From Africa to Asia: Political Economy, Solidarity and Liberation

On 6-8 January a three-day workshop was held in Tunis, it brought together scholars, activists, organizations and artists who work for the liberation of Asia and Africa. Each day this week will be posting contributions by participants of the workshop on political economy, knowledge production and solidarity and liberation. In this introduction to the themes of the workshop, the organisers celebrate a gathering of anti-imperialist, anti- and decolonial researchers and activists who shared experiences, knowledge, strategies and tactics with the overall goal of liberation.

Recent years have witnessed a continuation and in many ways deepening of the neocolonial assault on the states, ecologies, social movements, peasant and working-class communities of the Global South, spearheaded by a multiplicity of neoliberal, neo-colonial and imperialist actors. These have ranged from the more obvious forms of military interventions, occupations, bases, and drone warfare to the more subtle forms of economic warfare, including sanctions, neoliberal conditioned loans, debt, and ‘free’ trade agreements designed to facilitate the penetration of foreign capital and goods and reproduce colonial relations of power. Border imperialism, or the racialized militarization of Global North borders in the service of capitalist accumulation, ensures that those fleeing from capitalist and neocolonial induced destabilization and deteriorating socio-economic and ecological conditions across Asia and Africa face a more perilous journey. The death of these migrants or exploitation of those who survive is systematically ignored by a mainstream press that collaborates with the ruling class in their dehumanization.

Increasingly, Global South states have entered into unequal security ‘partnerships’, through which imperialist policing and war-making are outsourced to structurally weaker states, entailing an offloading of physical and material sacrifices on behalf of Global North accumulation. These so-called alliances have the effect of retrenching the unrepresentative rule of socio-economically disconnected national bourgeoisies and embroiling the peoples of the Global South within militarized conflicts that are not of their own making and certainly not in their interest. They also alienate neighboring states from one another making the goal of regional integration – a cornerstone of liberation as imagined by the anti-colonial struggles of the post-World War Two era – even more of a chimera. These neocolonial patterns of accumulation are not only sustained through violent military and economic means, they are also enabled and normalized through an ideological and discursive infrastructure in which the hegemonic modes of knowledge are embedded, further confounding the aim of liberation. It is these shared political, economic and social conditions, which are a product of colonial legacies, neocolonial interventions as well as of resistance, that we contend give the geo-political demarcation ‘Global South’ its meaning.

Despite the bleakness of this snapshot of the current state of unequal global relations of power, there continue, as always, to be glimmers of hope in the spaces of liberation and resistance wrought by popular struggle. These include the movements of resistance to neoliberalism and imperialism rising up across the globe: from Haiti to Algeria, Bolivia to Sudan, Mali to Lebanon. The people continue to reject neocolonial and capitalist forms of wealth extraction, exploitation and repression. Solidarity expressed through brandishing the flags of other countries on the receiving end of colonial and imperialist power (e.g. Palestine, Cuba, Venezuela) or protests staged in front of settler-colonial and imperialist embassies (e.g. Israel, US, France) are signs that the peoples and movements of the Global South, including the Global South within the North (marginalized and exploited communities subjected to the violence of racial capitalism within the heart of Empire) continue to draw connections between the conditions and experiences of oppression, exploitation and control across settler-colonial and racial capitalist states and elaborate the interconnections between struggles. In so doing, they build on the shoulders of historical experiences of regional and transnational expressions of solidarity and attempts at institutionalizing solidarity, such as the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung in 1955, the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Conference in Cairo in 1957, the All-African Peoples’ Conference in Ghana in 1958, the establishment of the Black Panther Party’s International Office in Algeria, the Solidarity Conference of the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America in Havana in 1966 (Tricontinental Conference), the First Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algiers, Pan-Africanism and Pan-Arabism.

