Camaroff, L and Camaroff, J (2000). Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming. Durham, Duke University Press.
Cooper, F (2014). Africa in the World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Mbembe, A (2001). On Postcolony. Los Angeles California: University of California Press.
Cooper (2014) and Mbembe (2001) traces Africa’s economic history before and after colonialism while Camaroff and Camaroff explore the development of capitalism and neoliberalism in the 20th century. They describe how neoliberalism has catapulted some practices such as gambling that was previously not considered economic practices per se into full-fledged economic entities. The change in what they call “moral valence of gambling” reflects many such changes in the United States of America and across the world, whereby a thing or practice that was scorned upon or prohibited because of its destructive potential, is legalized and permitted into the public sphere. Examples include the legalization of certain drugs such as marijuana, coal mining, and offshore drilling among others. The core argument for legalizing these practices is their economic potential — to create more jobs and to generate the much-needed tax revenue.
Taking gambling as a departure point, Camaroff and Camaroff explore the emerging influence of stock markets in the world economy. They point out that free flow of capital contests and challenges sovereignty of nations as capital can no longer be confined within boundaries of nation states. They give examples of transnational business owners such as Robert Murdoch who was born in Australia and founded his media empire there but has expanded into England, US and other world markets. Camaroff and Camaroff further show that production no longer determines capital. Consumption does. This redefines the concept of labor in the sense that companies can now base different sections of production and assembly in countries where labor is cheap and taxation friendly. For instance, Apple can design their products from California but assemble them in China where there are cheap labor and abundance of raw materials. Furthermore, they can keep their finance department in Ireland, which offers them huge tax credits. The point here is that they do not have to support U.S. local industries where organized and perhaps unionized labor is likely to exist. Camaroff and Camaroff thus underscore the idea that under neoliberalism capital has wrenched itself free from labor.
Running the world economy like a casino has exposed countries to adverse economic disasters such as the 2007 and 2008 economic recession. Although Speck (2013) argued that neoliberalism is not solely responsible for world economic disasters, one can make a claim that its contribution trumps other causes. As Camaroff and Camaroff note, a marker of neoliberal capital is its inherent contradiction, particularly the dichotomy between neoliberal economic theory and its practicalities. This contradiction is more likely to lead to disastrous economic outcomes. For instance, neoliberalism promises individual freedom but locks many people out of means of production or sustainability. Moreover, it creates opportunities without giving resources for people to access these opportunities. Only those who are well positioned, those in the upper class can utilize the opportunities. Thus, widening inequalities in societies as well as extending ideas of exclusion that often exacerbate violence, crime, and disorder between those at the peripheries and those within the system (Camaroff and Camaroff, 2000).
Concepts of capital, capitalism, and neoliberalism are neither alien in Africa nor late entrants. In fact, capitalism is entrenched in the African past, and as Cooper points out, it has been slowly “coming.” Furthermore, slavery and colonialism are not departing point for the African economy, or its entry into the world economy as African suppliers of slaves were not necessarily part of the global economy that this kind of trade created. In fact, they did not even know what happened to the slaves once they crossed the Atlantic. Cooper contends that Africa had its own economy that catered for their needs and adapted to its ecosystems, but slavery and colonialism disrupted this economy. For instance, colonialism abolished the concept of communal land ownership that defined land in a way that benefited all communities – with no one having exclusive rights to land ownership. They introduced individual land ownership, a practice that continued through colonialism and persists in the current economies of most African countries.
The British used the so-called concept of primitive accumulation and misappropriated African lands on the pretext that it was underutilized affected many communities as it deprived them their main means of capital production. Cooper presents the successful independent farming of Cocoa farming in Gold Coast to show the inherent ability of Africans to engage in farming and trade without shepherding from colonialists. This implies the civilizing mission that was the excuse of colonialism was a farce. The British were just interested in acquiring raw materials for their industries and free and/or cheap labor to exploit the materials.
Mbembe builds on the idea of governance as it was introduced by colonialism. He explores ideas of governmentality in Africa and how they have impacted governance over time. He also looks at the concept of African state-building and the idea of citizenship. He points out how the British left pre-colonial societies with forms of working governments or structures of governments intact to use the structures to rule Africans. They identified or created elites to act as their intermediaries as they sought to exploit and control capital.
Although neoliberalism as a theory is Euro-American centered, its influence or practical aspects has greatly affected economies of African countries. Western institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) have been major conduits for promoting market fundamentalism in African countries. In the 1980s and 1990s, they formulated policies, commonly referred as Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), that led to economic adjustments such as austerity and scrapping of subsidies for important sectors such as agriculture, education, and healthcare, factors that finally wrecked economies of many African countries.
