instead of a series of numbers for passwords. Through the enormous power of artificial intelligence (“AI”), all these data are quickly analysed to produce detailed profiles of phone users—where they go, what they like listening to and watching, what they buy, among others. In short, in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (“4IR”), privacy is now an illusion. Yet the bulk of these new technologies are owned by large corporations domiciled in the West and East, reducing the peoples of Africa to mere consumers subject to the whims of the owners of the technologies. All this raises the real possibility of a global dictatorship headed by the owners of these technologies reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984, and it boils down to who controls knowledge production.
In Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker argues that there is a distinctively epistemic type of injustice, in which someone is wronged specifically in his or her capacity as a knower. This is precisely what Western imperialism has subjected the peoples of Africa to. Similarly, in the preface to his celebrated work, Epistemologies of the south: Justice against Epistemicide, Boaventura de Sousa Santos indicates that he seeks to defend three important postulates:
First, the understanding of the world by far exceeds the Western understanding of the world. Second, there is no global social justice without global cognitive justice. Third, the emancipatory transformations in the world may follow grammars and scripts other than those developed by Western-centric critical theory, and such diversity should be valorized.
Nevertheless, there are several encouraging initiatives to address the epistemic injustice in Africa. The valiant struggle of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who has consistently pointed out that using African languages in creative writing is an act of decolonising the mind, Kwasi Wiredu, who advocates for the same approach in African philosophy, and the six African philosophers who wrote book chapters in their mother tongues for the edited volume Listening to ourselves: A Multilingual Anthology of African Philosophy, are all efforts at challenging the hegemonic Western system of knowledge production. Besides, the research and teaching projects in African languages, African oral and written histories, African oral and written literatures, African music, African art, African philosophy, among others are evidence that a sizeable number of academics in Africa have perceived the problem, and are determined to contribute to the turning of the tide.
Yet several intellectuals who have raised their voices against global capitalism and the attendant hegemonic Western system of knowledge production have borne the brunt of state violence: Samir Amin was forced into exile from his native Egypt in 1960 for his Marxist but anti-Stalinist views; Paulo Freire’s success in teaching Brazilian peasants how to read landed him in prison and a subsequent long and painful exile; Walter Rodney’s exposition of the damage inflicted on Africa by European mercantilism that evolved into capitalism in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa resulted in his imprisonment in his native land of Guyana, and his death as a result of a car bomb blast in Georgetown, Guyana, remains a mystery, as does the plane crush that cut short Claude Ake’s life during the autocratic reign of Sani Abacha in Nigeria; Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the Sani Abacha regime in Nigeria, and Wole Soyinka escaped Abacha’s murderous hand by a whisker; Ngugi wa Thiong’o spent time as a detainee without trial in a Kenyan maximum security prison for organising a peasants’ theatre group to perform his anti-capitalist plays, and later went into decades of exile, and the list is much longer than this. Nevertheless, the intellectuals of the exploited and oppressed peoples of Africa must continue to innovate in a bid to contribute towards the true liberation of their continent.
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Book Review: Power, Politics and the Law by Githu Muigai
Prof Githu Muigai book, whose full title is Power, Politics and Law: Dynamics of constitutional change in Kenya, 1887- 2022 delves into the history of constitutional change from the colonial era to the present day, and will be found helpful by those looking for an overview of the key developments in our constitutional history.
Kenyans are often chided for not being interested in their history, a claim that I find as reductive as it is insulting. There are many Kenyans who are interested in—and actually learn—our history, at least the one that has been presented to us. Even where we know that the history presented to us is curated to serve particular ends, we consume it and also attempt to read between the lines. Furthermore, history is not just what is written. There is a good tradition of oral history that helps us critique what has been presented to us in books.
That being said, it is delightful when Kenyan scholars and intellectuals set their sights on documenting various aspects of Kenyan history and offering it to us. In recent years, we have seen the publication of numerous memoirs by public figures that are, to varying degrees, helping us to catch glimpses of our history and of that part of our society that many of us do not have access to. These are useful and we need more of them; hopefully better written and more honest ones. However, we also need analytical texts that delve into particular topics in depth. Prof Githu Muigai’s book Power, Politics and Law: Dynamics of constitutional change in Kenya, 1887- 2022, published in 2022 by Kabarak University Press, is one such intervention.
Githu’s book presents a history of constitutional change from the colonial era to the present day. Overall, the book feels very much like a series of lectures that Prof Muigai would deliver to his Constitutional Law classes at the university. The core argument that he advances in the book, that constitution making is political, is a fairly straightforward one. Still, the book has important gems that are worth encountering. The book has a textbook feel, which is at once helpful and frustrating. It will no doubt be helpful for those looking for a consolidated overview of the key developments in our constitutional history. However, it will frustrate those who are looking for more depth into the political dynamics undergirding constitutional development, who Prof Muigai may argue are not his target audience. This notwithstanding, I have found the book useful and will certainly be referencing it in my writing because it documents things that we know but whose sources we may struggle to find and name.
The initial chapters of the book—especially chapters 2 and 3—kept me fully in their grip because they presented me with a history of Kenya that I have not encountered before, or that has not been presented to me in the systematic manner that Githu presents it. In my history classes both in primary school and secondary school, I learnt about Kenya’s colonial history from the Berlin conference of 1885 (the Partition of Africa), the entry of Imperial British East Africa (IBEA) company and the arrival of notable figures like Lord Delamere. We also learnt about the struggle for independence, the Lancaster Constitution and its mutilation in the post-independence years. In that sense, not much of what Githu presents here is new. Githu’s innovation—that I find incredibly helpful—is in drawing clear linkages between the various historical events that were presented to us as distinct and somewhat unrelated. He helps the reader to see the bigger picture.
Githu offers us some important historical insights that many readers will not have encountered. While the emergence of the Kenyan state is quite well known, the nuances of how the Imperial British East Africa (IBEA) company adopted and applied Indian Laws to Kenya are less well known. From Githu’s book, I learnt that the idea of dividing the territory into provinces and districts emanated from India. Additionally, Githu offers an interesting and nuanced historical analysis of the politics of European settlers in Kenya. We learn, for instance, that the settlers campaigned for Kenya to be made a colony in 1905 through their lobby group that was called The Colonists Association. Githu notes that their claims for Kenya to be made a colony were based on the idea that “a system of taxation without representation was unsatisfactory”. He also shows divisions between them as illustrated by the refusal of Lord Delamere, the leader of the settlers, to take up his appointment in the Legislative Council (Legco) in March 1913.
Githu’s innovation is in drawing clear linkages between the various historical events that were presented to us as distinct and somewhat unrelated. He helps the reader to see the bigger picture.
While I find the nuanced and complex picture of the settlers that Githu presents fascinating, it is also one of the sources of my frustration with the book, especially with respect to the treatment of Africans in the text. It is painfully obvious that Africans are completely absent from the early part of the book. As such, it appears as if the Kenyan state emerged in the complete absence of Africans. Assigning the same level of complexity to Africans as he does to the European settlers would have led Prof Muigai to note the collaboration and resistance of Africans to colonial rule. In fact, the first African to emerge in the book is Eliud Mathu (on page 72). We learn that he was a graduate of Balliol College at the University of Oxford who was nominated to the Legco in 1940s. This points to another challenge I have with the book: its focus on the elites. Notably, only the political elite and Western scholars are named in the main text of the book. Even where some Kenyan scholars are quoted directly and their contributions seem central to the argument being advanced in the text, Githu refers to them in generic terms, such as “student”, “scholar”, “historian”, with their names being relegated to the footnotes.
I need not go into his elaborate examination of pre-colonial constitutional change from 1945 to 1960, which he examines in Chapter 3, as this is probably well understood by anyone who is familiar with Kenyan colonial history. It is worth noting, however, that he presents a very useful overview of the various constitutions, from the Lyttleton Constitution to the Lennox-Boyd Constitution. He then proceeds, in Chapter 4, to examine the Lancaster conferences and the making of the Independence Constitution. Again, as these developments are widely presented in Kenya’s political history, it is not necessary to go into much detail here except to note how some of the conflicts between the political elite continue to resurface, albeit in varied forms, in present-day Kenya. One example here is on the structure of the executive representation. Here, Githu demonstrates that change has been a core part of our constitutional history because we have consistently postponed the most complex political questions that we face as a country.
Githu’s core argument is very adequately advanced in the latter part of the book (Chapters 5 to 8), where he examines constitutional change in post-colonial era. There are many gems here showing how elite conflicts were converted into constitutional questions, followed by constitutional amendments in some cases. Whenever the law was seen as an impediment to the exercise of power, it was changed. While society groups and foreign actors are completely absent in Githu’s analysis of the political and constitutional development of the 1960s to the 1980s, they emerge in a strong sense in the analysis of the period from the 1990s onwards. A divide that I find interesting here is between the mainstream churches, many of whose leaders stood against autocracy, and the evangelical churches that did not, saying that they were committed to “praying for the Government in obedience to the word of God and praying for those in authority”. This is an area that will require more scholarly engagement in the coming days especially given the ascendancy of evangelical Christianity in Kenya.
There are many gems here showing how elite conflicts were converted into constitutional questions, followed by constitutional amendments in some cases.