It was this context of power and resistance that prompted us to organize a workshop that brought together a group of individuals committed to liberation. After an initial organizing meeting in Beirut in the spring of 2019, we agreed to a thematic and regional focus: Political Economy, Knowledge, Solidarity, and Liberation: From Asia to Africa. Tunis, as a Global South capital, was deliberately chosen as the place to hold the workshop. The workshop was co-sponsored by Rosa Luxembourg Stiftung- North Africa, Afro-Asian Futures Past Research Program (American University of Beirut), the Frantz Fanon Foundation, and the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research. The individuals who came together for the workshop are all broadly engaged in the endeavor of insurgent knowledges, and are differentially placed within universities, research institutes, artist spaces or social movements, and resident in the Global South or ideologically committed to its liberation. It was intended that this would be the first of what is envisioned as an annual gathering with the goal of building an engaged community of anti- imperialist, anti- and decolonial scholars, activists, organizations and artists, and to share experiences, knowledge, pedagogies, strategies and tactics with the overall goal of liberation.

Despite the obvious connections, it is rare that intellectuals working on epistemological questions within the post- and decolonial framework are brought into direct conversation with those working in the domain of political economy. Yet without being rooted in materialist analysis and a specific political project, the post- and decolonial approach can be reduced to a mere ‘metaphor’- an abstract intellectual exercise removed from material realities- rather than a blueprint for resistance. Conversely, a materialist analysis that targets the mechanisms and effects of capitalist and imperialist forms of accumulation without understanding how our ways of knowing are equally bound up with interlocking systems of power that exploit and dispossess the masses in the Global South as well as the Global South in the North, will inevitably fall short of what is required for liberation.

As individuals whose own research and life experiences confirm the extraction, exploitation and ecological devastation across a North-South geopolitical division of power and the globe, we reject the increasing tendency within academic circles to dismiss accounts of imperialism and neocolonialism as outdated modes of analysis lacking in ‘nuance’. In doing so, we build upon a long tradition of critique developed by Marxist political economists hailing from the dependency and world systems schools, who have taught us the importance of starting our analysis with the Global South’s unequal incorporation into the global capitalist world system. Scholars from this tradition foreground modes of production, patterns of accumulation, class relations, and the close ties between capitalism, colonialism and imperialism in their analysis of questions of land ownership and dispossession, debt, inequality, resource extraction, ecological degradation, trade imbalances and conflict. They adhere to a relational understanding of power and development and accumulation through dispossession.

Apart from some notable exceptions, political economy approaches have often failed to, or only superficially addressed, epistemological concerns. Post- and decolonial approaches to knowledge have sought to fill this gap. Drawing on the works of anti-colonial theorists of the 1950s and 1960s, the Black radical tradition, as well as Asian, African, Indigenous and South American scholars, this body of work approaches colonialism as much more than material relations of unequal power rooted in capitalist expansion, and advocates a broader understanding of colonialism as underpinning the modern capitalist system and an ongoing mode of global power relations and social and political organization. Decolonial approaches challenge these power relations and the underpinning ideological and discursive structures that enable and normalize them. They can span from critical epistemologies that challenge the dominance of the westernized university and the entanglements of the knowledge it produces in colonial and capitalist agendas, to popular education projects. This includes those engaged in reviving insurgent circuits of knowledge, including the transnational solidarity and ideological exchanges that were dominant features of anti-colonial struggles, within and across Pan-Arab, Pan-African, Afro-Asian, Black power, and Marxist international movements. They also entail projects concerned with challenging the Eurocentrism and knowledge hierarchies that underpin colonial modernity, often disguised as objective ‘expertise’, focusing instead on excavating previously excluded and marginalized knowledges, including those produced by Indigenous peoples, women of color, peasants, and workers, in the service of liberation rather than accumulation.