As I pointed out in my introductory article, reading David Harvey’s, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Jamie Peck’s Explaining (with) Neoliberalism, and Michel Foucault’s The Birth of Bio-Politics, one learns that neoliberalism does not have a single definition because the concept cuts across multiple disciplines. But at its basic, neoliberalism refers to an assemblage of social-economic, political, and cultural relations that favor market-based initiatives. According to Harvey, originators of neoliberalism leveraged the desire for individual freedom and dignity, which is ubiquitous in western societies (but not limited to it) to drum up support for the concept. They figured out that people are more willing and likely to support policies or frameworks that warrant personal liberty and freedom to determine their own lives however they wish.
Harvey further notes that from the beginning, proponents of neoliberalism, especially those based at Chicago School (the Economics Department of the University of Chicago), were against state interventionist theories such as Keynesian. Whereas Keynesian economic theory (which was advanced by British economist John Keynes) advocated for increased government spending and lower taxes as a means for addressing economic depression, Chicago School argued that the state was not competent enough to judge market initiatives because it had limited data, and that politicians could not be trusted to be impartial in planning the economy. Moreover, economic stagflation in Europe and America was blamed on Keynesian initiatives such as fixed exchange rates, heavy government spending on social welfare, and government intervention that hindered market competition. Neoliberalists argued that there is no such thing as society. They privileged individuals and families, and thus, justified the scrapping of state enterprises or social welfare programs geared to the benefit of society (as a collective). They proposed the idea of a neo-liberal state, one that operates as super-enterprise facilitating other sectors of the economy while ensuring market competition. As Harvey notes, “the freedoms it embodies reflect the interests of private property owners, businesses, multinational corporations, and financial capital” (7).
Scholars seem to agree that the common denominator for various interpretations of liberalism is the market. However, some scholars such as Jamie Peck have gone beyond the basic definition to explore how neoliberalism tends to operate differently from one geographical region to another with varying degrees of success. Furthermore, even the historiography of the concept of neoliberalism also tends to differ from one region to another. For instance, Ordo-liberals in Germany anchored their neo-liberal ideas on “social market economy’ and advocated for the creation of a social policy that can create and determine conditions for the market, which included “universalization of the entrepreneurship form and the redefinition of law” (Lemke, 2001: 195). In other words, they conceptualized an economic-institutional structure that encompasses the law of the land and even determines the nature of the state that can be established. Chicago School went further and blurred the line between the social and economic spheres. As Lemke (2001) notes, they “attempted to re-define the social sphere as a form of the economic domain” (197). In other words, social phenomena that were not considered in monetary or economic terms were incorporated into the economy.
In other areas neoliberalism redefined the relationship between capital and labor, that is, it introduced the concept of human capital whereby people were no longer receiving wages for performing a task but “an income from a special type of (human) capital” (Lemke, 2001: 199). In this regard, people became entrepreneurs of themselves. Thus, a person pursuing education to acquire more skills was regarded as investing in self; increasing one’s human capital.
The concept of neoliberalism has had its fair share of criticism from both the left and right critics in cultural studies, political science, economics, and other disciplines. The 2008 crash of the economy led to mass protests such as Occupy Wall Street that condemned neoliberalism as a cause of economic inequality in the US. But as Peck (2013) points out, neoliberalism is not the sole cause of contemporary social, political, and economic problems. He argues that it is one of the Others. My view is that neoliberalism as conceptualized favors certain classes of people who have taken advantage of the system and enriched themselves at the expense of the poor. Some countries such as the US have taken the neoliberal idea of freedom beyond their borders through instituting and adopting foreign policies that purport to promote freedom around the world. For instance, President Bush’s invasion of Iraq was pegged on the idea that they were liberating Iraq citizens from decades of oppression under Saddam Hussein. They sought to achieve this through liberalization of the entire Iraq economy, that is, privatizing key public institutions and adopting market-based initiatives for all sectors of the economy. They even sought to regulate labor by prohibiting unions and unionization. All these policies have not translated into “good freedom” for the oppressed. Instead, they have widened inequality and exacerbated suffering.
Harvey, D (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lemke, T (2001). ‘The birth of bio-politics’: Michel Foucault’s lecture at the College de France on neo-liberal governmentality. Economy and Society, 30(2), 190-207.
Mamdani, M. (2007). Define and Rule. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Mantena, K (2010). Alibis of Empire: Henry Maine and the ends of liberal imperialism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Peck, J (2013). Explaining with Neoliberalism, Territory, Politics, Governance, 1:2, 132-157.
Last semester I enrolled in a class on “Africa and (Neo)liberalism.” As part of the course requirements, I kept a weekly critical journal about the class readings. The following series of articles detail my observations throughout the 15 weeks the class lasted.
What is Neoliberalism?
The recent academic literature on Africa is replete with debates on neoliberalism and its effects on the social, political, and economic lives of people of Africa. But compared to other common concepts such as capitalism, socialism, democracy or even liberalism, this concept is yet to be definitively defined. Moreover, it has become an academic expression that is repeatedly and conveniently used by scholars to represent political-economic changes, particularly those influenced by World Bank and International Monetary Fund programs, commonly known as Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs).
