Workshop Report: Capitalist Society

Following ROAPE’s roundtable on ‘African capitalist society’ at the ASAUK in September, brings together summaries of the presentations submitted by the speakers and chairs. The workshop coordinator, Jörg Wiegratz, will be editing a series of blog pieces on the topic which will appear on over the coming months. ROAPE will also be publishing Briefings and Debates on the same subject in our journal. You can find details of the call for pieces by clicking here and the original workshop here. We ask those interested in writing pieces to get in touch:

Kate Meagher welcomed the increasing focus on capitalism in Africa because it directs our attention to wider political-economic processes rather than focusing on fragmented issues without a sense of underlying dynamics. But she argued that understanding Africa’s engagement with contemporary capitalism requires an engagement with the ways in which relations that do not appear to be capitalist are being harnessed in the service of capitalism. The new focus on class rather than ethnicity is particularly interesting in this regard. The fascination among scholars with Africa’s expanding middle class has distracted attention from the more critical question of what is happening to the working class in the context of jobless growth and persistent poverty and informality.  She took issue with the argument in James Ferguson’s recent book that African workers have become functionally irrelevant to global capitalism. The view of African workers as a surplus population abandoned by capitalism fails to recognize the dramatic shifts in how labour is being accessed in the contemporary global economy.  While formal jobs are scarce, Africa’s large informal workforce continues to be linked into national and global productive systems as informal subcontractors, seasonal and temporary agricultural labour, last-mile distribution agents and precarious workers supplied by labour brokers. Far from casting African workers out of the capitalist system, the widespread informalization and precarization of work across Africa is giving rise to new ways of integrating African workers into global and national capitalist systems, but on more precarious terms, Meagher noted.  

Stefan Ouma shared two main observations. First, he reckoned that the panel’s framing (“almost all African societies can be considered as capitalist societies”) stands in stark contrast with the assessment of two towering figures in African studies, John Saul and Colin Leys, in a 1999 piece in The Monthly Review, where they argued that “after 80 years of colonial rule and almost four decades of independence, in most of it [sub-Saharan Africa] there is some capital but not a lot of capitalism. The predominant social relations are still not capitalist, nor is the prevailing logic of production.” This contrast reminded Ouma of a similar economic framing of the continent. For instance, in 2000, Africa was regarded a “hopeless continent” by the Economist; more recently it was all about “Africa Rising”. What we can take from this swift shift in framings, he argued, is that we have to critically investigate the ontological, epistemological and theoretical premises on which framings of the world are based. Second, Ouma asked what a call for studying ‘capitalism in Africa’ or ‘African capitalist society’ is actually all about? Is it a call for studying capital, capitalism, capitalisms, or capitalists? Or does it maybe encourage us to avoid such ‘capitalocentric’ framings altogether, after various postcolonial literatures have highlighted the Eurocentrism of certain categories of historical and economic inquiry.

Accordingly, the latter often fails to account for the vast variety of situated economic subjectivities, positionalities, practices, organizational forms and relations that populate the world, only some of which are capitalist. In the end Ouma made a case for an approach that is concerned with the means and mechanisms through which distinct socialities are being made rather than assuming that African capitalist societies simply exist. Often, much more goes into projects of society-and economy-making in Africa (and elsewhere) than just capitalism. His blog piece on this website goes into more detail.

Furthermore, Jesse Ovadia explained that in his recent work, he follows Samir Amin in referring to African states as peripherally capitalist in the sense that they are a part of the capitalist system but do not have predominantly capitalist social relations of production. He further argued that as part of a larger shift centred on oil production in the Gulf of Guinea, elites are adopting new strategies of accumulation. In order to continue appropriating rents from petroleum, they are choosing to invest in capitalist production, though still relying on privileged access to the state to identify and capture rent in the most effective ways. Accordingly, these new methods of elite accumulation can be regarded as part of a larger shift in social relations of production, potentially leading to wider structural transformation. Whether this plays out will depend on how long the phase of low oil prices continues. Ovadia explained that some scholars have read his argument as similar to Bill Warren’s support for global capitalism and his unorthodox analysis of imperialism. However, Ovadia made the point that he is primarily attempting to explain an observable phenomenon in African petro-states since from the early 2000s and how it alters the limits of the possible capitalist development. Moreover, Ovadia made a point in support of certain forms of state intervention to nurture industrialization and structural transformation in respective African countries which should lead to a rise in the standard of living for the majority of Africans. Finally, he expressed the view that the development of capitalist social relations in Africa can produce both positive and/or negative outcomes, i.e. is creating (uneven) development and underdevelopment depending on the bottom-up response from civil society to a top-down elite-led transformation. In making this argument, he use ‘civil society’ not as it is commonly used as a synonym for ‘non-governmental organization’, but rather in a more Gramscian sense as a terrain of struggle. Such struggle will inevitably be what makes capitalism in Africa more or less developmental for ordinary citizens. Therefore, for Ovadia, we should be asking ourselves what role we can play and how we can support progressive movements for structural change in Africa regardless of whether they seek to build capitalism up or tear it down. These three interventions were followed by a lively debate with the conference delegates in the audience, and closing remarks by the chairs. 

Peter Lawrence noted that ROAPE had devoted a whole issue to Capitalism in Africa (No. 8, which can be accessed here) which makes for instructive re-reading almost 40 years later. Then the debate was about the expansion of capitalism through the instrument of the multinational corporation either in conjunction with a local ‘bureaucratic bourgeoisie’, as Issa Shivji termed the Tanzanian ruling class, or in cooperation with a Latin American style ‘comprador bourgeoisie’. Others saw the development of a national capitalist class through the expansion of petty commodity producers and big farmers. The complexity of class relations was also brought out in one article which showed that people could at the same time have different positions in the structure of class relations – both farmers employing labour and farm workers being employed by larger farmers, for instance. Multinationals have now developed into global corporation and in many cases, North and South, have captured the state.

Jörg Wiegratz observed that there is something particular about African studies and scholarly debates about certain themes related to economy, society and the state on the continent and that is the significant impact of research funding by Western donors and governments on academic activities, i.e. academic agendas, analyses, theory building etc. This could be one of the reasons why some of the more mainstream analyses (on aspects of economic and social development, politics, political economy, poverty, or conflict) seem so devoid when it comes to bringing capitalism more directly into focus. Capitalism as an analytical category was/is largely absent in a number of key research projects and writings that have shaped African studies and African development debates during the last 20 years or so. This has arguably weakened the understanding and discussions about a number of societal phenomena in Africa. Wiegratz suggested we need to use innovative analytical frameworks that seem to have hardly been applied in African studies, such as the Capital as Power (such analysis is applied in an important 2013 edited collection). This could enrich analyses and debates about crucial political economy matters in African countries, and help challenge mainstream approaches. Finally, both chairs thanked the panel and the many other participants who contributed to a stimulating discussion about approaches to studying and understanding capitalism in Africa.  

The coordinator of the workshop, Jörg Wiegratz, is a lecturer in Political Economy of Global Development at the University of Leeds, School of Politics and International Studies. He works on the political economy and moral economy of neoliberalism, with a particular focus on the topics of moral change, economic fraud and anti-fraud measures. He is a member of the Editorial Working Group of ROAPE.

Featured photograph: The flag of US Capitalism


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