Blinded by Capitalism: Words that think (for us)

By Elísio Macamo

Words that think (for us) are terms so rich in meaning, so versatile in usage, so widely deployed that their presence in any utterance is enough to give sense to it. And that happens even when such utterances may be devoid of meaning. These words, which in fact are concepts, have precise meanings in the social sciences and help researchers lend descriptive, analytical and interpretive sense to the phenomena they study. However, when these words are used in general public discourse, or uncritically by researchers, they take up the job of thinking for those who use them. Capitalism is one such word. Others are “democracy”, “human rights”, “good governance”, “market economy”, etc. As a matter of fact, any concept in the social sciences that can be used not only to describe phenomena, but also to explain them has the potential to function as a word that thinks (for us).

Now, in response to ROAPE’s invitation to contribute to the debate on “Capitalism in Africa” I would like to suggest one way of taking up the challenge. Instead of discussing whether “Capitalism” as such is a valid concept or a useful description of social phenomena I want to suggest that it might be equally useful to consider the issues entailed by such a debate in terms of a broader challenge faced by researchers of Africa. The challenge consists in sorting out the much larger issue concerning how concepts developed in very specific times and places under very specific circumstances can be usefully deployed in other temporal and spatial settings. “Capitalism in Africa” is not only about whether the economic circumstances of the continent are consistent with the semantic and analytical field implied by “capitalism” as a concept in political economy. It is also about how to make social science concepts work well when they cross borders.

This is not an easy task. This is so because when the vocabulary of the social sciences crosses borders it suffers a black-boxing effect. Here I draw on the work of Bruno Latour who uses the notion of black-boxes to describe how science conceals the processes through which it produces technology.  As he writes in the glossary to his 1999 book Pandora’s Hope, “[T]he way scientific and technical work is made invisible by its own success. When a machine runs efficiently, when a matter of fact is settled, one need focus only on its inputs and outputs and not on its internal complexity. Thus, paradoxically, the more science and technology succeed, the more opaque and obscure they become.” This is precisely the aspect of black-boxing that I find useful in thinking about the challenge of making social science concepts work across borders. The black-boxing effect replaces original thinking and lets concepts do the job for us. I suggest that this effect occurs on three levels, all of which bear on the challenge of engaging with Capitalism in Africa. When social scientists do their work, i.e. apply concepts to make sense of social phenomena, they do so against the background of a complex network of economic, ideological and perhaps even cultural givens. The knowledge produced under such circumstances may be better understood as an artefact of a history of academic controversies, hostilities and competition.

The first level is to be seen at the intersection of the claims of the Enlightenment and Europe’s historical relationship with Africa. This is marked by the assumption that scientific knowledge is by definition universally valid because it applies objective concepts. By extension, what we know about Europe is consistent with what we can know about the world. Within the context of the social sciences which rely on empirical generalisations it is easy to assume that the conceptual apparatus developed at this very crucial moment in Europe’s history provides an adequate framework to render other parts of the world intelligible.

Enter capitalism. While the term describes a very specific way of organizing economic life that conferred an advantage to the part of the world where it first came into fruition, capitalism has also come to stand for inexorable and necessary transformation. The existence of the concept withdraws legitimacy to any attempt at account for processes of social transformation that cannot be reduced to a reaction to, or pursuit of capitalism. This is not to say that capitalism may not matter. Rather, the issue is that the existence of the concept makes Capitalism ubiquitous in the social scientist’s imagination and prevents him or her from looking for ways of making sense of Africa that may downplay the importance of Capitalism. It is not uncommon, in conferences or book reviews, to be rebuked for failing to consider the role of capital in whatever one may be interested in accounting for.

