Africa and the evolution of Big Ideas

Taruvinga Magwiroto

At some point in the history of man, there have come along some great ideas and theories with powerful explanatory capabilities. Ideas like capitalism; democracy; Marxism and its variants; modernisation; theory of evolution…the list goes on. Ideas are important because they provide the edifice upon which the practical world works.

 One obvious thing that these ideas have is that they originated from the West. Now if you go through these ideas, those of them which are also ruling or dominant ideas, have a certain thread to them. For example capitalism, democracy and the entire Western civilisation is premised on natural selection and competition (survival of the fittest) as the basis for constant improvement. In the political arena they hold periodic elections at fixed intervals. Companies grow through innovation, which is basically constant evolution, constant improvement of process and product.

Competition is a fascinating concept, because it clearly works. That’s why Western societies have been hugely successful. It is also patently flawed, because when it is translated into human systems it creates a dangerous dichotomy: winners and losers. Winners have money, and power. Losers have neither. Winners enjoy the finer things of life, the weak go to the wall. You can do the maths: society has evolved a “right” way (process) of earning the good things of life. But in a world obsessed with winning, “process concepts” are suffering. The things that make us human-ethics and morality- are being thrown out of the window and a crude form of social Darwinism is clearly predominating. The rise of the political right is testament to that. Deviance is becoming the new normal.

When translated to the African State, the big ideas do not seem to work smoothly. Competition (elections) degenerate into wars, selection degenerates into a patronage system and the political system seems to select the worst among us. There is a sense that Africa is actually not benefitting economically from the fruits of democracy. If we constantly bleed our best people outside our borders and the Heads of States and Ministries are being manned by people who cannot be considered the best among us, it is a no brainer that we are not competitive in the world in the long run. In Africa the best ideas are not necessarily winning; the “better man” is not necessarily winning. Correcting the “political market” imperfections has become a big issue, a really big one.

Of course certain conditions need to exist. It is clear that democracy as a social innovation in Africa lacks what Leeuwis (2013) calls a “conducive coupling and balance”. Conducive coupling and balance do not happen spontaneously. They have to be influenced, nurtured, argued and thought out. That is where the power of ideas come in.

Kothari, Johnson, Brexit, hegemony

Well, the above assorted entities don’t have much in common. Umar Kothari is a thinker in development studies, who has brought forward the idea of “foreclosed futures”.  She was saying this with respect to the Millennium Development Goals. She was basically questioning how the international development organisations coalesce around certain ideas, giving the ideas power and impetus and crowding out alternative ideas, no matter how plausible the alternatives are. Gramsci called this “hegemony”, a situation in which certain ideas predominate over others. Marx talks of “ruling ideas”. For example modernisation, flawed though it is, has had a hegemonic influence in the Global South after getting the initial impetus from Truman’s USA in the late 50s and early 60s, reinforced by the UN organs and the Washington Consensus.

Why do I introduce the idea of hegemony and foreclosure? Well, it’s because once ideas become hegemonic, they tend to create a sense of foreclosure, a foregone conclusion. The ideas are so established that they cannot be questioned, alternatives cannot be entertained. There is neither space nor funding for alternatives. Hence the future is foreclosed.

Now, Boris Johnson is a British politician who happens to be the British Prime Minister bend on taking the UK out of the EU, come hail or high water. But the British Parliament has just introduced a law which prevents him from taking out the UK without a deal with the EU. In other words they have taken “no deal” off the table. Boris is like: “hang on a moment, you are foreclosing the future here. You are limiting my negotiation leverage. Everything should be open.” I don’t feel qualified to judge the situation, save to observe that it is actually a very interesting situation which threatens huge consequences for British polico-constitutional traditions. In a way, we are probably witnessing an evolution of British democracy, which has always had the distinction of being flexible without being totally chaotic, and being traditional without being totally staid.

In part, what has made the British political system to work is that it is an old, tried and tested system. And I also suspect that there is more clarity among the ruling elite about what constitutes the national interest. There is substantive convergence on what constitutes the national interest. What differs between political parties in the end is how to achieve the national interest. It is not a perfect system, but the clarity around national interests makes it work.  Above everything else, it is a system based on long-standing traditions and processes. People respect the system, even if most of it is unwritten. Winners rule, the opposition oppose, all within the rules of a gentlemen’s code. There is respect for “process concepts”: justice, fairness, honour, fair play. It’s a saving grace which makes them human.

National interest and rules of the game

I find that the British system works because there is a clear sense of the national interest. It is the country that is famous for having no permanent friends but only permanent interests. It is true as Marx said that the ordinary individual may be unaware of their true interests (false consciousness?). But is it possible that entire states can fail to know what their true national interests are? I think this is one issue that African countries need to spend time debating, setting up commissions if necessary. The national interest should determine the political and developmental agenda, and the standard against which to measure political parties’ manifestos and performance. Without that, political parties will continue to promise heaven and deliver hell.

The rules of engagement are another area that needs to be worked on. There is need to temper competition with morality. Competition without ethics creates a system where the worst among us ascend to the position of power, with dire consequences. In Africa you hardly hear a minister “resigning” for any reason, no matter how shameful they have acted. It is a system without a concept of “shame”, where ethics and morality are taken as weakness. But ethics and morality makes us human. Without them we return to the caves.


Leave a Reply