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In Praise of Idleness: Further Reflections on Knowledge, Capital and Growth

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Why is society, even those countries in which more capital could not possibly appreciably improve standards of living, still obsessed with hard work, thrift and accumulation of capital? Why are Africa’s leaders forever trooping to the West and East, fawning, groveling and whoring for capital? By DAVID NDII

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In Praise of Idleness: Further Reflections on Knowledge, Capital and Growth
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“Modern technic has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labor necessary to produce the necessaries of life for every one. Let us take an illustration. Suppose that at a given moment a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins as before. But the world does not need twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world everybody concerned in the manufacture of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?”

Bertrand Russell In Praise of Idleness

 

In economics, we are concerned primarily with three things, productivity, efficiency and welfare. Productivity is simply output per unit of input. We measure productivity in terms of output per worker. Economic efficiency is a question of optimality, that is, whether the resources have been put to the best possible use. Economics is in fact known as the study of resource allocation. Welfare is a question of whether the way production and distribution are organized is good for society. We can summarize the three questions: are we good at it, are we doing it right, and what good does it do. In short, it boils down to purpose. What is it all in aid of? This is Russell’s beef with the industrious society. To what end?

In economics, we are concerned primarily with three things, productivity, efficiency and welfare.

Ms Agronomy and Mr. Capital are two young farmers. Both have inherited fifty acres of land on which their parents practice traditional farming, growing maize, beans, yams and livestock. Mr. Capital is an ambitious guy. He studied finance. He wants to modernize and mechanize.   Business plan, bank loan, buys tractors, harrows and ploughs and puts the whole 50 acres under maize. He is able to double his yield to 20 bags an acre. Next year he leases another 50 acres. Soon he is farming 500 acres. He has a fleet of tractors, sprayers, irrigation system, a combine harvester grain driers, silo—the works. He is producing 30 bags per acre.

Ms Agronomy went to agricultural college. She has small plots set aside on her farm where she experiments with different agronomic techniques such as zero-till farming, crop rotation, inter-cropping, organic farming, mulching and so on. She is still farming her fifty acres. For ease of analysis we translate all her different products into “maize equivalent.” Her production also works out to the equivalent of 30 bags of maize per acre.

Ms Agronomy and Mr. Capital’s economic accounts are summarized in the table below. Although both obtain the same yield, 30 bags per acre, Mr. Capital’s operation is evidently much more productive. Its total output translates to 750 bags per worker, two and a half times more than Ms Agronomy’s 300 bags per worker. It is not difficult to see how this difference has come about. Mr. Capital’s workers have more tools to work with, Sh. 3 million per worker against Ms Agronomy’s Sh. 600,000 per worker—five times as much. They are also working more land, 25 acres worker compared to 10 acres per worker in Ms Agronomy’s operation, obviously because they are mechanized.

But capital is not free. In economics we think of the cost of capital in terms of depreciation, wear and tear if you like, which is the rate of its consumption. Because Mr. Capital has all manner of equipment that need spare parts and replacement that Ms Agronomy does not have, his consumption of capital will be higher. Let us put it at 20 percent and Ms Agronomy’s at 15 percent. This translates to a capital costs of KSh. 600,000 and Sh. 90,000 per worker respectively.

To complete the accounts, we need cost of land and other inputs (fertilizers, diesel, electricity etc) which we call intermediate inputs in economic accounting jargon. The land rent is assumed at 500 per acre, Ms Agronomy has 10 acres per worker and Mr. Capital has 25, which works out to Sh. 6,000 and 24,000 per worker respectively. For intermediate inputs Mr. Capital uses more inputs including diesel, electricity fertilizer pesticides and so on. We assume that his input costs work out to Sh.80 per bag and Ms Agronomy’s are half as much, which adds up to Sh. 37,500 and Sh.6,000 per worker respectively. The price of maize is Sh. 1000 a bag.

What more do they tell us?

