January 08, 2004

In memoriam Africa

Posted by Curt at 03:55 PM in Politics | TrackBack

In my more athletic years as an outfielder on a baseball team, my coaches used to talk about hundred-dollar catches and five-cent throws. In my mockery of Dalrymple below, it’s the five-cent throw that I am criticizing. Grasping a hold of a problem intellectually is a wondrous thing, not easy to do, but it does not preclude the thinker from fixing upon the most facile, ineffectual sort of solution imaginable to that problem. And since I am on that subject, I see an even clearer example in this article by a former professor of African studies named Gavin Kitching describing his reasons for abandoning the field, which has apparently aroused quite a furor, if such a concept seems credible in a field of this size, in the African studies community.

While the main conclusion of the article seems to be that Africa’s problems, in the mind of the author, are intractable insofar as he does not understand their origins, let alone how to solve them, the main point of controversy seems to be the suspicion he has arrived at, despite his neo-Marxist academic upbringing, that Africa’s problems are not simply universal economic problems, but are specific to Africa, and hence are basically cultural. Evidently his early belief that even after the end of colonialism Africa remained economically and politically depressed by ruling elites who were essentially acting as agents of former colonial powers was eventually shattered by the realization that “if the ruling elites of Africa are seen as managers or agents for western capitalism or imperialism, one can only say that the latter should get itself some new agents. For the ones it has seem remarkably inefficient…so many of the official spokespeople for that capitalism (the IMF, the World Bank, corporate executives with African investments) far from endorsing the activities of their supposed ‘agents’ were endemically critical of the failure of African elites to provide domestic environments in which any form of capital investment could be secure and profitable.” So therefore, in some measure Africans must in some measure be considered the authors of at least the continuation of their problems. Of course a number of scholars, understandably if not excusably reluctant to abandon the universalist economic frame of reference which has informed the field for essentially the entire course of its existence, resist this interpretation, and one can find the usual platitudes about “blaming the victim.”

Yet there is something missing from Kitching’s analysis, as well. He believes, in the end, that while the corruption and irresponsibility of African elites may not be totally infiltrated by Western manipulation, nonetheless Africa’s plight is more or less solely the fault of Africa’s elite. And so the question of Africa’s condition becomes the question of the behavior of its rulers, or as he says: “Why have African governing elites been particularly prone to behaving in ways which are both economically destructive of the welfare of the people for whom they are supposedly responsible and which have led - at the extreme - to forms of state fision, (civil war etc.) collapse or breakdown?”

But this explanation does not seem quite adequate to me. While a tiny elite in most African countries may be responsible for most of the specific policies that have caused so much hardship throughout Africa (think of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Charles Taylor in Liberia, to name but two), that does not mean that they are not authentic representatives of their cultures. Similarly, the all-encompassing oligarchies in the Third Reich and the Soviet Union were not totally anomolous in their countries’ political histories. Stalin, for example, saw himself as a natural heir of Ivan the Terrible and allegedly professed disappointment upon only seizing Berlin and East Germany in 1945, saying: “Alexander II made it to Paris.” And of course Hitler named his empire the third in a line of three periods of German imperial expansion, coming after the First Reich (the Holy Roman Empire) and the Second Reich (the 1870-1918 empire forged by Otto von Bismarck). So I think there is something endemic to German and Russian culture in those two totalitarian governments, and the sheer mind-numbing similarity of the autocrats in Africa over the last 40 years proves a parallel. This may seem a minor point, but in fact may have enormous consequences. Again, look at the case of Russia in the last ten years, and the misery which has attended a lack of comprehension of the depth of the cultural roots of a tyrannical regime. The abstract exchange of one set of ideals and political structures for another has hardly eradicated violence and authoritarianism as a way of life.

In the end, I cannot approve of this whole subject as a matter of academic debate. African studies seems to have fallen the way of most disciplines that take real social change, rather than simply intellectual comprehension, as their goal: from asking the question of how to improve the situation, it devolved to the question of why the scholars were not able to improve the situation, to the point where the main question seems to have become “who is to blame?”, which in my opinion is a debate as perverse as the debate in the ’80s among German and Russian historians over which country’s concentration camps were guity of more atrocities. Kitching points out the insidious nature of Western intellectuals engaging in these mental flagellations, claiming: “paternalistic guilt” is “a kind of mechanism of neocolonial control, a mechanism in which the colonial personality is very willingly complicit because, just so long as it continues, it cannot (at least in its own eyes) ever do wrong — ever be the actual, culpable agent of harm or damage in the world.” But he himself is active in this kind of pernicious delusion. For example, his immediate goal for the salvation of Africa is to sponser “a major, high profile Round Table on (say) ‘The Crisis of Africa’”. I think any more of these panel discussions, nay even the phrase “round table” might make me lose my breakfast. This endless mental masturbation! Exploiting world crises to take some paid academic junket to a desirable vacation-spot where delegates sit around and talk and talk and talk! Could there be anything worse for the situation than further talk?! These conferences have become the bane of political life, the reflexive substitutes for any possible action. And worse, as Kitching himself pointed out, on this subject they allow for an insidious and guilt-ridden patrimonialism, in which Western academics pretend to take charge of massive social problems while the affected peoples ignore them or make use of the opportunity to hold out the donation-hat. As usual, of course, it falls on an actual African to speak a word of sense in all of this academic nonsense. Mamadou Diouf, a professor at Michigan-Ann Arbor, says: “Kitching is saying, ‘I gave up because we were not able to fix it, or to provide a sound intellectual framework.’ But I don’t know why Kitching thinks people are waiting for him to fix it. Why does he think that as a specialist on Africa he has to be part of the fixing process?…Who is reading African studies scholarship in Africa? Nobody. Including the African intellectuals, because they don’t have the resources.” African studies scholars in the West “are writing for themselves. They are cut off from Africa.”

One final point. This may be a dogmatic debate, but not entirely an ideological one, at least insofar as it cuts along some strange lines. One might expect, for example, that the cultural conservatives would be pursuing a similar line of argument as Kitching, insofar as it gives them the always-welcome opportunity to denigrate other cultures as politically and economically inferior to the U.S. and to throw themselves martyr-like upon the bayonets of political correctness. But oddly, in the case of Zimbabwe, for example, most of the op-ed conservatives in the newspapers that I have read seem to be using Zimbabwe to flail that exhausted hobby-horse of theirs, statist Marxism. They are using it to trumpet yet again the failure of land collectivization, the state control of industry and agriculture, etc., just like the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Now they may actually in this case be cowering away from the bayonets of political correctness on an issue of minor importance to them by avoiding the implication that they are condemning Zimbabwe on anything other than universalist economic grounds. But Africa should have taught us two things by now. One is that universalist economic explanations simply do not suffice, as Mugabe and all the other African kleptocrats that have capitalized on racial or ethnic nationalism to ruin their countries prove continually. The other is that, as the tribal violence all over Africa proves, particularly in Rwanda and the Congo, tyranny and genocide do not exist only in the presence of all-enveloping national governments.



Posted by: john at January 2, 2005 07:32 AM


Posted by: jen at January 25, 2005 07:33 AM