On the question of knowledge ‘production,’ a term which workshop participants noted derives from an extractivist and capitalist logic that is at odds with an attempt to move towards libratory knowledge, participants explored the different ways in which hegemonic forms of capitalist, neoliberal, colonial, and patriarchal knowledge are reproduced. Presentations addressed how the institutional settings of knowledge production shape the possibilities for insurgent pedagogies, subjectivities and praxis. Mjiba Frehiwot and Carlos Cardoso pointed to the limits as well as radical possibilities of higher education in the service of liberation. Employing Kwame Nkrumah’s ‘Zonal Analysis’, Frehiwot discussed the need for African-centered pedagogy as well as the teaching of socialist theories grounded within the experiences and needs of Africans, and ways in which to take over knowledge production in the university for the service of political liberation. Focusing on Amilcar Cabral’s contributions to insurgent pedagogy, Cardoso examined the nexus between knowledge production, historical consciousness and the construction of new utopias, concluding with a call for Southern epistemologies and Tri-continental academic solidarity between students and scholars of the South. Malek Lakhal brought the discussion to the question of power and ‘civil society’, examining the colonization of NGO spaces by western modes of knowing and approaches to organizing, with ‘best practices’ mobilized as means to tame feminist organizing in Tunisia.

Corinna Mullin and Moutaa El Waer focused on the colonial-capitalist university. El Waer discussed the long tradition of leftist student movements challenging the Tunisian university as a state apparatus designed to maintain status quo relations of power, though also noted the limitations of these movements in overcoming the knowledge hierarchies that universities reproduce in the service of capitalism. Focusing on the Tunisian example as well, Mullin applied the historical sociological approach to discuss transformations in the African university from the colonial era to the current neoliberal moment, urging us to consider the role of both material and epistemological contexts in shaping the kinds of struggle that have unfolded both within and beyond the university.

Anaheed Al-Hardan, Layan Fuleihan and Ghassane Koumiya urged us to look beyond the university for sites of insurgent knowledge making. Al-Hardan examined the challenges to engaging in south-south knowledge production during times of insurrections, discussing the recent experience of the ‘Theorizing from the Global South School’ that was convened in Beirut for Arab and African students that coincided with the eruption of the protests and civil disobedience in Beirut in October 2019. Fuleihan, on the other hand, reflected on the challenges and opportunities of popular and political education in the imperialist core, arguing that liberatory knowledge projects should have the aim of transforming social relations, empowering the poor and dispossessed and ultimately facilitating the path towards a socialist and internationalist future.  Both Brahim Rouabah and Hela Yousfi also called for a shift in our gaze away from ‘traditional’ producers of knowledge such as scholars, researchers, and other ‘experts’. Brahim Rouabah drew our attention to the intersection between knowledge and cultural production in revolutionary times, with a focus on the Algerian protest movement that began in February 2019, and whose chants and songs contain sophisticated analysis of the political and economic context as well as alternative political projects. Hela Yousfi discussed the need to move beyond Eurocentric frames of analysis and have an approach to knowledge that is emancipatory but not essentialist, urging us to look towards peasants and workers as alternative producers of liberatory knowledges.

Max Ajl’s presentation brought together epistemological and political economy questions in his discussion of the Tunisian agro-economist Slaheddine el-Amami’s work. He reflected on the intersections of different scales of imperialist and local power that kept Amami’s ‘auto-centered’ alternative to the colonial and capitalist model of development from prevailing in Tunisia, as well as similar models from taking hold elsewhere across the Global South. In presenting their book Food Insecurity and Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa: Agrarian Questions in Egypt and Tunisia (2019), Ray Bush and Habib Ayeb urged us to think from a long durée historical as well as geo-spatial perspective about the political and economic causes of food insecurity, and how current imperialist interventions continue to be resisted by peasant struggles and small farmers, themselves crucial sites of knowledge making.

Picking up the theme of how the ongoing colonial condition underpinning the present shapes unequal patterns of accumulation through dispossession, Ndongo Samba Sylla’s presentation on the CFA Franc, used by fourteen West African countries economically bound to France, instructed us on the forms of monetary policy that continue to underpin neocolonial relations of power and urged us to beware of recent attempts to co-opt the growing resistance movement to the CFA. Chafik Ben Rouine similarly considered how trade, finance and loan agreements with International Financial Institutions as well as powerful western states and institutions replicate the unequal relations of power that characterized the ‘colonial pact’, and which continue to facilitate Global North wealth drain from Tunisia. Employing the institutional ethnographic method to the Tunisian parliamentary context, Nada Trigui presented an anatomy of the legislative process, with a focus on the passage of a controversial bill on land ownership. She demonstrated how neo-colonial relations with the EU continue to shape African, in this case, Tunisian, policy spaces.

