Published on Pambazuka News, by Toby Moorsom, Sept. 14, 2011.
In the wake of sustained social unrest in many parts of Africa this year, Toby Moorsom considers the extent to which the continent might be said to be rising or flailing.In the wake of sustained social unrest in many parts of Africa this year, Toby Moorsom considers the extent to which the continent might be said to be rising or flailing … //
… The point is not that the north was completely immune from these patterns but, with variation among them, northern societies nevertheless fared much better than those in the south. There are a number of consequences of this. First, it was generally very difficult for significant settler populations to establish themselves. Secondly, racial projects were not as successful in establishing a deep sense of inferiority among Africans in the North, the West and the Horn, relative to Europeans.
It also meant that local merchant classes (often directly aligned with religious authority) maintained significant levels of power originally accumulated through trans-Saharan trade. These classes compelled colonial forces to broker with them – to some degree as the colonists did with ‘chiefs’ further south. In these ways, the experiences with Islam were very different than places in the south where Christian evangelical projects were so powerful in defining the terms of public life. Partly for these reasons, North African countries managed to also make greater gains in developing industrialised economies with a corresponding industrial working class. To some degree this was, of course, a factor of simply being closer to Europe, with France and, to a lesser extent Italy, integrating administration of occupations directly into their national state structure, alongside attempts of cultural unification.
In Egypt, unions were largely tamed by state control from above, bringing the unions into the arsenal of labour discipline with the Egyptian Trade Union Federation. Yet since as early as 1990, the state labour regime slowly began eroding as workers looked elsewhere for protection. This was certainly evident in the formation of the Centre for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS). They also started building independent trade unions and participated in hundreds of illegal strikes, leading to the formation of independent trade unions and, eventually, the establishment of an independent trade union federation. This process was rooted in the civil service as much as in the industrial unions, and the pressure has continued to grow in the post-Tahrir days. See, for example, the website and the article.
NEOLIBERALISM RESTED ON AN EGYPTIAN AXIS
Since World War II the most significant differences between sub-Saharan Africa and the north – especially Egypt – have been geopolitical. British government documents show that plans for colonial withdrawal were intimately tied to the creation of Israel, which has in turn allowed Israeli settlers to continually push far beyond the needs of the true metropoles – which were Anglo-American. This was a counter-revolutionary base before independence was even granted. Egypt, until Anwar Sadat, was a frontline in a much larger battle against the ‘Third World’, as Vijay Prashad defines it. It is this battle that ultimately threw back any progress that was made in achieving greater equality in the post-colonial era (as imperfect and short-lived as that was). It also, however, coincided with the solidification of an intense puppet regime with Mubarak. In order for him to implement policy that was against the interests of the overwhelming majority in the Arab world, his regime had to be dictatorial. The battle in Egypt is not only against the economic programme of neoliberalism, but that programme is so obviously centred on an absolutely vulgar project of ongoing occupation. This is why the US did not give up on him as easily as they would have with any other tin-pot dictator.
In fact, up until January of 2011 the position of the US and the EU was that the northern countries needed to be held down by dictators of the good kind, while support for those despots further south has been more fickle. It was the US, Israel and their other client, Saudi Arabia, who required the dictatorial rule to maintain their grip on the gates of the Palestinian prison in Gaza and the Suez. This dictatorship did not, however, manage to break down all aspects of Nasser’s anti/post-colonial state, which included significant advancement in levels of education. Thus, Mubarak found himself implementing neoliberal policies that cut the number of jobs available as a demographic glut of educated students entered working age.
THE SOUTH SUFFERS DIFFERENTLY AND RESPONDS DIFFERENTLY
Although it is politically unpopular to divide the continent of Africa, in this analysis, there are important reasons to do so. Since the financial crisis of 2008 there has been ongoing speculation in commodities, including the rise in futures markets for staple foods, which has coincided with processes of ‘land-grabbing’ and further social dislocation of the poorest in Africa. This has been met with a surge of protest movements in sub-Saharan countries that bears some resemblance to those taking place in Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. The increases in food prices are of course just one component – the last in a series of attacks against the poor over the last 20 years or more: education and healthcare have been gutted, basic infrastructure is crumbling, unions have been smashed, wages are down, transport costs continually rise while people are forced to travel in despicably unsafe vehicles that take them home to intermittent electricity and water services they nevertheless pay ever-larger portions of their income for.
The conditions of the majority in sub-Saharan Africa unfortunately render them politically volatile. Varying theories in social sciences have tried to codify the resulting political structures; ‘politics of the belly’, ‘politics of spoils’, ‘prebendalism’ and the like. They all are attempting to codify forms of semi-feudal arrangements in which labour and the necessities of life are not completely commodified. Labour and life are of course not completely commodified in any part of the world. Everywhere, capitalism is built upon pre-existing systems of oppression even as it smashes the bonds between humans and nature, humans and each other, in creating the wage relation. These pre-existing systems of oppression – these ‘traditions’ – are reinvented as capitalism expands ever outward into new places. However, in many parts of Africa, so few manage to actually break into the wage relationship. As a result ‘non-capitalist’ relations tend to be more intense than in the centres of capitalist accumulation … (full long long text).
Institute of African Studies, Carleton University /Canada.