Thursday, 18 October 2012

Notes on the ‘modernity perspective’ (2)


By Edwin Madunagu 
















These are study notes on modernity (and postmodernity) and the social- transformational perspective it throws up for Africa. They are also, in particular, an appreciation of Femi Taiwo’s “Africa must be modern:  The modern imperative in contemporary Africa (A Manifesto).
  Last Thursday, in the opening segment, we introduced and characterised the subject, highlighting some of its key features - but mainly from sources outside Taiwo’s book.  We also re-introduced the book and criticised some parts of its introduction (as I did in the first segment of the preceding series, Endless debate). The present segment concludes the general characterisation of “modernity” (and postmodernity) and then moves on to the appreciation of Africa must be modern - against the background of the little we think we now know about the subject.

In the past 16 months, Biodun Jeyifo has written at least three series of essays on modernity and postmodernity in his Talakawa Liberation Courier column in The Guardian (on Sunday). These are: Things could be far worse, compatriot: Nigeria and the myths of capitalist postmodernity (June 12, 19 and 26, 2011); Transistorisation and miniaturisation: Fables of modernity and its discontents (April 1, 8 and 15, 2012); and Modernity and neurosis: Theirs and Ours (May 2 and 27, 2912; June 3, 2012).  In the second part of the last of these series (May 27, 2012), Jeyifo talked of two essential faces of modernity.

The first face of modernity, according to Jeyifo, is “the face on which is boldly etched the promise of ease, convenience and comfort for all regardless of race, nationality, ethnicity, gender and class. People, goods and services are transported around the world at speeds and with the kind of regularity that our ancestors of the recent, pre-modern past would have found confounding and confounded. And all areas, all regions of the world are connected and interconnected now. We now have a common fate, all of us on our planet. In this regard, modernity may have come too late for our grand-grandparents, but it has come just in time for us and those who will come after us.”

The second face of modernity is “the face on which the masks of tragedy, with its searing lines of broken promises, are sculpted with ferocity. This is because modernity has also meant the simultaneous concentration of wealth in a few countries and a vast increase of poverty and destitution in a majority of the countries of the world, a pattern that is replicated within nearly all the nations of our world. At the base of this tragic modernity are racism, ethnocentrism and chauvinism, especially as they are institutionalised in a world system of superpowers and great powers ranged against barely industrialised, low-income economies. In this particular incarnation of modernity, hundreds of millions of the world’s population are literally in modernity, but are substantively outside of it.

These passages from Jeyifo’s essay and Samir Amin’s statement on modernity (see last Thursday’s opening segment) now lead me to George Hegel. Taking a long view of history, we can confirm what Samir Amin has said, namely, that modernity was a revolutionary “rupture” in world history. It was not only revolutionary; it was progressive in the sense of human progress. But that “progressiveness” now has to be qualified because “actually existing” modernity has been heavily constrained and limited by capitalism.  Or, to follow Amin and Jeyifo, “actually existing” modernity is capitalist modernity. Taiwo himself calls capitalism the economic component of modernity (pages xvii, 74).

Please, permit me a digression here. About 32 years ago, in November 1980, at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), under the auspices of the Alliance of Progressive Students, (ALPS), and under the inspiration of Biodun Jeyifo who was then teaching there (teaching Literature officially and teaching several other things unofficially), I delivered a lecture titled: “Human Progress and Its Enemies” to mark the 31st anniversary of the “brutal killing of the miners at the Iva Valley Mines by the colonial police in November 1949.” It was to be a four-part lecture. But for many circumstantial reasons, as Jeyifo explained later, I was “unable to deliver the entire lecture.” It was then decided that the entire lecture should be published. And it was so published as a book - with the same title.

This was part of what I said in the opening section of the lecture: “But there was at least one philosopher who appreciated the contradictory character of historical progress and attempted to theorise it. George Hegel (1770-1831) claimed that all forward movement in history has been double-edged, since the creation of the new inescapably entailed the destruction and transcendence of the old, its particular virtues included. He observed that social progress has not followed a straight line, but a complicated path with many lapses and detours; that regress has mingled with progress, and that a certain price, sometimes a very high one, has been exacted for every advance.”

Modernity and postmodernity bring me this type of (Hegelian-like) mixed feelings. What I described above as “contradictory character of human progress” in 1980, I later called “contradictions of progress”. But whatever the mixed feelings, I hold that human progress is not only real; it is also, in the words of Jeyifo, measurable. It is “measurable in the degree to which the exploited, marginalised groups and classes in society liberate themselves from poverty and degradation...” I was, therefore, pleased to read in Taiwo’s Africa must be modern that it is the “idea of progress and the unrelenting faith in its possibility that dominate modernity” (page 188).

Olufemi Taiwo says his book is a manifesto. A manifesto may be defined as a “written public declaration of the intentions, motives, or views of the issuer, be it an individual, group, political party or government. It is often political in nature, but may present an individual’s life stance. Manifestos relating to religious beliefs are generally referred to as creed.”  World-historic political manifestos would include the United States Declaration of Independence (1776), The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789), during the French Revolution, the Communist Manifesto (1848), and South Africa’s Freedom Charter (1955). A political manifesto is expected to contain at least three essential elements: a critique of the present, a description of the desired future and a transition mechanism between the present and that desired future. The third element is itself a mixed bag, which may include a prescription of the envisaged historical agency or agencies to effect or initiate the transition.

Taiwo’s Africa must be modern, considered as a manifesto, has all the essential elements listed above, including agencies - as we shall see.  Beyond this, the author makes this important statement about the specificity of the mission of this particular book and of his intellectual strivings in general: “I determined that I was going to do my best as an interpreter of the African world, one that would do research and write essays, reports, articles, etc, which would equip those who wished to change the world with left interpretations to aid their exertions” (page 6). If Taiwo had stopped here, and had not proceeded to abuse the Left, I would have simply applauded - because, frankly, we are all still searching. I would then have had only his anti-Marxism and capitalism to contend with in an otherwise brilliant and refreshing modernist manifesto.

The book seeks to persuade the reader and Africans in general to adopt modernity as a “principle of social ordering” and as a “mode of living”. But then: What does it mean to be modern? And what is modernity’s claim to supremacy over other principles and modes in history? These are questions Taiwo sets out to answer in this book. He does this generally in the Introduction and Chapter One, and then systematically by considering five dimensions of modernity (in Africa) in Chapters Two to Six of the six-chapter, 243 - page book. Each of the chapters (2-6) deals with one dimension of modernity.

The chapter titles are deliberately didactic: Chapter One: Why Africa must get on board the Modernity Express; Chapter Two: The sticky problem of individualism; Chapter Three: The knowledge society and its rewards; Chapter Four: Count, measure, and count again; Chapter Five: Process, not outcome: Why trusting your leader, godfather, ethnic group or chief may not secure your advantage; Chapter Six: Against the philosophy of limits: Installing a culture of hope. I said earlier that I would vote yes in a yes-or-no referendum on Femi Taiwo’s book.  What this means is that first, I would recommend it to the public for reading, and second, I would recommend to the Nigerian Left that the book be freed from its idealist and capitalist integument and the product of that exercise integrated into the socialist programme.

• To be continued.

1 comment:

  1. This article is typical of so-called intellectuals in Africa; it is long-winded, bombastic, boring and inconclusive. Nonetheless, we are thankful to Brother Chido for his motives in bringing it to our attention.

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