I first came across the concept of neoliberalism during a Medical Workers’ strike in Kenya. Medical health professionals and other concerned wananchi pointed out that the Kenyan government had become a neoliberal client state because of its plans to privatize health care. The government denied these claims and argued that their strategy was merely to collaborate with the private sector under the framework of established public-private partnership policies in order to provide excellent healthcare to the people of Kenya. The government’s strategy hinged on the assumption that the private sector is more efficient in delivering public services, and it can easily be regulated. This idea that everything including public services can be privatized, monetized and be distributed in a market is perhaps the common denominator in all the definitions I read about neoliberalism. As I wrote in my journal during the second week of class:
Reading Harvey (2005), Peck (2013), and Lemke (2001), one learns that neoliberalism does not have a single definition because the concept cuts across multiple disciplines. But at its core, neoliberalism refers to an assemblage of social-economic, political, and cultural relations that favor market-based initiatives.
But what I found more interesting is Jamie Speck’s discussion of neoliberalism as an analytic framework that is always becoming. Furthermore, this concept tends to operate differently from one region to another. In other words, how we discuss or analyze neoliberalism in the context of Africa need not necessarily resemble Eurocentric analyses. This view does not disentangle Africa or any region from the world economy. It merely shows that political-economic concepts are rarely one size fits all concept as they are interpreted and applied differently across the world. For instance, one question we discussed during a presentation on James Ferguson’s Global Shadows, is why Africa is poor despite its abundance of natural resources. I wrote in my journal:
Scholars confuse the issue of “political-economic inequality” in Africa with the concept of development. They divorce inequality from its global consideration and discuss it at the nation-state level as “development” issue. This articulation is inaccurate as it ignores the historical contribution of Africa into what we now call modernity or globalization. Furthermore, scholars who look at global capital flows often ignore Africa. Obviously, to them, Africa is not part of the global capital equation. The few who look at global flows in Africa, constrain themselves to capital related to mineral-resource extraction.
Ferguson goes to great lengths to explain how capital flows to specific enclaves in Africa while it bypasses national economies. In other words, it does not benefit all citizens. In this case, global is reconceptualized as a point-to-point connection as opposed to a focal point of convergence. As Ferguson indicates, there is a danger to this new conceptualization of global because it poses challenges in dealing with complex issues such as global warming, which does not work point-to-point.
Reading Ferguson contributed greatly to my understanding of capital and how neoliberalism manifests in Africa. His discussion in a chapter about “paradoxes of sovereignty and independence: ‘real’ and ‘pseudo-nation-states and the depoliticization of poverty” enabled me to see that our understanding of global inequality and cultural differences should be examined from a global social, economic, and political perspective as opposed to the localization of such. Perhaps the story of Lesotho and Transkei illustrates this concept better. Despite Lesotho being a sovereign country, its economy, especially during apartheid, was worse than Transkei, a formerly Bantustan enclave in South Africa. Lesotho could not (and perhaps still does not) have an independent economy that is not dependent on its neighboring countries such as South Africa. As I wrote in my journal, all these underscores the fact that there can be no local culture that is divorced from the wider and encompassing sphere within which they are conceptualized and articulated. Thus, Ferguson concludes that anthropologists should reconsider ideas of “the field” as a unique site of culture.
During our third and fifth week of class, I realized that although neoliberalism is a recent phenomenon, its roots can be traced back to the era of slavery and colonialism. In other words, concepts of capital, capitalism, and neoliberalism are neither alien in Africa nor late entrants. On the contrary, capitalism is entrenched in the African past, and as Cooper points out, it has been slowly “coming.” Furthermore, as I reflected in my journal, slavery and colonialism are not departing point for African economy, or its entry into the world economy as African suppliers of slaves were not necessarily part of the global economy that this kind of trade created. In fact, they did not even know what happened to the slaves once they crossed the Atlantic (see Gikandi’s Slavery and the Culture of Taste).
Africa had its own economy that catered for their needs and adapted to its ecosystems, but slavery and colonialism disrupted this economy. Karuna Mantena’s Alibis of Empire and Mahmood Mamdani’s Define and Rule trace transitions that led to political-economic changes in Africa. Their discussions enabled me to understand how colonialism was conceptualized in the metropolis and how colonizers interpreted their “mandate.” Of importance here is the idea that colonial practices continue to have adverse political-economic effects in Africa. Ato Quayson’s book, Oxford Street Accra, in a way, is an exposition of some of these effects. Quayson employs a cultural lens to trace the genesis of Accra city and its development into a neoliberal city. The history he discusses situates Accra as a commercial coastal city that became the gateway to Gold Coast (now Ghana). The centrality of commerce or business in slavery and colonialism cannot be underestimated.
Over the course of eight weeks (the first part of the class), I learned a lot about neoliberalism including the concept of human capital and technologies of subjectivity, which most African scholars tend to ignore. These ideas provide new frameworks for interpreting economic changes taking place in Africa.
The following sections of my journal highlight some of the major points from class readings and discussions.