By Edwin Madunagu
IN the opening segment of this article, I defined and introduced the concept of modernity, surveyed its key features and sketched aspects of its history and its relationship with capitalism, democracy and secularism, and then re-introduced Olufemi Taiwo’s book, Africa must be modern: The modern imperative in contemporary Africa (A manifesto). I introduced Samir Amin’s concepts of “actually-existing modernity” and modernity’s “historic limits” imposed by its relationship with capitalism. In the second segment, I brought in Biodun Jeyifo’s concept of “two faces of modernity” and introduced my own concept of “contradictions of progress”.
What I intend to do in this segment is to present an inventory of some key ideas and propositions of Taiwo’s Africa must be modern, and comment on them – where I have not already done so. Incidentally, the titles of Chapters 2-6 as formulated, and the summaries of the chapters provided immediately below the titles, embody such key ideas and propositions. In chapter two, under the caption, The sticky problem of individualism, Taiwo asks the question: “Why are Africans hostile to individualism, the dominant principle of social ordering and living under modernity?” He points to a direction for some answers: “There are diverse possible answers but, in light of our primary focus on modernity, a case can be made for the fact that much of the hostility directed at individualism originates from the conflicted legacy of modernity and colonialism in the continent.”
Since this book is designed also for the general reader – and this is one of its main attractions for me – it is immediately necessary to caution that the ordinary, popular, everyday-life meaning attached to the word individualism (together with individualistic) in these parts of the world is different from, and less odious than it’s meaning in social theory and in philosophy. It is the latter meaning (rather than the “popular” meaning which connotes greed, selfishness, among others) that Taiwo’s use of the term carries. Even this latter meaning – which will be given presently – is still received with hostility, according to Africa must be modern. So, what is the meaning of individualism in this book?
The Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language defines individualism variously as: “A social theory advocating the liberty, rights or independent action of the individual”; “the principle or habit of independent thought or action;” “the pursuit of individual, rather than, common or collective interests; egoism;” “individual character; individuality;” “an individual peculiarity,” and (in philosophy) “the doctrine that only individual things are real;” “the doctrine or belief that all actions are determined by, or, at least, take place for the benefit of the individual, not of the mass of people.”
It must be said at once that Individualism, in the sense of Taiwo, does not include the more offensive strands of the broad definition given above. The bottom-line, for him, is this: “In a community in which the sovereignty of the individual predominates, when the free individual says No to an idea, action, or programme designed to advance the good of the community, we may not proceed to compel her to fall in line” (pages 57 -58). (Throughout this book, Taiwo uses she, rather than he, to represent the abstract individual. I love this).
This strand of individualism (freedom and rights of action of the individual, as against those of the group) brings me back to the second half of 1970s, a critical period of my revolutionary development. I frequently exhibited extreme and, at times, quite dangerous, forms of romanticism and idealism. I once upheld the right of a member of a revolutionary group not only to say No, but to act it out – if he or she believed that the revolution or its soul was under threat. Although my position has since undergone several revisions, the question remains basically unresolved for me. This aspect of Taiwo’s theory of individualism (and its limits) deserves close study by the Left.
To bring out this meaning of individualism more clearly, we may contrast it, as Taiwo does, with communalism, which is not just an abstract concept in social theory, but a concrete social formation that actually existed – and may still exist – in various forms in Africa and several other parts of the world.
Communalism is defined by the same book of reference, as “a theory or system of government according to which each commune is virtually an independent state and the nation is merely a federation of such states”; “the principles or practices of communal ownership;” “strong allegiance to one’s own ethnic group rather than society as a whole.” Communicalism, in the sense of Taiwo, includes what I may call “primordialism” and even “primitivism.”
Taiwo argues in the Introduction and in Chapters 1 and 2 that Africa cannot lift itself up and march with the rest of the world economically, socially and politically unless and until the continent embraces individualism. This is a central proposition of the book and in it, we see an illustration of what I mean by the need to rescue Taiwo’s manifesto from its idealist and capitalist integument. This is what I mean: A historical – materialist (that is Marxist) reconstruction of the proposition would bring out its full strength and explain the resilience of aspects of primordialism, as well as cultural contradictions and hybridism in African societies especially among their elite. Taiwo confirms that the actually – existing modernity is capitalist modernity, cites some newly-industrialising countries of Asia and Latin America – and even China – to show what can happen to nations and societies when they decide to join the “Modernity Express”. Taiwo also uses these same countries to “prove false the Marxian orthodoxy that capitalism could not be built in the so-called periphery” (page 7).
Let me begin with a clarification: That a country, like Nigeria, is described – correctly – as capitalist does not mean that capitalism is the only mode of production in its economy. What being a capitalist country means is that the capitalist mode of production dominates, that the capitalist mode has penetrated the remnants of pre-capitalist modes, and that capitalist logic governs the economy as whole.
With this clarification we may go to the so-called “Marxian orthodoxy”. Let me admit at once that I have heard some Nigerian Marxists say that the Nigerian economy is not capitalist, that it is something else – a caricature of capitalism, at best. I have always argued that such Marxists are wrong, very wrong. Capitalism has always been, and can only be understood, as, a world system, an organic world system that is structured. It has always had a centre and a periphery with unequal relationships. This feature of capitalism cannot be clearer than it is today – thanks to globalisation, the Washington Consensus, neoliberalism and the computer revolution.
Nigeria is in the periphery of capitalism together with all the countries Taiwo has cited: South Korea, Philippines, Taiwan, Brazil, India, South Africa, among others. The latter countries were in the capitalist periphery before their “industrialising revolution” began, and they are still there. You may debate how Nigeria can get out of that system, or develop within it. But it is today in it.
The point to be made is that the ruling classes of the “newly industrialising countries of Asia and Latin America” have re-negotiated, and are still re-negotiating, the terms of their relationships with the ruling classes of the capitalist centre: America, Western Europe and Japan. The factors that enabled each of these countries to embark on its re-negotiation project, and the successes so far scored, can be discussed and debated indefinitely. The prospects of re-negotiation in African countries can also be discussed and debated.
I propose that each country in the periphery needs a renegotiation in this “world system”, but would add that in the case of Nigeria and virtually all other countries in Africa, a pre-condition for starting this re-negotiation is the replacement of the present totally bankrupt ruling classes by a coalition of social forces that aim at eventually opting out of the system and abolishing capitalism. Africa is not different from the rest of the world (as Taiwo correctly says that many African intellectuals claim). The true situation is that each country on this planet is unique. The combination of the peculiarities of each country with what that country has in common with other countries produces, at each point in time, that country’s uniqueness. This uniqueness in turn points to possible roads to meaningful re-negotiation, and eventual disengagement from the capitalist system.
A friend of mine once argued that “anyone can make it in this society”. I first refuted his assertion. I told him that not everyone “can make it”; but beyond that, that not everyone has “equal opportunity to make it.” I told him that I desire a system where everyone has equal opportunity to “make it”, and that capitalism is not such a system.
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