19 Oct The Great Lacuna: Capitalism in Africa
Jörg Wiegratz asks why there is such silence in much of African Studies on capitalism. He wonders why capitalism does not feature more prominently in titles of major Western conferences on Africa, and articles of main African Studies journals. In this blogpost he asks why does this analytical lacuna exist? Wiegratz calls for a discussion and explanation of this state of affairs. On the central question of capitalism, the African Studies community, he argues, in Western Europe, and across the Global North, is largely inactive and silent? When it comes to an explicit, focused and sustained collective exploration, about the many, multifaceted features of contemporary capitalism on the continent, and about the characteristics of African society as a capitalist society, there is a gaping silence.
By Jörg Wiegratz
Imagine an interested critical undergraduate student living in Berlin who has never engaged with what we call ‘African Studies’ but is very curious about what this group of scholars is up to. This student has only a little time at hand, and so decides that a good way to get an overview is to check the titles of the major Africa conferences in Western Europe. After all, she has a lot of respect for this region’s academia: ‘Aren’t a lot of universities from this part of the world in top places in the global university rankings that I have heard so much about?’ After 40 minutes the student concludes the search: ‘Judged by the titles, lots of things seem to be going on in Africa. There is reference to borders, networks, connections, mobility, migration, innovations, and so on. But why do I not find any reference in these conference titles to the one thing that – especially since Occupy and the climate change protests – I hear and read more and more about, on my alternative news-sites, my favourite social media and YouTube channels, namely that thing called capitalism. That seems strange. Are African countries from Nigeria, Uganda, and Kenya to Angola and South Africa not affected by capitalism and its economy, politics and culture, or not part and parcel of global capitalism just like us, are these societies not also capitalist? Is capitalism not a significant issue in Africa too? Something that, as I see it here in Berlin, affects everyone’s life in one way or another? Why does capitalism not make it into the titles of these big conferences organised by all these academics studying Africa? Why? Why? I am so puzzled…’
This small, made-up scenario is intended to help me to get to a crucial point: the significant shortage at the heart (and top) of the African Studies community in Western Europe, and arguably across the entire Global North, of an explicit, focused, sustained, large-scale collective exploration, about the many, multifaceted features of contemporary capitalism on the continent, and about the characteristics of African society as capitalist society.
This line of enquiry began about two years ago, when I expressed some of these observations concerning the under-utilisation of capitalism as an analytical category in African Studies. I had organised a roundtable titled ‘African capitalist society’ at the ASAUK 2016 (see here), and started a blog series on roape.net titled Capitalism in Africa a few weeks later. The series has a number of invaluable contributions, and the texts reveal the high level of analytical insights that can be gained from engaging with and exploring head-on the issue of capitalism in Africa (CiA). The sporadic bit of feedback I receive concerning the series from some of those who write in it (or read it), suggests that that sort of series was indeed needed. But I wasn’t actually flooded with blogposts, nor did many of the well-known, senior scholars in African Studies volunteer yet to write for the series. But I am sure, and so is ROAPE, that the series will continue well into the 2020s.
So, why another blogpost from me on capitalism in Africa? Basically to make two points. The first is to return to the point raised by our hypothetical student in Berlin above and present some actual data concerning conference titles of major African Studies conference in the Global North. The second point is to make an argument in favour of one of the positions that is at the heart of the series on roape.net: that many African countries are by now capitalist societies and analytically need to be treated as such. In countries such as Uganda and Kenya, for example, and especially their major cities one can find plenty of social phenomena that are typical of contemporary capitalist society across the world, and that have plenty of similarities, whether they occur in the Global North – London, Berlin, Paris – or in Africa – Pretoria, Nairobi, Kampala: from the new trends and impacts of social media (Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, influencers, followers, twitter shit storm), dating apps (Tinder), marketing and advertisement, the entertainment industry (commercial TV, comedy; music; lotteries; TV shows: investment, property, jackpot, dating, big brother, cultural competitions, we-change-your-life-in-an-instant formats; international commercial sports events, especially European football, broadcast in bars, hotels and restaurants), urban transport (Uber, Taxify), shopping arcades, corporate sponsorship of social events and initiatives (education, health, culture, sports), books present/advertised about individual success, wealth, happiness, turn-around-your-life and thinking-like-the-successful, privatisations, commercialised education/health, public-private partnerships, the presence of powerful TNCs (in banking, food & beverages, business consulting, hospitality, security, etc.), gated communities, evictions, gig/night/24-7-moneyneversleeps economy, jobless growth, precarity, under-/unemployment, poverty wages, inequality, luxury, opulence, 4×4, VIPs and celebrities, sugar daddies, betting, loan offers (via TV, radio, newspapers, billboards), personal indebtedness, mental illnesses, protesters vs. riot police battles, etc. In short, to the question can some African countries be regarded as capitalist countries from the point of view of observable social phenomena in everyday life, in the big cities, then the answer I would give is an emphatic yes, of course; what else do you think this all is, pre-capitalist, feudal?
