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  1. Ideas
4 September 2023

Why the West will keep losing in Africa

Neocolonialism is giving birth to a wretched authoritarianism.

By Slavoj Žižek

When Islamist forces staged a series of military coups in Central Africa – Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso – with the open support of Russians from the Wagner Group, two narratives emerged in the media. The pro-Russian one sees a rebellion of the people against French neocolonialism, linked to local corrupted elites. Meanwhile the Western media sees aspects of a large-scale plot by Islamists and Russia to establish an anti-Western and anti-liberal empire in Central Africa. They are both right – up to a point.

It is true that, until now, France has exerted a subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) neocolonial rule over its former West and Central African colonies. After France granted them independence in the 1960s, peacefully, it continued to exert economic, political and military influence in la Françafrique. France retains the largest military presence in Africa of any former colonial power; it forces African countries to give preference to French interests and companies in the field of public procurement and public bidding. It imposed on its ex-colonies the African Financial Community (CFA) franc monetary zone, which is inherently unequal and rooted in exploitative practices.

However, it is clear that the “anti-colonial” uprisings in Central Africa are even worse than French neocolonialism. The future they bring is that of failed states like Zimbabwe and Myanmar: authoritarian military rule; economic regression into new lows of poverty that profit only the new and corrupt elite; ideological fundamentalism combined with a pushback against “colonial” influences like gay rights. Authentic emancipatory leaders such as Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso are a distant memory. How can it be that much of Africa finds itself in such a desperate situation, where the only choice is between bad (Western neocolonialism) and worse (fake authoritarian anti-colonialism)? The recent military coup in Gabon was a revolt against both, removing President Ali Bongo in the knowledge that this time the French army was unlikely to intervene.

One has to have the courage to reject the simple explanation that what is missing is the mobilisation of the people. If there is a lesson to be learned from the latest right-populist protests, it is that the time has come to reverse Abraham Lincoln’s famous line: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time. But you can never fool all the people all the time.” Today’s version is: “All people can avoid being fooled some of the time, and some people can avoid being fooled all of the time. But all people can’t avoid being fooled all the time.”

Any genuine emancipatory engagement of the people is a rare event which quickly disintegrates, and not just when it comes to Western democracy. Recall how, during the period of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong sent thousands of intellectuals to the agricultural communes to learn from ordinary farmers, whom he elevated into “subjects supposed to know”. One can argue that it was good for intellectuals to become acquainted with real life in the countryside – but they did not gain any deeper wisdom about society more broadly.

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[See also: Anarchy unbound: The new scramble for Africa]

How to explain that there is no one privileged group that harbours an authentic understanding of society? We have to proceed in two stages. The first myth to be dispelled is that of meritocracy: whatever your social position at birth, society ought to offer enough opportunity and mobility for talent to combine with effort in order to rise to the top. In her 2017 book Against Meritocracy, Jo Littler demonstrated that meritocracy is the key means of legitimation for contemporary neoliberal culture, and that while it promises opportunity, it in fact creates new forms of social division, since class, race and gender continue to play a much more important role. To these three factors we should add a heterogeneous one, chance. In Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy (2016), Robert Frank does not discount the importance of hard work, but demonstrates that, among groups of people performing at a high level, chance (luck) plays an enormous role in an individual’s success.

If, then, an individual’s wealth and social power do not reflect their merits, what is the alternative? For most critics of meritocracy, the alternative is to trust the majority of ordinary people who are without special merit: however manipulated and embedded in everyday ideology, however brainwashed by religious or ethnic fundamentalism they are, in the long term their spontaneous sense of justice will prevail. In short, the critics of meritocracy tend to advocate some version of Lincoln’s saying.

Unfortunately, the complexity of today’s world compels us to reject this trust in the people, too. Bombarded by conflicting reports on global warming, reading that even many scientists hold competing views, how can an ordinary, poor person decide to act? Should they fight for measures that will in the short term push them deeper into poverty? When immigrants arrive, how can we blame this same person for seeing in them a threat to their established way of life? Can we blame them if, in this person’s limited worldview, the idea that they are somehow complicit in the neocolonial exploitation of Third World countries makes no sense? This list goes on and on: can we blame our person for feeling confused and perplexed by the debates about “he/she/they” that abound in the media? And are most of us, intellectual elites included, not caught in similar loops, unable to arrive at what the philosopher Fredric Jameson has called a proper “cognitive mapping” of our situation? This is why the solution is not to strive for “true” meritocracy: those who deserve to succeed on merit will predominate only when our entire social order has been changed. 

To be more precise, it’s not so much that the majority is fooled, it is that they don’t care: their main concern is that relatively stable daily life continues unperturbed. The majority don’t want actual democracy, in which they can really decide: they want the appearance of democracy, where they freely vote – but where some trusted higher authority presents them with a choice and indicates how they should vote. When the majority feel they aren’t getting any clear indication, they become perplexed and the situation in which they are supposed to decide is paradoxically experienced as a crisis of democracy, a threat to the stability of the system. (This holds not only for the former French colonies, but for democracy in general.) However, when the so-called silent majority begin to care, when they feel like victims and erupt in genuine anger, things as a rule get much worse. People want to decide, to have their voices heard, and in doing so – as the ongoing wave of rightist populism around the world demonstrates – expose themselves to further manipulation, falling prey to conspiracy theories.

Is this a universal rule? Fortunately not. Rarely, from time to time and in an unpredictable way, exceptions occur; the mist dispels, clarity prevails and the majority are mobilised for the right reasons. Such moments are history at its purest – moments when years happen within the scope of a week.

To return to our starting point, is there a chance that such a moment will occur in Central Africa? It will certainly not happen as a result of our (European) efforts to enlighten the Africans. What we can do now is turn against our own neocolonialism, which feeds a false fundamentalist anti-colonialism. Many more things will have to happen, not the least being that we will have to let one of the big taboos fall: we will have to rehabilitate planning – a large-scale obligatory planning, not just vague “coordination” or “collaboration”. Groups of states will have to form confederacies with legislative and executive powers to impose measures concerning the environment, mass movements of people, military interventions and the use of artificial intelligence. Utopia? Yes, but there is simply no other way to confront the crises that pose a threat to our very survival.

[See also: The curse of stability in Niger]

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