Although Mr. Capital’s operation has higher output per worker, Miss Agronomy’s operation has a labour surplus of Sh.196,500 against Mr. Capital’s Sh. 88,500 per worker, that is Sh.108,500 more. The labour surplus is what is available for consumption. If Miss Agronomy were to farm Mr. Capital’s land, she would create 50 jobs, two and half times more than Mr. Capital, and generate afford the society Sh. 5.4 million more consumption. With the same financing her operation would employ five times more workers (100 compared to 20) and six times the labour surplus (Sh.10.8 million compared to Sh.1.77 million) OF Mr. Capital’s operation, but it would require twice as much land—and that would be a problem wouldn’t it. As this columnist has remonstrated for the better part of three decades, if society entrusts landlords with the allocation of its resources, it ought not be befuddled that they seek to maximize rents

Mr. Capital’s workers produce Sh. 450,000 more, but the capital stock consumes more than the additional output. In economics we say that Mr. Capital’s operation has over-accumulated capital or if you want to be esoteric, it is “dynamically inefficient.” The idea that economy can over-accumulate capital runs counter to conventional wisdom, which maintains that consumption is bad, and investment is good. A particularly irksome variant of this conventional wisdom maintains that the more government spends on “development” by which we mean brick and mortar stuff, and the less is spends on recurrent, especially the wage bill, the better.

Suppose an economy starts out with a GDP per capita of $1000 and no physical capital stock. You can think of this as a pastoralist economy where the GDP is simply the value of each pastoralist’s annual off-take— for example, that each family sells four steers per person at $250 each. GDP is also equal to consumption.

Now, this economy decides to develop by “adding value” —feedlots, abattoirs, meat processing plants the works. It also needs infrastructure— electricity for the cold rooms, water etc. To finance this, it needs to save and invest. The table shows how the economy would evolve under four different investment rates 10, 20, 30 and 40 percent, and the associated economic growth rate, output (GDP per capita), the capital stock (obtained by depreciating investment at 20 percent per year), and consumption per person. At a 10 percent investment rate, GDP per person grows by one percent per year.

Ten years on, the GDP is just about 10 percent higher – the economy has accumulated $460 of capital stock per person – but people are still consuming $6 less than before development started. The elderly who die during this period would have been better off without development. They will have to be satisfied with bequeathing their children a better future—hopefully. At an investment rate of 20 percent, the economy would be breaking even after ten years, with consumption $75 higher than in year zero. Thirty percent investment rate consumption rises by another $12. But at 40 percent investment, the per capita consumption in year ten is $62 less than at an investment rate of 30 percent. What’s driving this?

[An] economy decides to develop by “adding value”…At a 10 percent investment rate, GDP per person grows by one percent per year. Ten years on, the GDP is just about 10 percent higher…but people are still consuming $6 less than before development started. But at 40 percent investment, the per capita consumption in year ten is $62 less than at an investment rate of 30 percent. The elderly who die during this period would have been better off without development…What’s driving this?

Mathematically, it is the relationship between the investment rate and the growth rate. A 10 percent investment rate increases growth by 1 percent. From 10 to 20 percent it increases by two percentage points. The increase declines to 1.5 percentage points between 20 percent and 30 percent, and to one percentage point between 30 and 40 percent investment rate. This is not a sleight of hand. It reflects two things. First the returns to capital decreases with the amount of capital—the law of diminishing returns. Secondly the more capital an economy accumulates the more resources are consumed by maintaining and replacing it. In the 40 percent investment scenario the replacement cost of capital amounts to a good 30 percent of GDP— three quarters of the 40 percent investment rate is simply maintaining the level of capital stock.

This economy has violated the Golden Rule saving rate. The Golden Rule saving rate is the rate of capital accumulation required to maintain a stable rate of consumption growth. It is called the golden rule because it requires each generation to do what it would have other generations do. Save too little, the capital stock declines and the next generation’s consumption will fall. Saving too much deprives the current generation only to burden future ones with maintaining a bigger capital stock than they need. The Golden Rule saving rate for this economy is somewhere between 30 and 40 percent. The economy ought to shed some capital. The question is, what will it shut down? No capitalist will volunteer to close down their plant for the good of the country. Since none will, recessions come every so often and sorts them out.

