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“Africa is the last frontier of capitalism”, interview with Achille Mbembe

By Tuesday 29 December 2020 No Comments

Achille Mbembe was in Portugal, in October, for a conference at Culturgest entitled For a World with no Borders. The border issue is fundamental within the work of this African theorist, born in Cameroon, in 1957, with a PhD in Political Science completed in Paris (at the Sorbonne), Professor at the University of Witwatersrand, in Joanesburg, South Africa, and also at Harvard, in the United States. His work, granting huge international acknowledgment, and translated all over the world, includes important works such as the Critique of Black Reason, Hostility Politics (these two have been translated into Portuguese and published by Antígona) and De la Postcolonie. Essai sur l’imagination politique dans l’Afrique contemporaine.

The theoretical conceptions of Mbembe run across several subject’s borders: they are philosophy, anthropology, history, political science, cultural critique and cultural theory works. His concept of “post-colony”, which is simultaneously a specific timing and a specific authority construction, is certainly important to stress an idea which in this interview Mbembe labels as a misunderstanding, explaining why it is so: the fact that it would supposedly belong to the very heterogeneous field of post-colonial studies. In Critique of Black Reason (read excerpt here), he shows that the “black person”, as an individual constructed by Europe, cannot be thought of in no other way but as representing a genealogy of modernity, of modern rationality (thus the reference to Kantian critique), of universalism and capitalism dynamics. “Black reason” is therefore a shadow of Enlightenment, unable to be fully understood without its obscure counterpart. Trying to explain the rational that came up with a “race individual”, namely, an individual about which it is difficult to know where the human and the animal part begin, Mbembe makes the “race” concept explode at its core. In this book, this statement is found right at the beginning: “Europe is no longer the gravity centre of the world. It is this no longer being at the centre of, this no longer being “autoprovincialised” as a fundamental event – says Mbembe – that should be starting point for withdrawing any conclusions regarding the African continent.

Africa, within this new geopolitical reconfiguration, the challenges it faces in order to become its own centre and to dissolve the internal borders which it has internalized against its own movement culture: here’s one of its important topics. Mbembe thereby provides us with an overview of Africa’s cultural history, considering its specific traits and its possibilities, under a theoretical approach.

At his conference, in Culturgest, he talked about the borders issue, that paradox under which we live today: technology erases borders, but stronger and stronger conditioning is created in order to overcome them.

I believe we are indeed living under a paradox at a planetary scale. We live in a connectivity era, thanks to the technological progress of our time, but also thanks to all kinds of economic and monetary exchanges, including the flow of ideas and images which nowadays flood our planet’s societies. But all of that comes together with growing constraints certain population segment’s experience when they move. Apparently there is, at a global scale, a completely uneven redistribution of the transiting capacity, being able to settle wherever you wish. Therefore, considering the world’s evolution, the demographical, ecological and military evolution we are able to foresee, I get the feeling that one of the major challenges of the XXI century will definitely be human transiting government. This issue has been wrongly addressed up to the moment, because it is addressed only in security terms. A part of my work consists on exploring other ways to see it, on the perspective of a common world, a shared world, where this sharing represents its condition for survival.

Those transiting constraints have a strong impact on the African continent. African people are not welcome in any part of the world…

In modern history, from the fifteen century on, African people have always been subject to constraints when moving. It is, without a shadow of doubt, the only people in the world which was kept under this condition for so long. Every time they had to move, they didn’t do it freely, this happened because they were forced to do it: Atlantic slavery trade, the corvees in colonial times and today’s colossal space of over 50 states, each one of them having, on average, four or five borders.

This internal borders were built by the colonizer?

Yes, they are borders inherited from colonization times, which, right after the independencies, were verified and considered unchangeable by the independent States…

In short, Africa has internalized the border concept, just like it was created by Europe.