But I will get to this second point later in this blog. First, I would like to share with you two incidences from earlier this year that inspired this particular intervention in our roape.net series.
The First Incidence: In April this year, I attended the Mwalimu Nyerere Intellectual Festival at the University of Dar es Salaam. The festival theme was the following: ‘The Second Scramble for Africa: The Quest for Socio-Economic Liberation of the Majority Poor’. Although not using the C-word directly, the use of the term ‘scramble’ is a very direct reference to the topic of imperialism on the continent, and therefore to a major general phenomenon in capitalist political economy. The political difference between this gathering’s title and the typical titles of European conferences that I have encountered over the years (headlined with words such as mobility, connections, flows, engagement, creativity, transformation, etc.) was striking. Why have I not come across a major African Studies conferences in Europe that carried the astute, urgent and straightforward title of the Nyerere Festival?
Perhaps, there were actually workshops, symposiums and conferences in Europe too with capitalism at the centre of the discussion but I wasn’t aware of them? So, a few days after the conference I checked quickly the past European Conferences on African Studies (ECAS) conference titles, and guess what? Nothing. Not a single reference to capitalism or imperialism. However, I realised I needed to get more data to see if ECAS was the norm or an outlier, in other words I wanted to know if my argument would hold against a larger sample. So I asked my long-term research collaborator, Nataliya Mykhalchenko, to extend the search, include other major Northern conferences, and check it all for approximately the last decade.
This sort of ad-hoc, rough, time-pressed analysis of the conference titles of some of the major African Studies gatherings in the Global North gives clear – yet what some might all ‘anecdotal’ – evidence of a very peculiar relationship of the discipline with Capitalism-as-social phenomenon and Capitalism-as-analytical-frame. At the minimum, the overview of conference titles shows that the term has hardly ever made it into any main- or sub-title of an African Studies conference for years (and years). I will get to what this means in a minute but first the ‘stats’.
So, we have compiled the conference titles for the following: European conferences on African studies (ECAS, 2005-19; 8 entries), African Studies Association Germany (VAD, 2008-18, 6), Canadian Association of African Studies (CAAS, 2009-2018, 10), African Studies Association (ASA, United States of America) (called annual meetings; 2008-18, 11), African Studies in Italy (ASAI, 2010-18, 4 entries with titles). Out of 39 entries then, exactly 1 entry (or 2.56%) had capitalism in the conference title. If we include in the sample other regular major African studies gatherings in Western Europe – the Nordic Africa Day (2007-18, 8 entries), and the gatherings organised by the Netherlands Association for Africa Studies (NVAS; lately called NVAS Africa Day) (2006-18, 13 entries) – the ratio goes up to 1/60 (1.67%). So, ECAS was not an outlier after all, quite the opposite.
What does this data indicate? I don’t want to speculate about the cognitive or political dimensions of the process of title setting here. But everybody who has ever been part of a conference (or workshop) knows that titles – as well as conference blurbs, programmes, catalogue of abstracts etc. – are regularly products of a longer collective process of deliberation, laying out and weighing the options, drafting, editing etc. So, it is evident that ‘capitalism’ as a conference theme has not won the day very often, and this must be weighed against a background of a widening public debate across several countries in the North on capitalism-as-point-of-discussion. Yet, capitalism has not been deemed suitable to headline these large important, days-long scholarly gatherings across Europe (and North America) that actually, in one way or another, shape the intellectual framing and priorities of a significant share of the hundreds of attending scholars, students and researchers and related publications down the line.