Githu also presents a good overview of the politics of expertise. He notes that the role of experts in the constitutional review process began with a consultancy offered by the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) to draft a model constitution. He then traces how “experts” came to increasingly occupy a central place in the drafting of the constitution that was eventually adopted by Kenyans in 2010. Here, it is curious that Githu fails to acknowledge that he was one of these “experts”. Even the reader who is not aware, going into the text, that Githu was a key actor in those processes will be made aware in the foreword by Prof Willy Mutunga, legal scholar and former Chief Justice, that Githu was a commissioner in the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (2000-2005). Githu would later become Attorney General. This is a crucial omission. Honesty about his involvement in these processes would be crucial at this point because it would not only help the reader understand the lens through which Githu is presenting his analysis of the processes that he is involved in but also how his experiences shape how he interprets the past. It is important to acknowledge that, ultimately, there is no such thing as a neutral observer, let alone a neutral participant. This section of the book leaves the reader feeling that there is a wealth of insight that we have not been offered. Perhaps, this is reason enough for Githu to document his experiences elsewhere.
My key takeaways from the book are that inter-elite conflicts have been and will continue to be central to the making of constitutions in Kenya and that the core areas of conflict in Kenya are never fully resolved, meaning that they will keep resurfacing.
On the inter-elite conflicts, Githu adds to the existing commentary showing how our political leaders play an ongoing game of musical chairs (forming and leaving alliances constantly) and changing their policy positions guided by contingent political realignments. One may vehemently oppose a constitutional amendment today and become its most ardent defender tomorrow and vice-versa. There are so many examples of this phenomena that it is not necessary to present any here.
On the “never-quite-done” point, devolution presents a good example. It has been an issue from the pre-colonial days to the present day, and as Githu observes, is likely to continue being debated into the future. The structure of the national executive is another example whose continuity is best illustrated by the efforts of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) to re-establish the position of Prime Minister—by whatever name—and the appointment of Musalia Mudavadi to such a position (Prime Cabinet Secretary) by President Ruto recently.
Following his extensive historical survey of constitutional development in Kenya, I think that Githu aptly identifies the areas where efforts to review the 2010 constitution will emerge: devolution, senate, gender representation and the system of government, particularly as it relates to the structure of the executive. I would add that paying attention to the ascendancy of the evangelical movement, the issues on which the evangelical movement and the leadership of the current government campaigned against the 2010 constitution, such as abortion and Kadhi’s Courts, are likely to re-emerge.
Githu aptly identifies the areas where efforts to review the 2010 constitution will emerge.
In the end, Githu is optimistic about the 2010 constitution. He argues that “a rigid Constitutional amendment procedure, an active and vigilant citizenry, and the presence of activist judges in the Judiciary” will serve to anchor the resilience of the 2010 constitution. As such, he predicts that the fate that befell the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) is likely to befall many of the reform efforts that are likely to emerge. I would like to agree with him. However, my reading of Kenyan politics, and given that none of the factors he notes are immutable, makes me more reticent about this outcome. To me, the resilience of the 2010 constitution remains to be seen; that is, if one is to say that it is the resilience of the constitution that matters more to the Kenyan people rather that its dynamism.
The Crisis of the US dollar: Lessons From the Meltdown in Britain
The progressive forces in Europe and North America must join with the Global Social Justice Movements and embrace the global call for a New International Economic Order
Citizens of the Global South need to organize at all levels to abort the threat of neo fascism internationally. These societies will have to organize to defend living standards, save the environment and build effective finance and trading blocks to stop the transfer of the costs of the financial crisis onto the backs and shoulders of the peoples of the Global South. The accelerated push for the de dollarization of the international financial system will intensify the push of US militarists and prop up neo fascist forces.
Where are we now?
The political and economic implosions in Europe in the midst of the global meltdown of capital has tremendous implications for all peoples of the world, but especially for peoples of the Global South. Within the countries of Africa there are military interventions, increased hunger, massive displacements of youth, instability for poor farmers and workers along with a reckless outflow of capital generated by the supine African political class. In most of Asia, the working peoples are seeking defensive measures to ensure that global capital does not intensify the pain of the people. Especially in the ASEAN states, the presence of alternative bases for financial and trading relations ensure that finance capital does not have full sway over all sections of society.
The COVID -19 pandemic has alerted peoples in all parts of the world to struggle for universal health care and to control the big pharmaceutical industries. Within the Americas, it is in the region of Latin America where there is now a vigorous social movement to challenge the local forces that represent the International Monetary Fund and finance capital. From Bolivia to Chile and from Colombia to Peru, the mass of the peoples has resorted to electoral struggles to oppose the local representatives of foreign capital. These electoral victories provided some political space for Cuba and Venezuela.
Within the USA, the ruling Democratic Party controls all three branches the political system: the Presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, but they have been too compromised to stand up to finance capital, the barons of Wall Street and big Pharma. With the frustrations of the working people bubbling over, the conservative sections of the political class have resorted to nativism and the crudest forms of white supremacist mobilization to divide the over 160 million employed in the country. The traditional trade union formations have been unable to build a coherent organizational platform to address the needs of a diverse workforce. After four decades of the deindustrialization of the society, with capital shifting jobs to cheaper labor markets, the traditional working class hubs in the midwestern states have succumbed to the appeals of those who are demanding to Make America Great Again (MAGA). The strategy of mobilizing collective ignorance and illiteracy about the realities of the global economy ensures that even so-called economists and pundits are naive about global shifts. Dependence on the narrow band of information coming from their English counterparts reinforce a false sense of the global balance of forces. In this narrow frame, the so called ‘special relationship’ represents another blinder from grasping the dynamic forces at work globally, and especially in Europe. The challenges posed by the war in Ukraine and by the move to neo fascism are whether the entire planet will be engulfed in the unforeseen circumstances of the weaponization of everything.
All over Europe, the political and economic disasters have been exacerbated by the intensification of militarism in the Ukraine front. This Russian invasion of Ukraine emanated from the unresolved contradictions that precipitated two imperialist wars starting in 1914. This current war has brought to the surface the full implications of the fragility of the US political system as de dollarization accelerates around the world. Citizens in all continents are confronted with the deep effects of runaway profiteering by the billionaire class, escalating food and energy costs, inflation, extreme climate catastrophes, insecurities and deteriorating economic conditions for all but the super-rich. In the absence of the tools available to the Federal Reserve in North America, the European political managers have increased interest rates to the point where many homeowners cannot afford to pay their mortgages. Many small businesspersons are finding it difficult to survive. Workers are threatening to carry out industrial actions to defend their standard of living.
The United States energy czars are demanding that the Europeans pay four times the price for natural gas so that the Europeans can disconnect their energy supplies from Russia. So far, the Germans have been able to offer a 200 billion Euro subsidy to the German people for the coming winter, but most of Europe are sacrificing their societies to please the militarists in the United States. In the midst of these economic pressures, it is the white racists and neo fascists who are reaping the political benefits. One has seen this trend already in Italy and Sweden where the neo fascists are coming to dominate the political spaces. In France, the neo–Fascist National Party are now the top political force in the country. The political strength of the extreme right in the USA forced President Biden to warn the society of ‘the threat of a rising fascistic movement to the stability of the republic, which is to say that undercurrents, or elements of fascistic politics in America have steadily grown more extreme in recent decades, particularly in recent years under Trump’s presidency.”
It is in the British Isles where the delusions of Global Britain are manifest in the circus variety performance with the political ups and downs of the ruling conservative party. After succumbing to the xenophobic appeals of the push to leave the European Union (Brexit), the British workers are now faced with a political and economic class who have no interest in seeking to lessen the pain of the working people. The ascension of the multi-millionaire Rishi Sunak to be the Prime Minister is being celebrated as the advent of diversity with a nonwhite as the Prime Minister, but Sunak is openly contemptuous of working people. His utterances have been consistent with his social class, with the added naivete of one who have been cut off from the reality of working people all of his short life. The British media welcomed his becoming the third Prime Minister in four months saying, “Ultra rich, young and the first person of colour to become UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak will also make history as the first practising Hindu to lead the country.” Sunak once boasted that he had changed Labour party policies “which shoved all the funding into deprived urban areas” so that funding could go to wealthy towns instead.
This is the current imperial strategy to shift resources from the poor to the rich. As the dominant imperial power for centuries, Britain had been the master at covering up genocidal policies and criminal acts of plunder. The Global Reparations movement has brought out these crimes to the point where even insiders such as Ferdinand Mount have written on the “The Tears of the Rajas.” Rishi Sunak is not about to call on Britain to account for the crimes of the British East India Company.