It is in fact a category unparalleled in these societies’ history and culture. In pre-colonial African societies, movement and flow of goods is the condition and principle of all societies’ dimensions: cultures, religions, matrimonial systems, commercial systems, all of that was the product of movement. Movement proceeds space, territory. Movement is the very tissue of space. It is completely different from the European concept, in which space exists before movement. In Africa it is the opposite. Therefore, in the African pre-colonial paradigm of the relationship between space and movement, borders don’t exist because, by definition, it is borders which block the transit of vital flow. Movement is at the core of life, not necessarily space. If it is translated into space, this is done by means of space being perceived as movement. Therefore, we are facing two completely opposing philosophies. From this point of view, the African movement philosophy, the pre-colonial one, is similar to a rationale specific to the digital world, according to which, fundamentally, one seeks to create connectivity, using networks, instead of tracing categories, classifying, establishing hierarchies and limiting movement.

You also said, at your conference, that Africa is last frontier of capitalism. Is it as if it were a modern laboratory?

It is the last frontier of capitalism, objectively speaking, in the sense that the capitalist regime has become universal and today there is basically no society that can escape it, even the so called communist societies, with the exception of North Korea. The purpose of this regime is becoming borderless. Well, it is in Africa that we find the last repositories of almost all the resources that capitalism needs so it can work in the future. And there are also the demographical resources, considering that by the end of the century one out of three or four persons will be African. And the mineral and botanical, living species, organic and vegetal resources. And it is also the only part of the world which hasn’t yet been completely taken by the logics of infinite exploitation. And that’s why I say it is the last frontier of capitalism.

You said, in an interview, some years ago, that Africa’s time will come. This is a very hopeful and optimistic statement. Do you still believe it?

Absolutely. When we are part of a long historical cycle, on a long term perspective, it becomes clear that Africa’s time is ahead of us. Since the historical path of other regions in the world will have reached its limits. Today, you can see that clearly in Europe. To a large extent, Europe is by far belonging more to its past than to its future, without which it can no longer be a steam engine. It can only think about folding onto itself and defending what it was, facing the impossibility of projecting itself into what it will become.

The status of Future has vanished from its horizon.

It has even vanished from its vocabulary. The United States has sunken into a very serious crisis. We can see clearly what its effects are in the government system, in the crawling of its liberal democracy model. We also feel there’s a wish to pull back when facing the world, taking the forms of commercial war, of the border and wall ghost and of the enormous fear which has taken hold of part of its white population. Against this backdrop, it is clear Asia is skyrocketing, especially China, and we know it knows very well how to calculate time in order to outlast at an almost millennial scale. I think that a great part of Africa’s future will be played in China, through the relationships Africa will build with China.

Wouldn’t that be dangerous, in the sense of a new relationship being copied from the neo-colonial model?

Yes, there’s a danger in all geostrategic relationships because we are facing a power relationship instead of a fair relationship. It is not about charity, it’s about influence and antagonism. For Africa, it will mean building that antagonism with China in a clever way, so that it can be productive and serve its interests in the long run. At this moment, we can raise several issues. We can, for example, think that Africa hasn’t yet understood what is at stake, in the long run. And that it hasn’t managed, along with China, to move away from the logics of an extraction relationship. Africa’s drama, in the long run, was its inability to take advantage of its best population resources, work resources and its best richness.

And why does that happen?

That’s the point: why wasn’t it able to create the conditions which would allow it to profit from of all that? Its best population resources, the youngest, those in working age, were in fact successfully explored, from the fifteenth century to the twenty first century, but in America. Mineral richness was taken from the subsoil and a great part of the best African people are not in Africa, but elsewhere, in the United States, in France, etc. This is Africa’s great enigma. The answer to the question of why Africa wasn’t able to keep its best richness and its best population on its territory is complex. If you want to benefit from the fact of the world now tilting towards Asia, it will be necessary to find another way to make use of its capacities. But for now the situation is very different: China comes in, extracts richness and leaves. That’s not the way it’s going to be able to have a beneficial relationship with China.

One of your books is called, in French, De la postcolonie. And you are already known as one of the most prestiged and accredited voices in the field of post-colonial studies.