It should also be evident that capital on its own cannot deliver the kind of growth in prosperity that we observe in reality. I gather that my smartphone has millions of times more computing power than the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) aboard the spacecraft that took Man to the moon. The AGC was the first computer to use integrated circuits (ICs), the now ubiquitous microchips. It cost $150,000 (about US$ 1.1 million in today’s value). My smartphone cost $1000 dollars and you can get a good one for a quarter of that. One very big difference is that the AGC was crash-proof. That aside, fifty years down the road, the cost of AGC will buy you 5,000 infinitely more powerful handheld computers to do the most frivolous things.

Capital on its own cannot deliver the kind of growth in prosperity that we observe in reality.

It is science, not capital that enables us to waste computing power on selfies and fake news. The reason we can afford to consume knowledge, frivolously or otherwise, is first, not subject to diminishing returns. Secondly, knowledge can be used by many people over and over again at no additional cost.

Suppose Ms Agronomy were to acquire another 50 acres of land. She would with very little capital, simply replicate her knowhow and be producing at peak output in no time. And of course, Ms Agronomy would be continuing with her experiments. So by this time, she would be up to 35 bags per acre, or 40. In fact, every one of Ms Agronomy’s workers could go off and replicate her methods at no extra cost. Mr. Capital’s workers cannot walk into the bank and walk out with a tractor. Mr. Capital would be back to the bankers who would in turn deploy more of society’s savings to equip his operation. More of societies savings would have to be mobilized. New equipment would need to be manufactured. Producing more equipment needs more workers. So instead of producing food, Ms Agronomy’s workers will now be hired to produce the equipment to produce food.

It is science, not capital that enables us to waste computing power on selfies and fake news. The reason we can afford to consume knowledge, frivolously or otherwise, is first, not subject to diminishing returns.

Why then is society, even those countries in which more capital could not possibly appreciably improve standards of living —think Japan— still obsessed with hard work, thrift and accumulation of capital?

Why are Africa’s leaders forever trooping to the West and East, fawning, groveling and whoring for capital?

Bertrand Russell: ‘From the beginning of civilization until the industrial revolution a man could, as a rule, produce by hard work little more than was required for the subsistence of himself and his family, although his wife worked at least as hard and his children added their labour as soon as they were old enough to do so. The small surplus above bare necessaries was not left to those who produced it, but was appropriated by priests and warriors. In times of famine there was no surplus; the warriors and priests, however, still secured as much as at other times, with the result that many of the workers died of hunger. At first sheer force compelled them to produce and part with the surplus. Gradually, however, it was found possible to induce many of them to accept an ethic according to which it was their duty to work hard, although part of their work went to support others in idleness. [But] a system which lasted so long and ended so recently has naturally left a profound impression upon mens thoughts and opinions. Much that we take for granted about the desirability of work is derived from this system and, being pre-industrial, is not adapted to the modern world.

Says Bertrand Russell: “Gradually, however, it was found possible to induce many of them to accept an ethic according to which it was their duty to work hard, although part of their work went to support others in idleness.”

Warriors, priests, chiefs, bureaucrats. And bankers.

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David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

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Dark Money: Pandora Papers Show UK Must Tackle Its Corruption-Enabling Industry

As long as we have countries that are willing to receive these illicit monies, then it [corruption] will keep happening

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The new head of the Word Trade Organization has delivered a damning critique of Britain’s supposed fight against international corruption, accusing the UK of harbouring a “cottage industry” of financial enablers who cater to corrupt public officials overseas.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who was appointed WTO director-general in March and has twice served a Nigeria’s finance minister, said the Pandora Papers showed how UK bankers, lawyers and estate agents help corrupt officials and wealthy individuals in her home country — and in other graft-blighted nations — invest in expensive London real estate through anonymous offshore shell companies.