For four centuries, Britain had presented itself as a bastion of the rule of law, fair play and the stability of the financial and political system. This exaggerated representation of British capital had been challenged by the anti-colonial forces in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. After the Suez debacle of 1956, the British rulers had been able to attach themselves to the US dollar in a ‘special relationship’ which meant that Britain would be junior partners in halting self-determination projects globally. In this 2022 moment, even that ‘special relationship’ is being tested as the IMF and the US ruling classes are seeking to punish the British for not carrying out the necessary propaganda work to ensure that now dead Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng subsidies to capital were properly marketed by the right-wing media. The now disgraced Liz Truss and her Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng attempted to force the subsidies for the capitalists in a mini budget after the funeral ceremonies of Queen Elizabeth II. The plan, presented by Kwarteng on September 23, promised huge tax cuts and increased borrowing. Kwarteng’s proposed mini budget included a plan to scrap the highest rate of income tax to 40% from 45%, which was later abandoned after public anger. A removal of the cap on bankers’ bonuses also deep fury amid a cost-of-living crisis hitting British families. It quickly plunged the value of the pound and government bonds over fears that it would further juice inflation at a time when prices are already rising at their fastest rate in about 40 years. That prompted the Bank of England to warn of a serious risk to UK financial stability and announce three separate interventions to calm a bond market meltdown that put some UK pension funds on the brink of default.
The objection of the IMF and the money markets was not that billions of dollars were to be handed out to the corporations and the super-rich. It was that they were not funded by cutting spending but by an increase in government debt to the tune of close to 70billion pounds.
The current implosion of the ruling elements in Britain is now opening the eyes of working peoples in other parts of the globe. Because the British represented themselves as global players, the effects of the political crisis in Britain have global implications. It is now important to have a short review of the new tensions that have arisen for the pound and the dollar in the face of the current global crisis of capitalism,
Bring back Thatcherism in the 21st century
After the decolonization struggles of the sixties and the failure to roll back the forces of national independence, the bankers of North America and Europe popularized the ideas of Milton Friedman that capital should be given free rein to the point of rolling back the social gains of health, education, pensions, and social security of social democratic capitalism. Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman were two economists from the period of World War II who opposed Keynesian economics. These economists were rescued by the conservative political wave of Reaganism and Thatcherism at the end of the seventies when most of the countries of the world were calling for a New International Economic Order (NIEO). By1971, the refrain of Friedman was that sole responsibility of a company is to its shareholders, the mantra of shareholder value and the relentless pursuit of profits must be the raison d’être of capital. This was the ideological legitimation to conceal the big push for the US dollar to recover and for the United States to launch a campaign of the military management of the international system.
The story of Thatcherism and Margaret Thatcher is now well known by citizens who oppose hyena type capitalism. Her party in 1979 enthusiastically agreed to this deal of the military management of the system with the City of London and the financial sector of Britain acting as the back stop for the forms of illicit financial activities that could not pass the eyes of the tame US Congressional Committees. The Thatcherite years of so called ‘growth, growth’ economic agenda was pushed through on the basis of the massive repression of the British working class, most vividly expressed in the crushing of the mine workers union. Finance capital cheered on both sides of the Atlantic as the banks and financial houses with Goldman Sachs in the lead went on a vigorous campaign to roll back social democracy all over Europe.
Despite the Friedman doctrine that the state should leave economic outcomes to the market, after four years of the Reagan Administration, the US was faced with a large budget deficit and high interest rates. The twin problems of budget deficit and high interest rates had fueled a relentless climb in the dollar, opening a huge gap in the trade balance. The state did not stay out of the marketplace. In September 1985, the Reagan Administration forced the Germans and Japanese buy yen and marks to reduce the value of the dollar. (The Plaza Accord, 30 Years Later | NBER) When the Germans and the Japanese attempted to protest by calling on the US to be fiscally responsible and cut their budget deficit, Reagan quipped that the sacrifices of Germany and Japan were needed because the US had troops on their soil protecting them from communism.
The folly of the Wall Street strategy of feeding greed and speculation was brought out in the open in the big stock market crash of the US in October 1987. In response to the crash—at more than 22 percent, one of the largest one-day fall in history—then chair of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, committed the Federal Reserve to supply the stock market with all the liquidity it needed. This policy of the Federal Reserve was to become a permanent component of US militarism as the US understood that every major financial crisis led to the strengthening of the US dollar. Hence since 1987, this Greenspan Guarantee to the financial market became official policy. This was policy that whenever the speculative activities of Wall Street produced a crisis, the Fed would be on hand to bail it out and provide more money with which to finance new levels of speculation. This was the Fed’s response to every financial storm in the 1990s and into the first years of the new century. This promise was to be restated after the 2008 financial meltdown when the US came up with the policy of Quantitative Easing (QE) where the federal Reserve of the US bought up treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities, which was basically printing dollars.
After the October 1987 crash which reverberated around the world, the German French alliance had deepened in the face of the dollar becoming a fiat currency. The removal of the gold backing for the US dollar in August 1971 had induced the, then, French president Charles De Gaulle to rail against the Exorbitant Privilege of the Dollar. France and Germany were going to align to challenge the Exorbitant privilege by the expansion of German capital in Europe, the deepening of French imperial exploitation of Africa.
The push for deeper European financial and monetary integration accelerated with the Treaty of Maastricht that laid the legal architecture for the emergence of the European Union. The Union was established after the enlargement of the German base for accumulation across Southern Europe spread to Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today the EU embraces 27 states across Europe. After the Reagan bullying of the Plaza accords, both former President Valery Giscard d ‘Estaing of France and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of Germany mooted the idea of the European Monetary System (EMS) but this idea was pushed through after the German unification in 1990 culminating with the arrival of the Euro to contest the dollar as the dominant global currency. Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany had taken the diplomatic offensive to unite Germany and immediately took the offensive to engage with the new emerging capitalist forces of China and the ASEAN countries. Years earlier, Chancellor Schmidt and President Giscard d’Estaing encouraged joint French-German aerospace and arms production, as well as joint nuclear reactor development: inaugurated regular EU summits that took Europe’s political direction away under the thumb of the US military. Later the German Chancellors, Kohl and Merkel sought to extend the independence of Europe by building closer relations with Russia with massive German investments in Russia.
The solidarity of western capital behind Anglo American finance capital had held as long as there was a challenge to the capitalist mode of production. Once the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the solidarity had evaporated, and the European capitalists led by France and Germany embarked on establishing an alternative to the dollar hegemony. The Germans and the French started discussing creating their own military alliance (PESCO) to distance Europe from the domination of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) was the Franco German Initiative to pave the way for the creation of a European army. The plan was for the European army to back up the European currency.
Deepening of the Capitalist Crisis in the 21st Century.
The dawn of the 21st century saw the expansion of US military adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and in Africa. Britain had joined with the USA as junior partners in these military escapades with NATO becoming the military force to prop up the financialization of energy markets. By the start of the Iraq war, German and French leaders were outspoken against this brand of overt militarization. German Finance Capital was seeking room to enforce its own brand of neo liberalism to roll back social democratic gains and to strengthen the German banking system with the context European Central Bank as the backbone of the Euro system.
European capitalists in all parts of that continent could not escape the contagion from the 2007/8 financial crisis. The underlying instability generated by the recklessness of the Wall Street bankers had brought the western financial system close to disaster with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. In that crisis, the Greenspan Guarantee was to be implemented via the Obama administration and under the stewardship of Ben Bernanke. For that period of crisis management, Bernanke was in 2022 awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics.
The Federal reserve spent more than $4tn in its various rounds of bond buying. Most defenders of the money managers have produced reams of papers to convince the world that the first round of printing money was a success – it was big enough, and lasted long enough, for in the eyes of the opinion makers, this printing of money had prevented a more dire economic situation. These opinion makers drowned out the calls for the nationalizing of the banks and to make the financial sector accountable to elected officials who were not dependent on Wall Street. The Fed increased its holdings of government debt from around $800 billion to about $4 trillion, leading to the creation of a mountain of debt and fictitious capital, reflected in the rise of Wall Street to record highs after reaching its nadir in March 2009. By the time of the COVID -19 pandemic ten years later, this impulse of printing dollars had gone out of control. After perfunctory meetings of the G20 in 2010, the Federal Reserve of the US alone more than doubled its holdings of financial assets, almost overnight, from $4 trillion to nearly $9 trillion, and became the guarantor for all forms of debt, government and corporate. The total amount injected into the financial system by central banks is estimated to be around $13 trillion.
For a moment after the 2008/9 Wall Street Meltdown became global, the social movements for peace and social justice expanded all over the world with electoral victories for progressive forces in Brazil. In the USA, the alliance between the peace, environmentalists and anti-capitalist forces had merged in the Occupy movement. This briefly galvanized people, but the forces of darkness organized the extremists (epitomized by the Tea Party) while the Obama administration doubled down to support Wall Street. A massive offensive against the Occupy movement was sustained internationally by the assault on the last vestiges of social democracy in Europe. Austerity measures at the economic level provided the economic background for the drastic social expenditures on health, housing, education, and pensions. Many of the surviving social democratic alliances crumbled in Europe. The Eurozone crisis deepened in the absence of the ability of the Europeans to fully unleash Quantitative Easing. By 2015, the Bernanke forces allowed the Japanese and the Europeans to implement their own Quantitative Easing, but by then the US had to resort to the weaponization of finance to coerce countries such as China, Venezuela, Iran and Russia to abide to the dictates of Wall Street.