No, it isn’t true, I don’t practise post-colonial theory. I’ve said it a lot of times, but nobody wants to listen to me. The “post-colonie” that gives my book its title is not the same thing as post-colonial theory. I’m not against post-colonial theory, in any way, unlike others who know nothing about this issue, but which are against what they do not understand, but I don’t feel identified with that intellectual heritage. In De la postcolonie, we are not focusing on the relationship with the other, with the West, that which is at the heart of post-colonial theory. Post-colonial theory tries to think about the relationship which existed between formerly colonized societies and colonial powers, on the literary, historical, political and other levels. The project of post-colonial studies consists of seeking a sense of the world which was a product of that encounter, of its complexity and its newness in contemporary times. It is an absolutely necessary project. Me, what I do with “postcolonie” is aiming the questioning towards itself, not towards the relationship with the other. It is about the judgement about oneself, while within the post-colonial theory all the self-understanding is done regarding the other. In De la postcolonie, I focus on the self’s process regarding itself; the self before its own trial instead of the other’s trial.

And don’t you think that that very self-referential though is a very western way of thinking? Europe has obsessively nurtured self-referential though.

Yes and no. Evidently, we are successors of the West, and I’m definitely not going to deny that heritage, I am part of it and I share it. And I believe the strength of the people who come from Africa is derived from their multiple ancestries. On the other hand, many of my colleagues, in America and Europe, only know about its tradition.

One of your books is called Critique of Black Reason. The title reminds us of Kant, the critique of reason, very European, very western. You use the same instruments used in the critique of reason without prejudices…

Yes. One needs to have no prejudices regarding an heritage which has made us who we are, and which on the other hand has received our inputs. If we consider there is a share of universalism in European thought, it is we who grant it that chance of overcoming its borders and there shouldn’t be any shame, according to my point of view, in acknowledging that. And there also shouldn’t be any shame in accessing internal critical resources, considering that what distinguishes Europe from other regions in the world is that Europe has elaborated on and polished self-criticism techniques. It has produced the elements which allow it to judge itself. But there are also fabulous self-analysis African traditions, based on other metaphysical models. A great part of western metaphysics are metaphysics of being, ontological issues. A great part of pre-colonial African metaphysics is a metaphysics of relation. Hence that self-reference acts in a different way. It acts, for example, by means of fortune telling techniques, which is a kind of introspection, but through the mediation of objects. Because we can consider that the universe is not hierarchal, we don’t focus on verticality and horizontality, we consider the universe as a network. And if the universe is a network, this means that the self only can access itself through the structural and constantly ambiguous mediation of someone else, another living being. In Europe, we call this “animism”. And when you call it animism, it is as if you are talking about yourself and you can’t escape your own tautological categories.

Achille Mbembe, photo by Miguel Manso
Achille Mbembe, photo by Miguel Manso

All that you’ve said also implies another concept of technique, of instrumentality.

Evidently. We don’t aspire to being the Earth’s masters. We share the Earth with other entities, all of them lining beings, there are no dead entities because even the dead entities refer in some way to an ability to take action, although the means of taking action which is different from that of living entities. Everything is able to take action, able to be brought to bear in different kinds of action. And thus, in principle, the ability to take action is shared with our ancestors, with Nature, with the atmosphere, with natural elements, storms, etc. Thus, if you want to have a good and long life it you need to learn how to coexist with everything, the organic, the natural, the human, the non-human. It is what many people find out, today, with the concept of Antropoceno. Philosophers find that what they called “animism”, talking about others, is, at heart, the condition for survival in our planet. If we want redemption, we can’t continue to be settled by only one archive, we need to access the archives of the entire world. And that is a great challenge.

Are you suggesting that Europe has closed itself in its own archive?

Yes, and its own archive doesn’t allow it to solve the great enigmas of our time, it has to free itself from its enclosure in a single archive, it has to take into consideration that other ones exist. That’s why I defend the idea of a thought-world, which is inevitably a journey kind of thought and not a post-colonial thought. Only a journey kind of thought can feed on the world’s archives, only it can feel at home regarding the European tradition, the African tradition, the Asian tradition. Evidently, that implies taking huge risks, but one needs to take them on as a key part of the very act of thinking. Since thinking without taking any risks is meaningless. And that is proof that I’m not a post-colonial theorist.

Originally published in jornal Público 9/12/2018

Translation: Sara Santos

Published under a Creative Commons License