Delivering the 2021 anti-corruption lecture for Transparency International UK, Okonjo-Iweala earlier this week said: “When public monies are stolen, they are often sent abroad to countries not generally thought of as corrupt, where a cottage industry exists of bankers, lawyers, accountants and others, who launder and sequester the ill-gotten funds.”

She added: “The Pandora Papers — like the Panama Papers before them — shed light on this shadow economy of tax avoidance, luxury homes and shell companies.”

Okonjo-Iweala has for decades been a pioneering campaigner on anti-corruption and transparency issues, both in Nigeria and internationally. For her efforts, she has received death threats and, in 2012, her mother was briefly kidnapped.

In October, Finance Uncovered and Premium Times published the results of its investigation into wealthy Nigerians who anonymously owned UK property. The investigation was based on thousands of leaked shell company documents from the Pandora Papers, Panama Papers and other data sources.

It identified 233 houses and apartments in the UK — worth £350m at current property prices — which had been secretly bought by 137 wealthy Nigerians using 166 anonymous offshore shell companies.

Among those found to have invested in UK property were a senior manager at the Nigerian Ports Authority, one of the longest serving members of Nigeria’s House of Representatives, a former finance commissioner for Lagos State and a major government contractor in the power generation industry.

It is not illegal to secretly buy UK property through anonymous offshore shell companies and documents reviewed by Finance Uncovered found no evidence that funds used to buy UK property amounted to proceeds of corruption or other criminality. In fact, many UK enabler firms routinely advised their Nigerian clients to invest in UK property through offshore companies in order to legally avoid tax.

Also among the real estate identified by Pandora Papers journalists were five UK properties linked to Nigeria’s former aviation minister Stella Oduah — a onetime cabinet colleague of Okonjo-Iweala who is now the subject of corruption charges in Nigeria, which she has denied.

So too were several London properties that, according to U.S. court filings, were bought by oil tycoons allegedly as bribes for the benefit of Diezani Alison-Madueke, then Nigeria’s minister for petroleum resources and yet another former cabinet colleague of Okonjo-Iweala.

Alison-Madueke was arrested in London by UK law enforcement officers in 2015 but has denied wrong-doing. No charges have been brought but investigations into her affairs remain ongoing.

As well as naming several otherwise hidden property investors, Finance Uncovered and Premium Times published further details concerning Nigerians investing in UK real estate in the form of an interactive map.

One in six of the 233 UK properties identified by Finance Uncovered and Premium times were owned by anonymous offshore companies that were once the subject of law enforcement interest — including search warrants, freezing orders, money laundering investigations and suspicious activity reports.

Since 2016, the UK government has been promising to introduce a public register of who owns offshore companies that have bought residential property in Britain. However, ministers have failed to bring the necessary legislation before parliament.

Instead, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has fast-tracked other measures, such as the introduction of eight freeports, which many experts say could increase the flow of dark money to the United Kingdom.

Okonjo-Iweala said she was surprised that findings from the Pandora Papers had not yet generated more impact, suggesting the pandemic crisis may have drawn political attention away. However, she added: “Refusing corruption will be an important part of building back better our economies and societies, so it is an issue we cannot afford to neglect.”

In particular, she called on the UK and other countries that have become well-known destinations for corrupt and laundered funds to provide more efficient means for repatriating stolen assets.

She added: “I think real estate is really the key. There is a huge amount in the UK, in France, in Switzerland, all these countries. And not very much is being done about it, still today.”

In a further challenge to developed countries, she suggested one way to restrict corrupt money flows would be to outlaw anonymous shell companies. “You should challenge lawyers to stop all this helping tax evasion and shell companies. Why don’t we outlaw shell companies? If you want to put money or assets somewhere, put them under your name. Why do you create a shell company and hide all these things?”