Effects of printing Money
The weaponization of finance by the USA had rippling effects across the planet. The Iranian and Cuban economies demonstrated that despite tremendous hardships, Third World societies could navigate the weaponization of the dollar. In Asia, the ASEAN countries refined the Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI) to be beefed up as the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization (CMIM), a single pooled reserve scheme to protect the ASEAN countries from the bullying of the IMF. According to McKinsey, Asia is on track to contribute more than 50 percent of global GDP by 2040 and to drive 40 percent of the world’s consumption. Asia’s share of global capital flows now stands at 23 percent, compared to 13 percent just a decade ago. Quiet as it is being kept, it is the countries of the ASEAN states and the RCEP that are the most aggressive in the current push for de dollarization. Singapore is positioning itself as the hub for new and innovative digital transactions outside of the sphere of the dollar.
China and Russia began to experiment with the establishment of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) bank. Russia took the lead within BRICS to call for ending the dominance of Wall Street and the dollar as the dominant reserve currency. After the collapse of the centrally planned system of the USSR in 1991, there had grown a class of Russian billionaires, but the political class was still nationalist and did not seek to become a client state of the USA. This nationalism within Russia placed the leadership on a collision course with the barons of Wall Street and their gendarme represented by NATO. The provocations generated by the plans to expand NATO right up the borders with Russia in Ukraine precipitated a new war which is still unfolding.
Within Latin America and the Caribbean, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States called CELAC rallied to short circuit the military and economic push to remove the Venezuelan government. Inside Brazil, Lula has been campaigning for the creation of a Latin American currency capable of overcoming the region’s dependence on the dollar.
Despite the nationalist responses in CELAC, BRICS and the ASEAN societies, global capital was immeasurable strengthened in relation to the mass of the peoples of the planet. The Fitch Ratings-London-21 October 2022 noted that,
“The Federal Reserve continues to act aggressively on interest rates, pushing the US dollar to historically high levels against several Fitch20 currencies. Given that other central banks are also tightening in response to rising inflation, government bond yields are rising to levels not seen in years.”………… “Many Fitch20 currencies including the euro, the Japanese yen, the British pound, the Australian dollar, the Canadian dollar, the Chinese yuan and many other emerging market currencies have lost ground against the US dollar.”
If convertible currencies have lost ground, Fitch and the financial rating agencies have not begun to compute the impact of the Global South. Raising rates draws capital toward the US economy and away from emerging markets. As capital inflows push up the dollar’s value, capital outflows pull down emerging-economy currencies, which makes it much harder for governments and companies to service their US-denominated debt. The global poor are hit especially hard by food and energy costs, because those commodities are priced in dollars on the world market. US and EU sanctions on Russia are also ruining economies around the world by creating acute scarcity of key commodities and supercharging
Transferring wealth from Poor to Rich
If Rishi Sunak boasted that he steered resources from poorer communities to richer communities in Britain, he is now a key partner for his former employers Goldman Sachs to steer resources from the poor in the world to the rich countries. The neo liberal policies of the past 35 years facilitated the transfer of wealth into the hands of a global corporate and financial oligarchy. Despite the scandals of the LIBOR corruption among bankers, the British accomplices of Wall Street still seek to be global players giving offshore cover to billionaires.
Data published by Forbes in April showed that in 2020 alone the collective wealth of the world’s billionaires increased by 60 percent from $8 trillion to $13.1 trillion, described by the magazine as “the greatest acceleration of wealth in human history.” According to Institute for Policy Studies analysis of Forbes data, the combined wealth of all U.S. billionaires increased by $2.071 trillion (70.3 percent) between March 18, 2020 and Ocobter 15, 2021, from approximately $2.947 trillion to $5.019 trillion. Of the more than 700 U.S. billionaires, the richest five (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, and Elon Musk) saw an 123 percent increase in their combined wealth during this period, from $349 billion to $779 billion.
Thomas Piketty in seeking to grasp the impact of Capital in the 21st century had focused on inequality, but Income inequality was only one indicator of the inbuilt relations of finance capital, the front line shock troop for modern imperialism. Piketty had excluded the military component of the expansion of capital and modern imperialism. Michael Hudson succinctly outlined three ways in which the flooding of dollars through debt leverage and QE supports the US military.: (1) the surplus dollars pouring into the rest of the world for yet further financial speculation and corporate takeovers; (2) the fact that central banks are obliged to recycle these dollar inflows to buy U.S. Treasury bonds to finance the federal U.S. budget deficit; and most important (but most suppressed in the U.S. media, (3) the military character of the U.S. payments deficit and the domestic federal budget deficit. He continued, “Strange as it may seem and irrational as it would be in a more logical system of world diplomacy the “dollar glut” is what finances America’s global military build-up. It forces foreign central banks to bear the costs of America’s expanding military empire effective “taxation without representation.” Keeping international reserves in “dollars” means recycling their dollar inflows to buy U.S. Treasury bills U.S. government debt issued largely to finance the military.”
One limitation of Hudson’s analysis is that he has not sufficiently grasped the impact on Africa since he wrote the ‘Sieve of Gold’ over fifty years ago.
It is in Africa where the intensification of exploitation was manifest in militarism, massive flights of capital, instability, and general looting. Britain and France had orchestrated the destruction of Libya in order to shore up the European economies with the massive foreign currency reserves of Libya. European workers were suborned to the destructive activities by finance capital by raising the twin bogey of terrorism and the massive immigrant flow to Europe. European workers were not informed of the collaboration of the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council in stoking instability in Africa. The US military strengthened its military operations all across Africa with the US military actually training coup plotters in Guinea when the working people wanted to organize the workers to fight for better conditions. The Pentagon stoked the fires of war and destruction in the Indian Ocean and West Asia area by deploying former top generals to manage warfare in places such as Yemen as consultants.
The military management of the international system received a major setback for US capital with the military defeat of the US military in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. With every military setback overseas, militarism and white supremacy surged in the USA with the billionaire class bankrolling MAGA. Six billionaires stood out from among the billionaire class in supporting the extreme nativism of the MAGA forces. Peter Thiel, Stephen Schwarzman, and Ken Griffin, Steve Wynn, Mike Lindell and Patrick Byrne represented one faction of Global Capital that had the Fox organization of Rupert Murdoch to amplify the neo fascist ideas of the MAGA elements. As the COVID 19 deaths and suffering escalated around the world in 2020, the Federal Reserve government handed Larry Fink of Blackrock the authority to manage its massive corporate debt purchase program in response to the Covid-19 crisis. Larry Fink (of Blackrock private equity) and Stephen Schwarzman (of Blackstone private equity) were ring leaders for the Donald Trump Strategic and Policy Forum. Once the COVID 19 pandemic exploded on the world, Fink and Blackrock were handed the responsibility to manage the US $4.5 trillion corporate slush-fund. Millions died from this pandemic while Wall Street and the corporate media silenced those sections of the globe who were calling for universal health care and for reigning in the power of the billionaires.
Like the Occupy movement of 2010, the Black Lives Matter movement erupted as a social force to oppose militarism and white supremacy. But by the middle of the COVID -Pandemic and the launch of the war in Ukraine there was a convergence of interests between the MAGA forces and those in the Democratic party who were beholden to Wall Street.
From Crisis to Crisis: COVID 19, war and neo fascism.
From the economic downturn of 2001 through the financial meltdown of Wall Street to the Euro zone Crisis to Brexit and the War in Ukraine, economic polarization and political repression in Europe went hand in glove. The climate crisis demanded state intervention and international cooperation, but with every climate calamity, the right-wing media doubled down to oppose closer international cooperation to turn a new leaf in economic management. British Capital had been a weak link in the chain of imperial domination since the Suez crisis of 1956. Britain held grudgingly to its position as an offshore base for speculative capital basing a lot of illicit financial flows in Britain or in colonial outposts such as the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean. In the face of the strength of German capital in Europe, those elements of British capitalism that wanted to be free of German domination in Europe orchestrated the exit of Britain from the European Union. The British Economy had been stagnating throughout the 20 year period after 2001, with the economy of India overtaking the economy of Britain by 2022. At the time of the Brexit vote in 2016 the British economy was 90 per cent the size of Germany’s. Now in 2022 it is less than 70 per cent. For the British ruling class a return to the era of Rule Britannia was to be the basis for the recovery of British capital. This was based on a false understanding of the new multi polar realities of Global capital.
The ruling Conservative alliance in Britain had mobilized the British workers against European workers and divided the British workers with racism and jingoism. Boris Johnson as the right-wing puppet master had imploded in 2022 leading to a change in political leadership. However, this change in leadership did not evince any change in the supine role being played by the British military in Ukraine. When the Russian army invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the British were the leading cheerleaders for supporting the militaristic forces in Europe and opposing negotiations. Germany and France had been negotiating with Russia over the outstanding issues between Russian and Ukraine since the breakup of the USSR in 1991. Among the outstanding issues that had been discussed at Minsk 1 & 2 were the future of Crimea, the future of the Russian speaking areas of Ukraine, the expansion of NATO and the brazenness of the neo fascist forces. These issues can only be resolved by diplomatic interventions and not by war.