Of course, some might argue that conference titles are very general and surely conferences that have transformations, inequality, and so on in the title are discussing capitalism and/or its current variant neoliberalism. Still, there is a difference here between a theme being implied or explicit, in the blub or in the title. So again, we can ask the question, why did capitalism-as-a-scholarly-theme lose out, while other themes carried the day and were crowned with a conference title?
I could easily end the blog with this question, but let’s carry on a bit.
First, there are of course occasionally panels and even streams in these very big African Studies conferences that directly refer to ‘capitalism’ in the title and of course, there are workshops or other scholarly gatherings in the North that are dedicated in one way or another to the analysis of capitalism in Africa. In addition, of course, there are plenty of African Studies conference panels that neither have capitalism in their title nor blurb, but discuss some of the many issues on the continent that are shaped by capitalism, whether explicitly acknowledged and analysed by paper presenters or not: think of panels, papers and workshops on extraction, poverty, hunger, conflict, inequality, tradition, migration, and so on. And, of course, articles get published – in ROAPE and a few other journals – that deal with capitalism more or less head-on and extensively. But this is not the point.
What I am talking here about is the place of the capitalism-theme in the overall analytical landscape of the discipline. The titles of major conference are important; they play a special role in shaping political and intellectual debate. They signal intellectual relevance and urgency and are set-up against alternative themes. They indicate the play of forces concerning (i) analytical and thus also political priorities (and frames), and therefore (ii) set the agenda for the discipline as a whole. There is a difference, one would expect, between keynote speeches about, say, Capitalist Africa-Capitalist Africans vs. Urban Africa-Urban Africans (the theme of ECAS 2017).
So again, at this point I can conclude: there is a long-standing pattern here of those who have the power to set major-conference agendas in the North – via selecting particular titles and keynote speaker, and, consciously or not, de-selecting other possibilities – to not choose ‘capitalism’ as a conference title. In other words, conference organisers across the North have for years, possibly decades pursued other framings for major conferences and appear for unknown reasons uninterested, reluctant, or whatever in capitalism as a core frame of conference discussion. There seems something particular then about the way African Studies engages with capitalism, as a social phenomenon, theme and concept.
Still unconvinced? Go to the conference theme text of ECAS 2019. The conference title is ‘Africa: Connections and Disruptions’. While many past and present analysts of the global economy and society regard capitalism – i.e., ‘the system’, ‘the machine’, this particular form of social order – to be the mother of disrupters, does capitalism get a mention in the conference blurb? Is it not a fairly established analytical insight of the social sciences that capitalism brings relentless change, often very radical, turbulent, disruptive and tragic? Isn’t Africa a major example of this core global feature of capitalism? And yet, the theme blurb of 714 words makes no reference to capitalism as a force of change and, surely, this cannot be an issue of limited space. Yet the blurb refers to amongst other things, North-South interventions, finance, financialisation, financial inclusion, global economy, global value chains, transaction, consumer markets, economic and debt relations, etc. but not a word on capitalism, imperialism, class, TNC/corporation/firm.
I used the search engine repeatedly to make sure I had captured ‘the data’ correctly but there were ‘no matches’. Why is capitalism not mentioned even though reference to it could have been made easily and appropriately? To press the point: Why does capitalism in Africa not get a bullet point of its own? Maybe, I am splitting hairs, yet, equally perhaps this blurb is an excellent exemplar of my overall point, with all my disclaimers.