Praising the work of Transparency International, Okonjo-Iweala also suggested NGO groups could do even more to help pressure developed countries into anti-corruption measures. Specifically, she suggested TI’s widely-cited Corruption Perceptions Index — which ranks countries in order of the perceived propensity for corruption — should be complemented by a second index that ranked the countries that received proceeds of corruption.

“As long as we have countries that are willing to receive these illicit monies, then it [corruption] will keep happening,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “So that’s why I have been pressing TI that, please, let’s start an index. We need an index of countries that receive corrupt funds. Let’s rank them, and see who is at the top, who is second, who is third. That will help us get a hold of all this because I’m sure no one will want to be listed like that.”

A long-standing campaigner on anti-corruption, Okonjo-Iweala used her time in a previous post at the World Bank, to help set up the Stolen Assets Recovery initiative (StAR), a measure designed to help developing countries retrieve funds stolen by kleptocratic regimes. That initiative followed on from her tireless pursuit through the courts of money looted from Nigeria by Sani Abacha, the country’s military dictator from 1993 to 1998.

Okonjo-Iweala, 67, was appointed as director-general of the WTO in March, becoming the first woman and first African to lead the organisation. Earlier, she had two spells as Nigerian finance minister, though most of her career was spent at the World Bank. She has also held board positions at Standard Chartered Bank and at Twitter.

The Pandora Papers is a leak of almost 12 million documents, largely made up of administrative paperwork from the archives of 14 law firms and agencies that specialise in offshore company formations.

The leak was obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and seen by more than 600 journalists, including reporters at Finance Uncovered and Premium Times, as part of an investigation that took many months and spanned 117 countries.

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Sino-African Relations: Cooperation or a New Imperialism?

The relationship between Africa and China hinges on the question of cooperation and development. Kristin Plys, Amenophis Lô and Abdulhamid Mohamed ask if we should celebrate this relationship as the South-South development that the Global South dreamed of in the mid-20th century, or are contemporary Africa-China relations a new imperialist dynamic?

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Author and activist, Vijay Prashad elucidates in The Darker Nations, the ‘Third World’ is not a place, but a political project. In the mid-twentieth century, at the height of US hegemony, the Global South imagined political, economic, and social emancipation. One important incarnation of this was the Bandung Conference in 1955 where representatives of 29 newly independent Asian and African states met to promote what is now termed, South-South cooperation, in other words, the idea that African and Asian states could come together for economic and cultural cooperation and together oppose colonialism and imperialism.

Bandung was eventually institutionalized in the Non-Aligned movement, a forum that opposed US and Soviet intervention in the Global South. Non-alignment was not without its critics, however. Muammar Qaddafi of the non-aligned movement said, “The world is made up of two camps: the liberation camp and the imperialist one. There is no place for those who are non-aligned. We are not neutral and totally aligned against the aggressor… Long live the liberated. Down with imperialism.” As he saw it, the Global South was not comprised of states who were beholden to US imperialism, states who were beholden to Soviet imperialism and states that opposed either influence. For Qaddafi, there were only those states who are against imperialism and for liberation and those states that are imperialist.

Our understandings of contemporary imperialism, however, are shaped by the lived experiences of US hegemony and the particular way in which it supplanted European colonial rule with new dependent relationships of exploitation of the same character but through new forms of politico-economic relationships between the United States and the Global South. But with the crisis of US hegemony starting in the 1970s, and now with a more pronounced global crisis since 2008, of, perhaps, the capitalist world-system itself, imperialism as we know it will also necessarily change. Forms of power and hierarchy need to be remade so that they can continue as they lose moral authority.

The United States has lost its moral authority for global rule providing openings for a new hegemonic power to emerge and lead the world-economy in overcoming the current crisis. For example, in the transition from British hegemony in the 19th century to US hegemony in the 20th, imperialism persisted, but the form it took changed. Formal colonialism lost its moral authority leading to the important development of flag independence across much of the Global South. But in the absence of formal political rule through colonialism, the United States innovated new articulations of imperialism during the Cold War and beyond.