The USA was willing to push the war to the last Ukrainian and to force the working peoples of Europe to subsidize the war. It was in the escalating cost of food, energy and basic necessities where a new political leadership was necessary. But the baggage of the neo liberal ideas of Thatcherism prevented any kind of serious alternatives to austerity measures. Boris Johnson was forced to resign in July and by September a new leader appeared in the person of Liz Truss. Two days afterTruss was formally appointed prime minister the very aged, 96 year old Queen Elizabeth II decided to exit the scene. This exit robbed the ruling elements in the City of London one distraction that could divert them from the intense social crisis.
But the crisis would not go away, high prices for energy, food and the high interest rates fell on the backs and the shoulders of the British workers.
The political and economic crisis in Britain deepened by the day with the absence of clear thinking on how to curb the greed of the capitalist class. US capital is now isolated, even if it seems to be riding out this moment with the rise in the value of the US dollar. In many respects, Ukraine War represents one front in the multi-dimensional struggle to save the US dollar as the currency of world trade. The German and European dependence on Russia for energy had to be undermined because the possibilities of the Euro replacing the dollar as the currency of energy transactions in Europe was real.
The Ukraine War speeds de dollarization
Temporarily, collective Western sanctions has seized all the foreign exchange reserves of the Central Bank of Russia that were held in the West. The US led campaign against Russia is inspiring states all over the world to develop alternative financial and monetary platforms, systems and nerve centers beyond the direct control of Washington. In 2014, the Central Bank of Russia has already created its own messaging System for Transfer of Financial Messages (SPFS) to replace the SWIFT system dominated by the dollar and the EURO. The SWIFT system- Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, is technically a Belgian cooperative society created in 1973 and providing services related to the execution of financial transactions and payments between banks worldwide. Up to February 2022, this SWIFT messaging service successfully linked 11,000 banks and institutions in more than 200 countries, cushioning the dominance of the US dollar and its subaltern the Euro in polite competition.
With the SWIFT system drawn into the financial and trade wars, Russian banks have deepened their relations with Chinese state banks in order to build a substitute for SWIFT. With the System for Transfer of Financial Messages (SPFS) in place since 2014, the Russian leadership is now working with China to connect to China’s Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CIPS). CIPS is a Chinese alternative to SWIFT which processes payments in Chinese Yuan. The Russian leaders have stated that they are in no rush to refine this new payment system. If the SWIFT system has served the dollar since 1973, Russia can slowly develop this new system with China. In the words of one financial leader in Russia,
“We proceed from the need for a gradual transition from SWIFT to financial information transfer mechanisms protected from external pressure, for which we are actively developing the System for Transfer of Financial Messages (SPFS) of the Bank of Russia. This is a forced, but completely natural decision in an environment where Russian banks and their clients regularly encounter problems with routine international payments.” ..
The weaponization of finance has reinforced the determination of the BRICS countries to bypass and even challenge both the status of the US dollar as the hegemonic reserve currency and the transnational financial arteries organically linked to its circuits through vehicles such as gold and other hard assets with intrinsic value. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have applied to be members of BRICS while the leaders of Saudi Arabia have explicitly signaled a new alliance with Russia and China away from the US dollar. China and Saudi Arabia are negotiating oil being sold to China in Yuan. China is Saudi Arabia’s largest customer purchasing about 2 million barrels per day. The U.S. only purchases about 500,000 per day. Allowing China to purchase its oil in Yuan would reduce Dollar oil transactions by around 20% daily. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Qatar and are all queuing to become members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).The SCO is a military alliance which comprises of eight members (China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan ) Formed as a security alliance to counter the advance of NATO ,at the September summit of the SCO, the leaders of the SCO agreed on to take steps to increase the use of national currencies in trade between their countries. The group – – said “interested SCO member states” had agreed a “roadmap for the gradual increase in the share of national currencies in mutual settlements”, and called for an expansion of the practice.
As one Venezuelan news outlet commented,
“the message now is plain enough – if even a prominent G20 state can have its reserves cancelled at a flick of the switch, then, for those who still hold ‘reserves’ in New York, take them elsewhere whilst the going is good! And if you need to keep something of value in reserve against a rainy day, buy and hold gold.”
There is now a major push in all parts of the world to hoard gold in the face of the lessons of the sanctions against Iran, Venezuela and Russia. Buying and hoarding gold means intensified militarization in Africa with Russia aligning with France, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates in the Sudan and West Africa. The full extent of the Ukrainian conflagration exposes the interconnections between military, finance, cyber, economic and psychological warfare. The current war in Ukraine has set in motion a chain of events that will lead to unintended consequences for all of humanity.
Mobilizing oppressed peoples internationally against neo fascism and war
The interconnecting crises have pointed to the need for an alternate social system. Movements for social justice have emerged in all parts of the planet, but at this moment there is no central organizing strategy among these forces. The environmental justice and movements for reparative justice and healing from racial capitalism have seized the intellectual, moral and political leadership embracing peoples from all parts of the world. Thus far the traditional ‘left’ forces in Europe and North America have remained outside of the struggles for reparative justice. Even those inside the environmental justice movements have not seen the logical alliance between the struggles for environmental justice and reparative justice. It is inside Latin America where the alliances between indigenous peoples and African descendants have shifted the political balance where the reparations question is now front and center of the political agenda.
In one country where this alliance is most manifest, Colombian President, Gustav Petro, in his remarks to the General Assembly of the UN last month, stated: “The US is Ruining Economies Around the World” The new Colombian political leadership has pledged to demilitarize public life in Colombia and to strengthen the political place of African descendants and indigenous peoples.
The peoples of Chile, Brazil are also faced with the challenges of protecting property and privilege or dismantling centuries of militarism and oppression. These societies are faced with the stark choices between elaborating the rights of citizens or entrenching the traditions of neo fascist elements from the Pinochet era. Brazilian right wing forces are seeking to bring back the kind of repression and murder that came with the military dictatorship in Brazil, April 1964 to March 1985. The coup d’état by the Brazilian Armed Forces, with support from the United States government, against President João Goulart was a blow to all oppressed in the world. We are now on the threshold of whether the US will support anther right wing political destruction in Brazil. Lula has brought new energy to repair the militaristic traditions that Bolsonaro wants to revive.
German capitalists have some experience in managing a reparative platform while strengthening German capital. From Willy Brandt’s apology in Poland, to the apologies for the Holocaust and the apologies for the genocide in Namibia, the German intelligentsia have been able to massage the reparative claims by mobilizing the kind of reparations enterprise which would strengthen global capital as in the case of the reparations paid to the state of Israel and the descendants ofthose who perished in the Holocaust. White supremacists in North America are totally opposed to any opening of admission of crimes committed in the period of racial capitalism to the present. The Make America Great Again movement is instead calling on peoples of European descent to celebrate the crimes of genocide, enslavement, and colonialism.
Already in Europe the economic disruptions unleashed by rising energy prices has generated the new energies for right wing populism with pressures inside Europe to reassess the strategic pertinence of sanctions against Moscow. Serbia and Hungary have already broken ranks with the NATO sanctions. The big challenge is that the beneficiary of this war situation is the neo fascists. The neo fascists are forcing the progressive forces to combine their efforts to oppose war and neo fascism. Within the Global South, the client states of the US empire are threatened by massive resistance. Even the allies of US imperialism in West Asia are seeking room for maneuver outside the hegemony of the dollar. The decision of the Saudi Arabians to index their sale of oil to China in the Chinese currency (the Yuan) has only exacerbated their differences with the USA over the current energy prices. That the nominal leader of Saudi Arabia has chosen an alliance with Russia spoke volumes to the political tensions among militarists.
The combined opposition of the BRICS societies, RCEP, CELAC, Gulf Cooperation Council and France with Germany (supporters of the Euro) point to the increased isolation of the United States. As the weaponization of the dollar deepens, there is the alternative demand for a new international monetary system. All over the world the economic disruptions unleashed by rising energy prices, health pandemics, IMF calls for the devaluation of the return to workers and militarism has generated the new energies for progressive forces. It is in Europe where the baggage of racial capitalism holds back the ability of the left to build a new internationalist political program. Into this vacuum the right has stepped in with right wing populism. This populism is a double edged sword, because some sections of the people may pressure their leaders to reassess the strategic pertinence of sanctions against Moscow. Serbia and Hungary have already broken ranks. The big challenge is that the beneficiary this war situation are the neo fascists.
The progressive forces in Europe and North America must join with the Global Social Justice Movements and embrace the global call for a New International Economic Order. The challenge of the left is to understand the outline of the alternative social project and translate this into practical day to day programs so that wherever one lives and works one should not succumb to despair and pessimism.
This article was first published on Counter Punch.
Africa in the 21st Century: From Pawn to a Significant Player
The historic and humanistic project of fashioning African futures entails retrieving the past and reconstructing the present, and investing our imaginations and energies in envisioning a world that valorizes our duality as social beings and ecological beings, living in harmony with each other and sustainably with nature.
The world is undergoing profound and tumultuous transformations. Africa’s participation is likely to be uneven, messy, and unpredictable, but undoubtedly critical. The continent and its peoples have been an integral part of all momentous historical developments ever since the emergence of the modern world system half a millennium ago, indeed since the evolution of humanity on our incredibly beautiful but fragile planet increasingly despoiled and damaged by human activities.