Before I move on, I want to share with you one final bit of data we assembled. Conference titles are one thing, but what about African Studies journals? Does capitalism get some significant analytical attention in the published work? To start with: How about the top-ranked journal: African Affairs? Let’s find out. This is how my collaborator Nataliya summed up her research and analysis: Through some basic word searching I counted how many research articles had a term (at least) once in either title or abstract in the last five years (2013 – 2017). I focused on words ‘capitalism’, ‘capital’, ‘neo-liberal/neoliberalism’, ‘class’ and ‘market’. In the leading African Studies journal African Affairs the word ‘capitalism’ appears in two articles in this period: one by Alex Beresford in 2015 and the other one by Anne Pitcher in 2017. This totals to about 1.77% out of all the studied articles (total of 113). The related concept of ‘capital’ appears in four articles, so does the word ‘class’. ‘Neoliberalism/neo-liberal/neo-liberalisation’ has seven articles and the word ‘market’ six. The Journal of Modern African Studies contains two articles that mention ‘capitalism’ (one of which is ‘green capitalism’); two with ‘capital’; five with ‘class’; one with ‘neo-liberal’; and seven with ‘market’ (total of 119 articles). The Review of African Political Economy has nine articles with ‘capitalism’ (plus one with ‘philanthrocapitalism’); nineteen with ‘capital’; seventeen with ‘class’; fifteen with ‘neoliberal/neoliberalism’; sixteen with ‘market’ (total of 166 articles). The Journal of Southern African Studies has three articles with ‘capitalism’; ten articles with word ‘capital’; ten with ‘class’; eight with ‘neo-liberalism’; and twenty with ‘market’ (total of 305 articles). So, to pick out just one figure for the purpose of analytical narrative: the rate of capitalism for African Affairs speaks to the earlier finding coming out of the conference analysis, capitalism – as a phenomenon, theme, or concept – is peripheral, at least in the vital title and abstract section. Which term then is the top-term in this top-journal? Today, we have no time for that important question.
Instead, let’s move on then to my second incidence that puzzled me, and sparked further realisations: a few weeks after the Nyerere Intellectual festival, and our ROAPE connections workshop at the University of Dar es Salaam (that was the major purpose of my trip to Tanzania), I was in Hungary, at the 5th Pécs African Studies Conference. On the final conference day there was a panel titled ‘Visegrad Political Scientific Symposium on Africa Policies and African Studies’, with top representatives of Eastern European governments speaking about their respective governments’ engagement with Africa. One of the expert public servants had one or two slides titled something like ‘Future challenges for Africa’. There was a substantial number of issues listed: population growth, and so on. What didn’t feature, you’ve guessed it, was the dreaded C-word.
In the Q&A session, I asked the presenter and the speakers’ group in general something along these lines: Isn’t capitalism also a challenge for Africa given the evidence we have globally about the problems that come with it – many of which are reflected in intensive and ongoing global debate: environmental unsustainability, economic inequality, poverty, criminality, violence and so on? Shouldn’t capitalism feature when you think about the future Africa, say the Africa of 2040, 20 years of ever more capitalist restructuring, i.e. ever more capitalism? Would that not warrant some reference to capitalism in your presentation? But the response from one presenter was: we don’t think about capitalism as such; rather we take it as a given; after all this is the new world we live in; we promote our interests; do what is good for business …
This conference incident might indicate a broader issue: that government/state officials from the North who are engaging with Africa, ignore capitalism (at least in their public presentations, debate entries etc.) as a core empirical and analytical theme. In other words, these officials – from Budapest and Warsaw to Berlin, Brussels and Paris – would, it seems, typically not use capitalism (or anything very closely related to it) as part of their Africa’s-future-challenges presentation. And this position in all likelihood does not get challenged too much by the respective academic audiences, if the incidence I recount here indicates a wider phenomenon.
There was a fairly similar phenomenon at a well-attended roundtable discussion on German Africa policy (‘Die deutsche Afrikapolitik’) at the German Africa Studies Association (VAD) biannual conference a few weeks later in Leipzig. Again, panel speakers – that included a think-tank expert and two Professors – did not really frame their take about present and future issues in Africa and Germany’s respective policy stand in any way that would suggest capitalism is an issue, i.e. that it is capitalist social order including its political economy and culture that generates changes, tensions and challenges that need to be identified, analysed and understood. In other words, that a major issue we are facing in the future is the struggle regarding what sort of capitalism operates in Africa in the decades to come.