The second level consists in positing the present condition of European society as the purposeful outcome of socially engineered processes of change. This is of course amplified by the teleological nature of Marxism, arguably the best and most coherent account of Capitalism. Just as Capitalism is perceived as a necessary and inevitable stage in the unfolding of history owing to materialist laws of evolution it is also assumed that knowledge of such laws yields useful insights into what hampers the evolution of other societies. In this sense, then, while political economy approaches to the study of Africa have helped researchers produce a very deep and solid understanding of African social phenomena – Walter Rodney’s seminal work on underdevelopment (1983) or Samir Amin’s even more wide ranging work on delinking (1990) are particularly good examples – they may also have led some of us to lose sight of the contingent nature of historical outcomes and made us hostage to a teleological view of human history that does not do justice to Africa. My book on the Taming of Fate (2016) looks at risk and disasters, but my theoretical focus is precisely on the role which uncertainty should play in our accounts of Africa. I argue implicitly against the danger of reproducing the teleology implied by Capitalism on account of the concept’s tendency to be more determinate than the historical processes which produced it in the first place.

The third and final level conflates procedural knowledge with propositional knowledge. In other words, the conceptual apparatus of the social sciences becomes a normative vocabulary setting out how the social world should be by assuming that we know everything there is to be known about that same social world. To put it differently, knowledge production is not guided by the need to discover new facts, which is what propositional knowledge is about. Rather, it is an exercise in finding out how reality can be aligned with our concepts. When this is the case, the ability of researchers to render Africa intelligible is constrained. This is not because Africa is different in any essential way or, for that matter, because the concepts are “European”. Rather, the constraints emerge because the black-boxing effect that produced the vocabularies on the basis of which we seek to render Africa intelligible reduce knowledge production to the level of a mere exercise in procedural ability. To use Noam Chomsky’s helpful terminology, we are confronted with the tension between competence and performance. Procedural ability tests the researcher’s ability to apply and the object’s ability to conform to the normative content of concepts. What makes Capitalism problematic on this score is that it becomes a description of what should be, or of what it should not be. It becomes a word of abuse, or praise, that reduces the pursuit of knowledge to a search for ideological certainty, not conceptual understanding.

There is another way of looking at the same problem. In The Theft of History (2006) Jack Goody addresses pretty much the same problems with reference to the idea that Europe’s copyright claims over certain concepts and institutions amount to stealing history from others. This may overstate the case. Indeed, it is not so much that Europe has stolen history. Rather, it has forced upon the world ways of describing it which render invisible other possible worlds. Words that think (for us) taken particular histories for granted and confer upon the conceptual apparatus of the social sciences the normative legitimacy to conflate European contingent outcomes with historical inevitability. The Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu has made some useful comments on these issues in connection with his concern with cultural universals (1990). His most basic claim is that the existence of cultural universals is the basic premise upon which the possibility of intercultural communication and understanding rests. As he perceptively argues, “In truth, the ability to perceive the untranslatability of an expression from one language into another is a mark of linguistic understanding more profound than the ability to do routine translation. The second ability involves merely moving from the one language into the other, whereas the first involves stepping above both on to a meta-platform, so to speak, an ability that has not seemed to come easily to some students of ‘other cultures’. Untranslatability, then, can be a problem, but it does not necessarily argue unintelligibility”. Wiredu’s faith in intelligibility rests on his belief that the claim to understand something is equivalent to the ability to grasp “the conditions under which it is true to say that [a] concept holds”.

I guess that I am grappling here with the notion of translation and its implications when researchers try to apply any concept, really. Again, the challenge of development, the emergence of the BRICS, the resource boom and attendant bursts of the babbles which some claim that the boom creates as well as the perennially new aid architectures enveloping the African continent may make it urgent for researchers to ask the big C question. Is it good old Capitalism in new clothes, or an endogenous “African” version? Does it tell us anything new about Capitalism as we know it? These are probably important questions, but I for one would any time of day prefer grappling with the more methodologically challenging question concerning what it means to render Africa intelligible using words that think. To the extent that as I have tried to show such words may make it difficult for us to see beyond them or past their blind spots I would claim we may not yet be ready to engage in the kind of discussion which the debate on Capitalism requires us to undertake. Like I argue in the chapter “Before we Start” (2016), studying Africa is about getting ready to study Africa. The same should apply to debates about Capitalism in Africa: how do we start talking about the big C at all?

Elísio Macamo is Professor of African Studies at the University of Basel (Switzerland) where he is both the Director of the Centre for African Studies and Head of the Social Sciences Department.   



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