However, more often than not Africa has been, as the late great Kenyan intellectual, Ali Mazrui, used to put it, a pawn rather than a player. What are the prospects for the continent becoming a key driver rather than a hapless passenger on the locomotive of global dramas and transformations in the 21st century? It is tempting to assume the ineluctability of Africa’s history of internal underdevelopment, external dependency, and global marginality. Evidence for such continuities is not hard to find in the voluminous data and indices churned incessantly by international agencies, consultancy firms, and academics on development, democracy, higher education, and even happiness in which Africa tends to score lower than other world regions.
Yet, beneath the invented and imaginary immutability of Africa’s fate, sanctified in the calcified and contemptuous narratives of Afro-pessimism, there are other developments, possibilities, and trajectories. Indeed, in the late 2000s and early 2010s, Afro-optimism arose from Africa’s purported hopelessness proclaimed by The Economist in 2000 or the “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s in Africanist discourse, with new hopes for self-determination, democratization, and development, the triple dreams of the enduring nationalist project. The “Africa Rising” narrative briefly captured the imagination of the ubiquitous development industry that is always looking to reinvent the frontiers of capitalist super exploitation. That optimism has faded a little, shuttered in part by the Covid-19 pandemic and apparent recessions of democracy and development.
Still, the 21st century is only in its infancy, and the future that is endlessly long cannot be foreclosed by the present. As a historian, I’m trained to be wary of crystal-gazing, indulging in futuristic fantasies of bliss or fears of blight, of forthcoming nirvana or damnation. As a scholar, I’m suspicious of both unbridled Afro-pessimism and Afro-optimism. I veer towards Afro-realism that entails candidly acknowledging the structural weight of history on the present, as well as the power of human agency, of contemporary social movements and reconfigurations of power, to refashion the future. The past, present, and future are inextricably intertwined by the subterranean material and superstructural ideological forces through which the dialectical dance of history takes place.
In this presentation, I would like to discuss three forces out of several that will affect the place of Africa and African peoples in the 21st century. They include demography, diaspora, and culture. Let me say at the outset that these are exceedingly complex, contradictory and rapidly changing dynamics that will be conditioned by equally complicated, conflicting, and shifting constellation of global forces. My argument is quite simple: Africa is likely to become an increasingly important player in global affairs. I will begin by briefly outlining the unfolding changes in the world political economy. Then, I will discuss at greater length the three major transformative forces for Africa’s repositioning mentioned above. I’ll conclude with a few reflections on the implications for international relations and higher education.
Global Crises and Transformations
Please allow me to preface my remarks by referencing two of my books, one published, another under preparation. In 2021, I published Africa and the Disruptions of the Twenty-First Century. In one chapter covering what I regard as momentous developments in the 2010s, I identified six key trends. At the moment, I’m working on a book tentatively titled, The Long Transition to the 21st Century: A Global History of the Present, in which I seek to elaborate on several of these themes.
The first trend is what I call the globalization of tribalism, which refers to the spread of ethnocultural, xenophobic, racist, fundamentalist, and jingoistic nationalisms. Second, democratic recessions manifested in democratic backsliding, polarization and breakdowns in civic discourse even in the so-called mature democracies, which is accompanied by countervailing resistance by social movements. Third, there is rising economic disequilibrium evident in slower economic growth in many world regions, deepening inequalities, and significant shifts in the world economy.
Fourth, the world is undergoing shifting hierarchies and hegemonies evident in intensifying international tensions and rivalries that are fueling the specter of decoupling and de-globalization. The economic and political weight of emerging economies has risen; in 2018 middle-income countries accounted for 53.6% of global GDP in terms of purchasing-power parity. In PPP terms China overtook the United States as the world’s largest economy in 2014, and by 2018 its GDP stood at US$25.3 trillion compared to US$20.7 trillion for the United States.
Fifth, is the emergence of digital capitalism embedded in the unfolding Fourth Industrial Revolution that is transforming all aspects of economic, social and political life as digital, biological and physical systems increasingly converge. Sixth, is what I term the rebellion of nature which refers to the accelerating onslaught of extreme weather events, from hurricanes, tornadoes, cyclones, tsunamis, floods, and blizzards to droughts, dust storms, and wildfires, to melting icecaps and rising sea levels that threaten the survival of many islands and coastal settlements. Scientific consensus, global consciousness, and commitment to sustainable development goals and climate mitigation and adaptation have grown led by indefatigable environmental moments.
Since the end of World War II when the development industry emerged and poverty was discovered as a global problem amenable to policy interventions, scholars and policy makers have grappled with explaining why some countries are developed and wealthy and others remain underdeveloped and poor. These questions have been addressed differently in the various academic disciplines and from divergent ideological perspectives informed by Marxist and neo-Marxist, neo-classical, neo-liberal, feminist, constructivist, postcolonial, and ecological theories.
In more popular discourses, there are the various determinisms of geographical location, cultural norms, historical pathways, and ideological predilections. Undoubtedly, geography, culture, history, and ideology affect the processes and patterns of development. But notions that civilization, modernity, or development are a monopoly of selected peoples in Euro-America are intellectually untenable and emanate from odious imperialist, racist, and white supremacist ideologies.
More compelling explanatory frameworks of development are those that stress the quality of institutions, social trust, and human capital. Time does not allow for elaboration. Suffice it to say, the quality of human capital refers to the knowledge, skill sets, experiences, and attributes that people possess, which reflects their levels of education and state of health. Since independence the imperative of building human capital has been widely recognized by African states, international and intergovernmental agencies, and civil society.
There are three critical dimensions to consider in relation to the continent’s human capital development. First, is the demographic explosion from the centuries’ long demographic devastations of the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism both perpetrated by Europe. While demography is not destiny, without population growth future destinies are compromised. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that Africa’s share of the world population returned to what it had been in 1750 when the slave trade intensified. Population growth began to accelerate from the 1960s.
Africa’s share of the world population grew from 9.3 percent in 1960 to 10.7 percent in 1980 to 13.2 percent in 2000 to 17.2 percent in 2020. In raw numbers, there were about 283 million Africans in 1960, the so-called year of African independence. The population skyrocketed to 811 million in 2000, and 1.341 billion in 2020. On current trends, it is projected to rise to 25.6 percent in 2050 (2.489 billion) and 39.4 percent in 2100 (4.28 billion). Thus, whatever the challenges of postcolonial Africa, the continent has been enjoying a historic rate of population growth which points to improvements in material conditions and more subterranean changes in collective mentalities, moral economies, and cultural ecologies.
The youth bulge is a demographic phenomenon which occurs when child mortality declines but the fertility rate remains high so that a large share of the population is comprised of young people. Currently, about 60 percent of the African population is below 25 years old and by 2100 the continent will still have the world’s youngest population with a median age of 35. The relationship between population growth and economic development is a matter of fierce debate. In a world of fixed resources, Malthusian pessimists contend population growth undermines economic growth. But empirical evidence in the 1970s and 1980s showed that incomes in many regions continued to rise despite rapid population growth.
The optimists argue that population growth spurs increased competition, knowledge, innovation, and technology that fuels development. In contrast to the demographic pessimists and optimists, neutralists maintain there is no significant connection between population and economic growth. The reality is that population growth can become an asset or a brake on development depending on its evolving age structure and quality of human capital. The youth explosion, I believe, gives Africa unprecedented opportunities for development and democracy so long as the youth are fully mobilized through quality education and smart and targeted investment.
Writing in Foreign Affairs on the recent authoritarian wave in West Africa, Gyeman-Boadi, states, “citizens have taken matters into their own hands. Activists, journalists, opposition politicians, ordinary citizens, and even some state officials have forged a kind of resistance movement to demand accountability across the region. The most formidable foot soldiers include the new generation of creative young people, who are using a mix of new technology and old-school protest tactics to challenge corrupt officials and agitate for better governance.” Living in Kenya from 2016-2021, I was struck by the irrepressible energies, creativity, and entrepreneurial mindsets of the youth.
Second, then, is the question of the policies adopted by governments to build socioeconomic systems that can harness the youth bulge into a demographic dividend. The term refers to the economic benefit arising from a significant increase in the ratio of working-aged adults relative to young and old dependents. In countries with a high proportion of children or the elderly, a high proportion of resources is spent on taking care of these groups, which is likely to depress the pace of economic growth. When the youth bulge transitions into working age, it becomes, if it is endowed with good health and education, quality human capital that can generate the demographic dividend of economic growth.
However, the demographic dividend is not automatic or inevitable. It is driven by a complex mix of policies and investments through the mechanisms of labor supply, savings, and human capital. As Africa undergoes a demographic transition previously traversed by other regions, it has an opportunity to turn its current population boom into faster economic growth and development along the path of the economies of East Asia. There is now a huge literature and policy documents on the subject that time doesn’t allow for further elaboration.
Third, building capabilities is imperative, a concept that is well-articulated in reports by the United Nations Development Program. Defined as people’s freedom to choose what to be and do, which is closely related to the notion of opportunities, capabilities are critical for human development. The UNDP distinguishes between basic capabilities, such as early childhood survival, primary education, entry level technology, and resilience to recurrent shocks, and enhanced capabilities including access to quality health at all levels, high quality education at all levels, effective access to present-day technologies, and resilience to unknown new shocks.