Mireille Mendes-France Fanon’s presentation brought us back to the foundational role of slavery in the emergence of capitalism and lasting reverberations. These can be seen in the racialized forms of unequal accumulation across the globe, and our very understanding of who is considered a human, with implications for how worth gets assigned to victims of political and structural violence. Azzedine Badis picked up this theme by examining how the so-called ‘War on Terror’ has been used in the French context to further normalize the dehumanization of the ‘indigènes’ (racialized communities from France’s former colonies as well as neocolonies). This has enabled violence against already marginalized communities within the metropole as well across the African continent where France’s extraction of natural resources and other forms of wealth drain take place under the guise of allegedly fighting terror. Samar Al Bulushi’s similarly focused on how the ‘War on Terror’ obfuscates the particular local, regional and global power struggles and forms of accumulation through military capitalism that have embroiled the east of Africa. She brought our attention to how even institutions that were originally designed for the purposes of transnational African solidarity, such as the African Union, have themselves become imbricated within matrixes and logics of neocolonial power.

Mabrouka M’Barek reflected on her experiences of participating in the Global Working Group Beyond Development, highlighting the benefits of collective and South- South knowledge production in the face of the what Anibal Quijano has described as the ‘colonial matrix of power’. In addition to discussing the Working Group’s book ‘Cities of Dignity’, M’Barek covered her experiences as an elected member of the Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly (2011-2014) and her work towards realizing the aims of the 2010-2011 Tunisian uprising both inside and outside state institutions. Following up with the theme of the Tunisian uprising, Teycir Ben Nasser projected her film, the ‘Revolution is Here’, which presents a class and regional cross-section of different perspectives on socio-economic and political change and continuity since 2011. Reminding us that revolution is an ongoing process, Ben Nasser brought in many examples of organized and everyday forms of resistance, from ecological and cooperative projects, to pedagogical innovations and the forging of spaces for creative exchange. The Tunisian artist-activist collective, ‘Les Artivistes’ presented some of the videos they made as part of the Block ALECA campaign, demanding an end to the government’s neoliberal policies and a rejection of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (ALECA) between Tunisia and the European Union.

Prompted by Wangui Kimari’s opening of a discussion on whether South-South solidarity is at all possible, participants also engaged in discussions regarding some of the challenges to this solidarity in the context of historical legacies of colonialism and slavery, as well as the ongoing political, economic, military as well as cultural onslaught on the Global South and alternative ways of imagining and pursuing development and community. On the last day, participants reflected on the discussions prompted by the workshop, and about their limitations. Though many felt that the meeting was an important first step to begin a conversation and exchange strategies on knowledge, political economy, solidarity and liberation from Asia to Africa, suggestions were made about how to better bring those involved in work around knowledge production and political economy approaches in particular in conversation with each other. For example, it was suggested that individuals working on political economy could think about the epistemological underpinnings of their methodological approaches, whereas those working on knowledge production could be asked to reflect upon the material conditions of their epistemological concerns. Another suggestion was to start with the political-economy presentations in order to ensure the discussions on knowledge production are rooted in materialist analysis. Some felt that more activists should be brought in and that they should begin and frame the discussions. Crucially, participants left feeling a renewed sense of commitment to developing these conversations and networks to further the aim of building South-South solidarity with the aim of liberation.

In the coming days, we will be posting blogs from a number of contributors at the workshop. Each gives a powerful indication of the debates and issues raised in Tunis: Ndongo Samba Sylla on French monetary imperialism; Samar Al-Bulushi on the endless war in Somalia; Max Ajl on the Tunisian radical agronomist, Slaheddine el-Amami; Corinna Mullin on the struggles to decolonize the university of the Global South and Carlos Cardoso on knowledge production in the universities of Portuguese-speaking African states.

The Organizers


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