But the responses I got to my question that was similar to the one I asked in Pécs – Does capitalism feature anywhere in your analysis (about current/future trends on the continent and related policy issues) and if not, why not? – was again revealing. My reading of the answers: a direct, explicit, deep, informed, serious, committed analytical engagement with capitalism is more or less off the analytical (and political) radar, for various reasons. As a consequence, also off the radar are matters of class power, interests and conflict, crony capitalism, criminal capital, etc. and thus some of the major c-induced political-economic and cultural trends and changes, i.e. much of what drives and troubles the new African capitalist societies in operation.
Later in the same conference I gave a talk as well, about ‘Post-Neoliberal Africa? On the Usefulness and Limits of the Neoliberalism Concept’. It was part of a very well-attended Saturday morning panel named, ‘What Is Africa a Case of? Connecting General Theory and Local Contexts’, one of the two panel organisers was Macamo Elisio who wrote one of the early blogposts in our series. In my presentation, I made the two arguments that inform the arguments in this blog: European African Studies – if conference titles can be considered ‘evidence’ of sort – does not give capitalism the analytical attention it deserves, i.e. the major, dominant discussions too often more or less ignore or put-at-fringes any debate or discussion on capitalism. Many people in the audience visibly agreed with that point, found the argument plausible. Positively received as well was the second point I made: that a number of social phenomena in several African countries – Uganda, Kenya, and so on – can be seen to be typical of a capitalist society, and thus are comparable to similar phenomena in other capitalist countries, across the world, including the North.
More specifically, while so much of the analysis we see is framed around matters of development, security, poverty, democracy, ethnicity, policy, agency and so on, a considerable amount of these writings, does not acknowledge or make much of the fact that the phenomenon occurs in a capitalist context, which is both global and local.
So, take for instance the debate about democracy in Africa (DiA): should that scholarship not also be about the characteristics of democracy in the context of a capitalist state, and within the context of capitalist global and national political economy? And yet, have you commonly (or ever) seen DiA studies framing some of the issue in this way, and mobilising related texts (Chomsky, Wright Mills etc.)? Have you witnessed the DiA panels and streams at ECAS, ASAUK or VAD conferences engage head-on and extensively with the topic of capitalism, and democracy within the context of capitalism? I have not. At the ASAUK 2014, in the Q&A part of a panel, I asked a DiA presenter something like: ‘The countries studied can be regarded as capitalist countries, i.e. capitalist polities. Do you consider this in your analysis (and if not, why not)?’ I don’t remember the exact answer, but it was certainly not a ‘Yes of course I do…’ type. Well, four years later, we could check whether capitalism occurs in any of the indices of the major democracy in Africa books published in the last decade. My best guess is: as a rule, capitalism is absent in almost all of the indices.
Let’s for a moment assume that DiA studies indeed does not engage with capitalism very much. That would raise questions such as: Why? And, what are the analytical and political implications of this state of affairs, for the DiA scholarship and debate, and beyond? Do DiA analysts not regard some of the African countries they study as capitalist societies, hence, capitalist democracies and capitalist polities (with capitalist governments, class relations, and respective power and conflict phenomena etc.)? Perhaps some of the DiA scholars can explain to us themselves what they make of C-D-A.
Finally, let me repeat my analytical proposition. Many social phenomena in a range of African countries can be regarded as the processes of a capitalist society, and that this has implications for the debate about and study of (capitalism in) Africa. But, I realise, I have said more than enough for one blog. Let me leave a more extensive elaboration of this final issue for another day. I think I have the title for that blog already: Good morning, Capitalist Africa.
I end with two closing thoughts. First, one day, I am sure, an ECAS conference will have capitalism in the title, it is, as they say, (almost) inevitable. Second, writing this from Kampala (following a stay in Nairobi), my final-final one for today: if indeed capitalism is in town, then the status quo, the business as usual in African studies concerning capitalism in Africa is, in analytical terms, with every passing day ever more inadequate, for capturing this fast-moving empirical reality. Much of what goes on regarding capitalism in countries like Uganda remains unstudied. Both concluding thoughts are based on witnessing the expansion and intensification of capitalism in the cities and beyond. As the history and science of capitalism tells us it is a system that constantly expands and permeates, throughout the globe. Welcome to Capitalist Africa, then! And, African Studies, let’s talk…
I would like to thank Nataliya Mykhalchenko for her excellent and tireless work on this blog (researching and putting together the conference and journal stats), Alex Beresford, Tom Goodfellow and Tijo Salverda for their comments on earlier version of this draft, and Leo Zeilig for his encouragement to put all this on paper, after I told him about the reaction to my arguments at the VAD conference in Leipzig.