The challenge for Africa is to raise both sets of capabilities and to improve what the UNDP calls the inequality adjusted HDI, which was introduced in 2010. The IHDI discounts the HDI according to the extent of inequality. The data is disaggregated in terms of the gender development index and the gender inequality index (a composite measure of gender inequality using three dimensions: reproductive health, empowerment, and the labor market). HDI and IHDI rankings vary from conventional GDP per capita rankings. For example, in 2019, the world’s largest economies, the United States and China, were ranked 17th and 85th, respectively.
Education and employment are key indicators of human development. There have been remarkable improvements in education. For example, in 1959 there were only 76 universities across Africa concentrated in North Africa and South Africa. The number increased to 294 in 1979, and exploded to 784 in 2000 and 1,690 in 2021. But this accounted for only 8.39% of the world’s universities. Primary and secondary enrollments also improved raising the literacy rate to 65.6 percent, still the lowest in the world. The UN Economic Commission for Africa estimates that $39 billion in annual financing is needed to improve access to the quality of education.
Also in need of massive investments and improvements is employment. According to data from the International Labor Organization, World Employment and Social Outlook Trends 2020, the sub-Saharan Africa region suffers from high rates of unemployment, labor under-utilization, decent work deficits that are especially prevalent in the informal economy, the largest source of employment, and extreme rates of working poverty.
However, the narrative of Africa’s unemployment crisis has been challenged. According to Louise Fox of the Brookings Institution, “While there are exceptions—most notably South Africa and several resource-rich or fragile states—the economic growth registered since 2000 was accompanied by a steady growth in wage jobs, at a rate significantly faster than the growth of the labor force. Meanwhile, youth unemployment has been below world averages, controlling for income level. Unfortunately, this progress was interrupted by the COVID-19 health and economic crises, but it demonstrates the importance for job creation in African countries of getting back onto the path of economic stability and balanced economic growth as well as maintaining this trajectory through this decade.”
One of Africa’s biggest assets is its global diaspora created in successive waves of dispersal from the continent following the emergence of the modern world system. As the late renowned Egyptian intellectual, Samir Amin, often reminded us, Africans and Africa played a pivotal role in the development of the modern world system notwithstanding their exploitation and subjugation. Being oppressed doesn’t mean being marginal; as we know the oppression of women and workers doesn’t entail their irrelevance to the intersected system of racialized and patriarchal capitalism.
Diaspora Africans from the Iberian peninsula were among the conquerors of the Americas, and enslaved people from Western Africa, whose numbers outstripped European migrations until the staggered abolitions of the slave trade and slavery, helped lay the demographic, economic, social, cultural, and political foundations of the emerging colonial settler societies. As Walter Rodney taught us 50 years ago in his book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, that became the canonical text of my generation as college students, slavery profoundly defined the development of modern capitalism, its institutional arrangements, and intellectual and ideological scaffolding.
Rodney’s powerful thesis echoed age-old writings by political activists and public intellectuals across the diaspora. In the United States, they ranged from Frederick Douglass to Ida B. Wells to W.E.B. Dubois to Mary McLeod Bethune. In his magisterial 2021 book, Out of Africa: The Real Roots of the Modern World, Howard French boldly takes the mantle of retrieving Africa from the mute presence and marginality imposed by Eurocentricism’s enduring epistemic conceits. Compellingly, he illuminates Africa’s centrality in the birth of the modern world.
Once academic discourses enter the popular media, they are deployed by dueling partisans and pundits. And so it was with the 1619 project by the New York Times that repackaged well known academic analyses that put enslaved Africans and their descendants at the center of American history, society and culture, and the development of the country’s economic, political, judicial, and educational institutions, as well as the struggles in the fiercely contested and unfinished project of democracy. The series inflamed America’s already incendiary racial politics, that was followed by the global racial reckoning forced by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.
Recentering the histories of Africa’s old diasporas is essential for repositioning the centrality of Africa in world history and its multiple futures. There are nearly 200 million African descended peoples, the largest number being in Brazil with approximately 97 million, the United States with 43 million, and the Caribbean with 28 million. The new diasporas created out Africa’s recent global migrations number more than 15 million. In 2020, Africa had 40.6 million emigrants representing 14.5 percent of the world’s total of 280.6 million; the respective percentages were for Asia 40.9, Europe 22.6, the Americas 16.8, and Oceania 1.1. Twenty-five million of the continent’s international emigrants lived on the continent representing 1.9% of the population. Globally, emigrants represented 3.6% of the world population up from 2.8% in 2000 (or 183 million). So much for the myth that the world is facing an unparalleled invasions of migrants!
For the past two decades, I have been investigating the complex patterns and processes of engagement between Africa and its diasporas in Afro-America, Afro-Europe, and Afro-Asia. In my work, I focus on six sets of flows—demographic, cultural, economic, political, ideological, and iconographic. Particularly well-known is the important role played by the historic diaspora in the development of Pan-Africanism and the process of decolonization, which reverberated with civil rights struggles in the diaspora. Equally fascinating are the intricate cultural and artistic exchanges from religion to the performing and visual arts that I’ll briefly discuss shortly.
The new diasporas, are enmeshed in complex and contradictory relations with the historic diaspora and Africa encompassing physical movements, exchanges of cultural practices, productive resources, organizations and movements, ideologies and ideas, images and representations. The new diaspora is Africa’s biggest donor to use the language of the development industry. In 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic, remittances to Africa reached $84.3 billion; they represented between 8.8 percent of GDP for Egypt which received $26. 4 billion, the largest, and 2.9 percent of GDP for Kenya that garnered $2.9 billion.
The opportunities for the remittances of social capital including what I call intellectual remittances are immense. For example, the approximately 2.1 million immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa in the United States, to quote a report by the Migration Policy Institute, “tend to have higher levels of education than the overall foreign- and native-born populations. In 2019, 42 percent of sub-Saharan Africans ages 25 and over held a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 33 percent for both all foreign- and U.S.-born adults.”
Relations between Africa and its global diasporas, old and new, must be scaffolded to a Pan-Africanism of the 21st century that simultaneously looks back and forward. The first requires critically examining the diverse and complicated histories of Pan-Africanisms in their ideological, political, economic, cultural, social, and artistic articulations across the interconnected local, national, regional, continental, trans-continental, and global historical geographies, paying attention to the work, struggles, activities, imaginations and aspirations of elites and ordinary people, men and women, and young and old. The second entails locating Pan-Africanism in the maelstrom of the contemporary world and its difficult demands and tantalizing possibilities. We need to decipher, systematically, strategically and smartly, what the political economies and ecologies of the 21st century entail for African peoples around the world.
In a world obsessed with the materialities and imperatives of economic growth and development it is easy to underestimate the centrality of cultural production and consumption, how the cultural and artistic artifacts of the human imagination embody and endow us with profound ontological and epistemological meanings. African cultural economies need to be understood from historical, expansive, and open-ended epistemic, aesthetic, and sociopolitical perspectives.
Under the authoritarian gaze and logic of empire, sanctified by the primitivist fantasies and desires of colonial anthropology, the authenticity of African cultures was frozen in an ethnographic present and premised on eternal difference and inferiority to Europe. African “tradition” interpolated as an eternal African past was counterposed to a dynamic western “modernity.” The former purportedly represented the “real Africa” and the latter imported mimicry.
In reality, during the colonial encounter African cultures were produced and reproduced through the dialectical interplay of domination, resistance and conversion in which imperial ideologies, practices and spectacles, and colonial transactions, negotiations, and struggles clashed and coalesced in messy, unpredictable, and tumultuous ways as historical processes tend to. The metropoles and colonies became imbricated, although each valorized the representations of difference, in stressing, reproducing and performing their respective ontological distinctions, despite the fact that the social formations of both were being reconfigured.
This points to the inherent complexity in the project of cultural decolonization. Colonialism and globalization make the recuperation of precolonial African cultures, which were themselves neither static nor uniform, idealistic gestures at best. Unpacking the historical processes of colonial cultural production is exceedingly demanding but critical to theorizing Africa’s cultural transformation. Part of the challenge is that during the colonial period, and after, cultures on the continent were also influenced by diaspora cultures and vice-versa.
In an article on musical engagements, for example, I show that “the influence of diasporan music on modern African music, especially popular music, has been immense. These influences and exchanges have created a complex tapestry of musical Afro-internationalism and Afro-modernism and music has been a critical site, a soundscape, in the construction of new diasporan and African identities. A diasporic perspective in the study of modern African music helps Africa reclaim its rightful place in the history of world music and saves Africans from unnecessary cultural anxieties about losing their musical ‘authenticity’ by borrowing from ‘Western’ music that appears, on closer inspection, to be diasporan African music.”
The creative arts “have constituted critical media of communication in the Pan-African world through which cultural influences, ideas, images, instruments, institutions and identities have continuously circulated in the process creating new modes of cultural expression” in both spaces. “This traffic in expressive culture is multidimensional and dynamic… it is facilitated by persistent demographic flows and ever-changing communication technologies and involves exchanges that are simultaneously transcontinental, transnational, and translational of artistic products, aesthetic codes, and conceptual matrixes.”