Any new hegemon, as part of its rule, must convince the rest of the world that it is acting in the best interests of the inter-state system. Part of the establishment of that consent to rule entails forming dependent relationships with the Global South that appear to be in the best interests of the Global South. With the rise of a new world-hegemon, imperialism must necessarily be remade to look like aid, cooperation, and solidarity. This helps the rising hegemon establish a global moral authority as it appears to be acting in the moral interests of the entire world economy. In these phases of world-history where a new hegemon is on the rise, it is critically important that we distinguish true South-South cooperation that has the potential for national liberation from a new incarnation of imperialism in its guise.

Authoritarianism and exploitation

When we examine this distinction between South-South cooperation and contemporary imperialism on the ground, it is essential to examine the local political conditions that create an imbalance of power. Therefore, we must better understand the contemporary dynamics of African sovereignty.

While the 21st century began with revolutions to oust decades of postcolonial authoritarian rule in Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan, and elsewhere, these efforts were short lived. Counter-revolutionary forces, particularly those led by right-wing nationalists and conservative religious leaders too often became the eventual beneficiaries of toppled authoritarian regimes. In recent years we have witnessed more counter-revolutions and coups across the continent, in Chad, for example. States succumbing to authoritarianism have become more prevalent and we seldom observe revolutions that have been successful at installing long lasting democratic states committed to promoting the interests of African people.

In this fraught context of authoritarian rule across the continent, it has been easier for imperialists to usurp African sovereignty. Just as European and North American states have found authoritarian rule in Africa more amenable to their politico-economic interests so too has the Chinese Communist Party. In Zambia, copper mining accounts for 65% of the country’s export earnings. Most of the mines are owned by the Chinese state, though a few are mining companies with headquarters in Canada. Foreign mining companies have been able to create pockets of Chinese state sovereignty within Zambia where labour laws are notoriously lax, wages low, accidents and deaths of workers, prevalent. When workers have combined and protested these conditions, they have been met with violence, not from the Zambian state, but from Chinese management who has met workers’ demands by deploying violence without consequence. In 2010, a manager at the Collum Mine shot and killed 13 workers who organised against poor safety standards.

The Lamu Project to build a deep-water port connecting East Africa to Asian export markets is another example of loss of sovereignty. Initially, the Lamu port was to be funded jointly by the Kenyan, Ethiopian and South Sudanese states but because of funding issues and occasional attacks on port construction by Al-Shabaab, Kenyan Defense Forces sought loans from China which were supported through the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ programme, a policy to not only aid China in gaining further access to African resources and markets but also enable the Peoples Liberation Army Navy to establish a counter-terrorism base in Northern Kenya. Ports are crucial to African development as 90% of East African exporters depend on seaports to remain viable, but if Kenya defaults on the debt they have incurred, which seems likely, the Lamu port will soon become yet another space of Chinese state sovereignty in sub-Saharan Africa.

Land grabbing through creating pockets of Chinese state sovereignty and through control of strategic assets has helped China obtain cheap natural resources needed for industrial production, while railroads, other infrastructure, along with access to seaports allows for the extraction of these resources from Africa. Regime change has not been successful in disrupting this dynamic because the movements for regime change have mostly focused on ousting political leaders, but as a result of European and North American imperialism and also through the support of the domestic bourgeoisie, sovereignty in most African states rests with the military. Recent revolutions have done little to disrupt that dynamic or to create states that will serve the interests of its people.

Return to a Pan-African internationalism

There is a difference between globalization done on the terms of more powerful states, and a horizontal internationalism based on solidarity. Africa-China relations in and of themselves could bring great benefit to both regions, but as long as there remains a power differential in African states’ individual dealings with China, it will remain a tie that will ultimately result in economic benefit for China and the exploitation of Africa. One possible solution could be to have negotiations around Chinese development projects in African states done as a regional bloc through a Pan-African union rather than country-by-country.