Jörg Wiegratz is a Lecturer in the Political Economy of Global Development at the University of Leeds and a member of the editorial board of RoAPE. His recent books include Neoliberal Moral Economy: Capitalism, Socio-cultural Change and Fraud in Uganda (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016), Uganda: The Dynamics of Neoliberal Transformation (co-edited with Giuliano Martiniello and Elisa Greco, Zed, forthcoming 2018), and Neoliberalism and the Moral Economy of Fraud (co-edited with David Whyte, 2016). His is a regular contributor and editor of roape.net.
Featured Photograph: Westlands in Nairobi is regarded as one of the city’s new business districts (29 June, 2012).
 Graham Harrison made a related point a while ago when he observed that scholars of development regularly do not acknowledge that what they study, namely actually capitalist development.
 The VAD 2016 Berlin had the title ‘Africa in a capitalist world’. Though note that for various reasons, this 2016 gathering was an unusual, shortened mini-VAD conference (‘Kurztagung’), with only one main conference day, instead of the usual three. However, my imaginary German student would be pleased to see VAD’s title choice, especially in comparison to some of the other titles such as ‘Africa Here; Africa There’ (CAAS, 2011)! Note, the bi-annual conference of the African Studies Association of the United Kingdom (ASAUK) has no title. FYI, we have also listed the titles for the African Studies Association of Australasia and the Pacific (AFSAAP, 2008-2018, 11 entries). Here, Australia seems to be major (if not dominant) actor in the Association. And Australia is regarded to be part of the Global North.
 There is a related question: how come there are (Marxist/critical) scholars researching capitalism in Africa within African Studies – and they organise panels/workshops, run a journal such as ROAPE etc, yet this is not reflected in the major conference titles?
 There is another Area Studies field that has, for historical reasons amongst others, a particular relationship with the capitalism concept as well: Eastern European (EE) studies. According to EE scholar Nicolette Makovicky, the academic debate about capitalism as such is on the fringes. Instead EE scholars investigate and speak of precarity, class, or financialization but rarely refer to the notion of capitalist society as such. Accordingly, in post-Communist Eastern Europe, the ideological delegimization of Left politics and the long-awaited arrival of ‘market democracy’ in the 1990s worked to mute public, political, and intellectual critiques of capitalism. As the consequences of the neoliberalization of Central and EE economies and societies became increasingly evident, the debate about capitalism surged a little, with academic discussions circling around matters of labour, finance etc., and politicians promising to lessen the blows of capitalism by policing foreign investors, excluding migrants, and restraining the power of the EU (private email exchange, October 2018).
 We wish to emphasize that all this is very preliminary, rough, time-pressed analysis for the purpose of making arguments in a blog. Counting errors might have occurred, and we take responsibility for that. That said, please note: (i) only research articles were included (not editorials, briefings, reviews); (ii) some of word combinations included: capital market, labour market, drug market, social capital, human capital, middle-class, working class and others (all of which were counted separately); (iii) ‘keywords/tags’ that are often included alongside articles were not included. Again, we wanted to get a short, preliminary insight into the data, a feel for it all, rather than an ultra-comprehensive data set and a conclusive analysis.
 In Uganda, government officials (as well as journalists, columnists, donors, NGO staff etc.) hardly ever use capitalism in their analysis. I was told during visits in Kenya, that capitalism is also hardly used in debates there (by analysts, politicians etc.). This might indicate a broader issue (though for partly different causes); somewhat comparable to the low use of capitalism in analyses about Africa by officials in Europe.
 I should finally add that I do not wish to insult or dismiss anyone personally or disrespect any form of scholarship in African Studies, but merely make some analytical points and raise some questions based on some personal observations. This is done in the name of understanding, critiquing and, hopefully, advancing the state of debates in African Studies and related disciplines that study African issues (international development etc.) on a few points of analysis.