We have to go beyond the depoliticized, dehistoricized, idealistic and technicist approaches that treat African cultures within the continent and in the diaspora as separate from each other and divorced from political economy by reducing and equating “African culture” to “tradition” and imagined precolonial pasts. The term precolonial should be banished into the dustbin of Eurocentrism as it makes colonialism the pivot around which Africa’s history, the longest in the world, spins in eternal enthrallment to Europe.
The versatility and irrepressible exuberance of popular African cultures and creative arts, their irreverent and exhilarating yearnings for all-inclusive liberation mocks and subverts the singular elite narratives of African nationalism, their aspirations for social uniformity and conformity.
The importance of African cultural and creative industries (CCI) is increasingly recognized by governments, the corporate sector, social movements, and among the creative communities themselves within Africa, the diaspora, and around the world. Some value CCIs for their economic contributions to development. Others stress their dynamism and demonstrative power of African energies, excellence, and empowerment. There also those who applaud them for their capacity to forge shared Pan-African identities, understanding, and comity.
The African CCIs are of course not new, although the discourse is. It brings together earlier debates sponsored by UNESCO and the OAU about culture and development, and deliberations on the “culture industry” and later “creative industry” in the global North, which continues to dominate theorization of the concept. In 2008, the African Union adopted a Plan of Action on Cultural and Creative Industries. It applauded “the significant increase in the share of culture, information and the services sectors of the world market,” due to the liberalization of political systems and industries as part of globalization and increasing youthful population.
A year later, in 2009, UNESCO published a new framework for cultural statistics to better capture the sector’s breadth and depth, develop direct metrics measuring its economic and social dimensions, facilitate international comparative assessment, and integrate conceptual debates and new developments. It divided the cultural economy into six categories: first, cultural domains encompassing several practices and products; second, intangible cultural heritage comprising oral traditions and expressions, rituals, languages, and social practices; third, education and training; fourth, archiving and preserving; fifth, equipment and supporting materials; and sixth, the related domains of tourism and sports and recreation.
The growth of cultural industries in Africa is quite impressive. One consultancy report enthuses: “Emerging markets, particularly those in Africa, are home to vibrant creative and cultural industries (CCI) with massive investment potential. From the Yoruba to the Kongo, African civilizations have shaped the aesthetics, music, sculpture, textiles, and architecture of regions from North America to Latin America and Europe for centuries.”The vibrancy and potential of the CCI is attributed to the continent’s rapid urbanization, explosion in the youth population, expanding middle classes, and increased internet and mobile penetration.
African artists are effectively using digital technologies to produce their work, access and expand their audiences, and dialogue with them. The consumption of music through streaming services has grown, and the Covid-19 pandemic made virtual concerts and performances vital for survival. Similarly, digital technology has revolutionized the African film industry as the consumption of films expands through on-demand streaming services, smartphones, the internet, and television. African films are increasingly distributed through such domestic platforms as iRoko, Showmax, and Viusasa launched in Nigeria in 2011, South Africa in 2015, and Kenya in 2017, respectively, and international platforms including Netflix and Amazon’s Prime.
African fashion has also experience remarkable growth and local designers are increasingly patronized by the expanding middle classes keen to wear their national pride on their sleeves. African fashion shows are now common in major African and world cities. E-commerce has expanded the regional, diaspora and global reach of some fashion brands.
Sports is an arena in which the historic diaspora has long enjoyed prominence in the Americas as it was open to enslaved Africans to entertain whites. Now the new diaspora is registering its presence in popular sports in the United States especially in basketball and football, and in the lucrative soccer leagues of Europe. Writers from the new diasporas are joining their historic diaspora counterparts in raising their visibility in the literary, cinematic, and comedic arts.
Thus, the appeal of the African CCIs goes beyond Africa. There is a huge market in the diaspora, both the new and historic diasporas. The consumption of African cultural and creative products provides a powerful platform to perform and consume diaspora identities.
African cultural producers are increasingly subject to the push and pull of local and global appeal. The former matters for them in signifying their African authenticity and in generating revenues and driving their international influence that can be even more lucrative. The rising attractiveness of African creative products to consumers in the global North and some regions of the global South other than the diaspora is premised, in part, on their prior domestic popularity, the power of the diaspora especially African Americans as trendsetters of popular culture, the expansion of global tourism to Africa before covid-19, and the proliferation of social media.
Moreover, there is a long history of Western artists, Picasso being one of the most well-known in the 20th century, mining, borrowing, and exploiting African cultures and arts for inspiration and novelty, for new styles, motifs and expressive languages. More recently, major western entertainment firms are expanding their corporate footprint in Africa, especially in music. In the contemporary global conjuncture, there can be little doubt that culture and economy are interconnected. The challenge for Africa’s cultural economies is to develop paradigms and practices in which culture is a site of resistance and radical dreams and visions of a different future, rather than being relegated to one more “raw material” to be exported from Africa.
Africa’s cultural economies must simultaneously pursue the enduring struggles for decolonization, as well as the reconfiguration of the creative arts and cultures and their expressive and performative ethos, motifs and aesthetics that unapologetically reflect African and diaspora modernities. It must help us reimagine ways of being whole, of knowing, seeing, and fully living in the contemporary world, of seizing and possessing the 21st century as truly ours, to paraphrase and realize Kwame Nkrumah’s long deferred dream for the 20th century. The power of the creative arts goes beyond its economic and social value. It is fundamental to people’s identities, their emotional and mental health, and ultimately their humanity.
Africa’s demographic, diaspora, and cultural resurgence, together with equally complex and contradictory transformations in various political, economic, social, and ecological spheres that I have not examined in this presentation, have far reaching implications for the world. Africa has never been a peripheral region, and certainly what happens on the continent will shape the rest of the world in this century and subsequent ones.
This is a reality the major emerging economies including China are increasingly embracing. The United States is behind the curve, its Africa policy locked in outdated humanitarian and security impulses, increasingly overlaid by re-emerging Cold War imperatives. Take trade, for example. In 2021, while trade between China and Africa reached $254 billion, for the U.S. it declined to $64 billion from $142 billion in 2008. Chinese investment also eclipses America’s as the latter clings to the necrophilia of dead aid as Dambisa Moyo calls it in her renowned book.
In an article published two days ago in Foreign Affairs, “The Unkept Promises of Western Aid,” Ian Mitchell and Nancy Birdsall, lament “in truth, wealthy Western donor countries are not always honest about the assistance they provide. They find ways to exaggerate their real commitments through creative and dubious accounting practices meant to expand the definition of development-aid spending. And when it comes to the other category of assistance that wealthy countries owe to developing ones—finance to help the global South mitigate and adapt to climate change—rich countries fall egregiously short of what they have pledged, which is in turn tragically short of what poorer ones need.”
Any productive American engagement with Africa requires, argues Jon Temin, also in Foreign Affairs, reframing Africa geographically by abandoning the Eurocentric division of sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa, supporting strong institutions over individual leaders, repudiating “the narrative that it is battling China for primacy in Africa,” and embracing African voices in international forums and geopolitical interests by reforming the United Nations Security Council and the architecture of international financial institutions.
Ignorance or disregard of African geopolitical interests will not serve any global power well, as its ill-informed pressures will be met by African resentment and resistance. Current American diplomatic pressure on African countries over Ukraine, including a proposed law in Congress that only targets the African region to toe the Western line, is deeply problematic and will not succeed. As Nanjala Nyabola reminds us in Foreign Affairs as well, “For many Africans, the current overtures from both Russia and the West are not about friendship. They are about using Africa as a means to an end… the dominant African position, given the large uncertainties about the war and its outcome, has been to demand peace and urge diplomacy—and, whenever possible, to avoid having to take sides in a conflict that seems unlikely to offer much to Africa, particularly if it turns the continent into a new theater of proxy war.”
What does all this mean for higher education institutions in the global North? In a recent presentation on rethinking global higher education partnerships, I propose a twelve-pronged agenda. Time only allows me to say that fundamentally this entails epistemic diversity, humility, and inclusion of African knowledges by institutions in the global North, and forging productive partnerships between them and African institutions premised on the ethical principles of respect, co-creation, and mutuality of benefits.
Since modern human emerged in Africa 300,000 years ago, from where they spread to other continents between 65,000 and 50,000 years ago, the long arch of history has bent towards two inexorable forces of globality, which override the periodic ruptures of great wars and the moral panics of othering outsiders. One is the expanding cycle of spatiotemporal compression that intensifies connectedness, communication, and the circulation of people, plants and pathogens, cultures, commodities and capital, and ideas, ideologies and institutions. The other is the rise and fall of civilizations, the periodic shifts in the geographies and technologies of hegemony and domination that the world is currently undergoing.
Ali Mazrui ended his celebrated 1986 television series, The Africans: A Triple Heritage, with an intriguing paean: “We are the people of the day before yesterday and the people of the day after tomorrow.” I read this as a tribute to the ancestral primacy of Africa, and its assured presence in the world’s futures as a player, not the pawn it has been over the last few centuries. The historic and humanistic project of fashioning African futures entails retrieving the past and reconstructing the present, and investing our imaginations and energies in envisioning a world that valorizes our duality as social beings and ecological beings, living in harmony with each other and sustainably with nature.
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