But beyond this, what we, as an internationalist left can do is decentre the role of the state in Africa-China relations. If civil society and leftist groups in both China and across the African continent could work together across borders it could put pressure on states to realise common social injustices in both China and various African contexts such as the importance of opposing authoritarian regimes that fail to serve the best interests of the people and promoting workers’ rights through a labour internationalism. We can also envision linkages between other Chinese and Pan-African civil society organizations around issues common to the African and Chinese contexts.

Frantz Fanon famously described the ‘Third World project’, as a rejection of the goal of ‘catching up’ to Europe and North America, and instead, saw as its primary goal to innovate a new way of thinking. Fanon believed in the creativity of revolutionary Pan-Africanism and the Global South, that new forms of politics could be envisioned and enacted that would provide solutions to the longstanding social problems.

Internationalism from below

There’s a tendency within the Global North left to see any political development that opposes Western dominance as something to celebrate. But in thinking through the complexity of contemporary Africa-China relations it is evident that we need to be more discerning about the dynamics of power involved in movements that may claim to be South-South cooperation and/or anti-Western. They may yet be an embodiment of the unequal power dynamics and politico-economic exploitation we stand firmly against.

Propaganda, both from the West, and from China, obscures the power dynamics at play on the ground in Sino-African relations. The ability of propaganda to muddy our understanding of the dynamics at play makes organizing around these issues particularly difficult and controversial. But we need to remember, as Pan-Africanists based in Canada or anywhere else for that matter, that just because something is anti-West doesn’t make it liberatory. We need to be thoughtful and discerning in how we think about power and history in our contemporary context.

The central issue facing us going forward with this conversation is how we can pay closer attention to the dynamics of power in politico-economic relations between states without falling into the Sinophobic tropes of most Western states, but also recognising that there is not an equal and symbiotic relationship between African states and Chinese developmentalism.

Perhaps the first step is, instead of celebrating the ties between an authoritarian Chinese state and non-democratic regimes across Africa, we should instead think creatively about what we can do to build more liberatory South-South cooperation between civil society and left movements in Africa and China. Through these common goals of fighting shared social struggles, a truly horizontal Afro-Asian solidarity can be envisioned and enacted.

This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

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African Epistemic Self-Affirmation Is the Ultimate End of Decolonization

Islamic scholarship in Africa and the meaning and end of decolonization in the work of religious studies scholar, Ousmane Kane.

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During the 2018 Miriam Makeba keynote address to the General Assembly of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), the largest and oldest pan-African body of African scholars, Professor Ousmane Kane told his peers that they needed to take religion seriously. This entreaty expressed a basic idea and an urgent project. The idea was that social science, having been elaborated through the secular-modern separation of the spheres of life, has relegated “religion” to the domain of the marginalized specialist. In contrast to the political, the economic, and the sociocultural, religion has become a matter of individual belief and practice within the regime of expertise that governs life globally.

This regime has sometimes been called coloniality. Kane, who teaches at Harvard Divinity School, proposed, however, that all social science needs to consider religion if it is to truly understand contemporary Africa and its problems, implying that in Africa, religion is no private matter. “Religious developments in Africa deserve serious attention from African intellectuals, and especially pan-Africanists,” he said. The developments to which Kane referred might be summarized as the emergent publicity of religion, the decentralization (and/or erosion) of authority, and the integration into global networks throughout the African continent. This emergence has proven modernization and development theory to be patently false; religion has not eventually disappeared or become irrelevant for public life. In short, African theory needs to catch up to Africans in their decolonization of the mind and spirit.

The publication of Islamic Scholarship in Africa: New Directions and Global Contexts, edited by Kane, adds to a growing wave of academic work on the histories, cultures, and meanings of Islamic thought in Africa. It features established and emerging voices of the field that takes on the project of overturning many long-held fictions about Africa in the modern imagination. African historicity and mobility, dynamics of orality and literacy, evolving Islamic education, and popular vernacular poetic expression are themes that frame a diverse set of contributions that offer a fair representation of the major issues of the field.

Alongside recent monographs, edited volumes, and translations Islamic scholarship in Africa explores a robust and active field. It is a work that is current, forward-looking, engaged with global issues and directed to a general audience. The bibliography is broad and the glossary of terms are of benefit to the non-specialist. Given that the individual essays in this volume reflect many distinct research agendas, sites, and objects of inquiry, I will not attempt to summarize their contents. Instead, I focus on the broader issue of the decolonization of knowledge flagged for the reader’s attention in both Kane’s introduction and the conclusion by the former executive secretary of CODESRIA, Ebrima Sall.

Questions of decolonization

Sall situates the volume, along with the broader proliferation of academic works on the topic, within CODESRIA’s now decades-long project to bridge knowledge divides within Africa. These divisions are defined by differences in research language, intellectual training, and presumed racial identity. In particular, Kane’s research agenda to recognize the intellectual contributions of Muslim African scholars actualized many of the Pan-African principles of the organization. His Non-Europhone Intellectuals, published as a CODESRIA working paper in 2003, set forth the terms for a new field that would eventually come to be known as Timbuktu Studies. This field has solicited interest and support from international foundations, African governments, and a global network of university-based researchers.

We might ask, however, how does this interest in Islamic scholarship sit in relation to African studies more broadly? The objections that followed Kane’s keynote in 2018 highlight some common resistance to this work. The responses from the floor, as I recall them, were somewhat predictable. Some asserted that Islam was not modern. Others found that the neglect of African traditional religions by Kane was an inexcusable lapse. For them, if social science is to take religion seriously in Africa, it should be truly African religions upon which they must focus their seriousness. Islam and Christianity, they argued were either copies of originally African ideas or antagonistic to what was authentically African. “African” for them, it seems, meant autochthony. It meant differences from other geo-racial types and their specific religiosities that are ultimately products of colonization. These objections were predictable because they form opposing positions, based as much on epistemic commitments as points of view that frame the problem of religion in Africa. Kane and others have responded to such ideas exhaustively.

For example, Islam, from its origins, has been African, from the first hijra, or exodus, to Abyssinia through to the very rapid spread to Fustat, or what is now Cairo, and then with the history of the mostly peaceful and gradual spread of Islam in West Africa. And yet, the idea of Islam’s coloniality, if we can stretch the term so thin, persists. Much like the ideas about primordial African orality, they form discursive structures that seem impervious to empirical invalidation. It is indeed an old idea that West African Muslim scholars have been refuting since at least the 17th century Timbuktu scholar Ahmed Baba, and echoed in the 20th century by Senegalese polymath Shaykh Musa Kamara. Perhaps, that is a good thing for the future of the field.

All of this being said, one wonders beyond the scope of Islamic Scholarship in Africa, how might Timbuktu Studies deal with some of the thornier issues that have emerged in the long history of developing an epistemological alternative. Specifically, I am thinking here of the field’s relation to the older project of the Africanization of knowledge, which sought to consider Africa in indigenously African terms and the Islamization of knowledge/Islamic social sciences, which sought to establish modern social scientific method on Islamic foundations. Is the study of Islamic scholarship in Africa simply a continuation, an evolution of these two separate projects, or does their convergence make a qualitative leap that makes it distinct and uniquely promising? There might also be a generative encounter between Timbuktu Studies with Critical Muslim Studies such as that coming out of South Africa, emanating as it does from post-Rhodes debates on decoloniality.

Decolonization has become a big tent, a broad term enveloping many meanings, a concept that approaches protean status. Much like “religion” and “modernity” it bears different significations that correspond to conflicting epistemological, disciplinary, and political commitments—each one ultimately seeking different objectives. For a radical, anti-historical but utopian decolonial project, Islamic Scholarship in Africa might not satisfy the performance of rupture. However, this volume is vital if one is willing to agree with Sall and Kane, as I do, that African epistemic self-affirmation is the ultimate end of decolonization.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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