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Westernisation, Africa economic crisis and modernity

- Serge LATOUCHE - L’occidentalisation du monde (The Westernisation of the World) - Agalma La Duverte Paris, 1990

- Frans Rs MAHIEU - Les fondements de la crise nomique en Afrique (Foundations of Africa’s economic crisis) - L’Harmattan, Logiques nomiques - Paris 1990

- Jean COPANS - La longue marche de la modernitfricaine (The long march of African modernity) - Savoirs intellectuals, dcratie - Karthala - Paris, 1990

What unites these three authors is their concern to explain the countless upsets of development and modernity in terms of African culture. They have other things in common too, as Jean Copans shows:

- ‘ideas are made and worked at and compared’;

- the ‘seductive, haughty mask with the suave and sombre tones of anthropology, the devourer of cultures and societies, has to be abandoned’;

- ‘we have reached a stage rather than a threshold’.

All three are ‘French-style social thinkers’ who only want to appear as ‘partners in ideas’. So the debate is open and the ACP-EEC Courier welcomes it to these columns.

Serge Latouche, who teaches in the law faculty at the University of Lille and IEDES (the economic and social development study institute) in Paris, specialises in third world affairs and the epistemiology of social sciences and has already produced a number of books, including ‘Critique de l’impalisme’ (Anthropos, 1979) and ‘Faut-il refuser le dloppement?’ (PUF, 1986).

The new work deals with the meaning, scope and limitations of planetary standardisation, concluding that ‘even if we do not think it is moral to oppose western decadence, we do not think it possible to desire it either’.

The only true universality conceivable, he maintains, can only be based on a truly universal consensus and involve an authentic dialogue of cultures - which is possible because communicability actually exists.

Francis Rs Mahieu spent 10 years working in Cd’Ivoire (1979-89) at the head of the department of public economics at the University of Abidjan. He now teaches at the University of Lille. He has published various works on public finance, the history of economic thought and deductive logic and his work is carried out with the close collaboration of a team of African researchers.

The point of this book is to investigate the particular features of African economic behaviour - the micro-economic of the relation between the individual and society and the macro-economic of the relation between the State and these same communities. Thus the author hopes to analyse development, synthesising the achievements of anthropology and of economic theory, in short an economic anthropology.

Jean Copans, an anthropologist and sociologist, is co-founder of the ‘Politique africaine’ review. The bulk of his fieldwork has been in Senegal and he has been head of the research, exchange and university resource centre ( 1985-89) at the University of Nairobi (CREDO). Mr Copans, a member of the African sociology and geography laboratory at the EHESS (the higher school of social science) and of the CNRS (the national scientific research centre) for the past 10 years, has been teaching sociology at the University of Picardy since 1990.

He warns the reader, with an exaggerated display of modesty, that ‘our thinking is far too general and abstract to be in any way efficient, but it aims to lay down a vital minimum of method and epistemiology’.

In the postscript, Immanuel Wallerstein says that the subject of this book is the world of knowledge, based on prospective considerations, experience and the indulgent readings of an African who claims to be disillusioned.

The militant epistemiologist, the operational economist and the disillusioned anthropologist have a number of things in common (they are not a result of this coincidental publication either) and these are what this article sets out to discuss.

So far, economic anthropology has wielded the particular features of African economic behaviour as a weapon against the universals of economic theory. Economists, however, conceptualise the African economy without the slightest anthropological input and what is called for, therefore, is a conceptual analysis of African economic anthropology that goes beyond the third worldism of the 1960s and the neo-classical liberalism which the World Bank has enforced since the end of the 1970s.

F.R. Mahieu, curiously enough, says that third worldist concepts do not include the specifically African ‘differences’, one of the main reasons for this being, apparently, the belief that development as deculturation has advanced so far that Africa has no specific cultural features any more.

Between the work on primitive society and the flimsy predictions about the future of Africa there is an immense void left by a failure to grasp the economic mechanisms of contemporary African society. This void is accentuated rather than filled by the theories of deculturation and economic dependence.

Historically speaking, anthropology has investigated the resilience of the solidarity network of the community. Serge Latouche thinks (1986) that Africans have become decultured and mimetic through ethnocentric development. But, as F.R. Mahieu points out, this deterministic approach has been unseated by a major statistical investigation of living conditions in African households, for the cultural model has apparently been exceptionally resilient in economies which are very receptive to western ideas - Cd’Ivoire, for example.

Western machinery, deculturation and under-development

Serge Latouche sees European superiority as deriving from the efficiency of social machinery, a method of organisation which uses every technique to achieve its aim of domination, with the economy becoming an autonomous area of social life and an aim in itself.

Science, technology and economics have a rich imaginative content - man’s relations with the world, the concept of time and space, the relationship with nature and the relationship of man to himself.

Westernisation is a universal economic and cultural process in its expansion and its history. It is reproducible both in its character as a model and in its nature as a machine. And by posing as a trans-historic and a-spatial model, western machinery appears to be accessible to all. Its reproducibility, however, is not universal, because it necessarily implies expansion.

Paradoxically, the West has both the only culture which has been genuinely globalised and the only dominant culture which has failed to assimilate not just foreigners, but its own members too. The reason for this is that its universality is negative and its success only the ‘mimetic releasing of deculturing practices’.

So the invaded group can now only understand itself by using the categories of the other side.

At this stage, Serge Latouche explains what he understands by the word ‘culture’, i.e. the response which human groups provide for the problem of their social existence. In societies before modern times, culture meant every aspect of human activity, but, when inventing the economy, modern society reduced culture to cultural occupations.

In this case, culture is not a dimension of development. Development is a dimension of the one Western culture.

Under-development, then, the effect of Westernisation, is not produced by the workings of the economic machinery, but a deculturing and the treatment used to cure it (development policy and modernisation) in fact only makes it worse... Bringing in western values is, in fact, founding deculturation.

Once the West set up progress as the cornerstone of modernity, all the countries which are victims of its presence were hit by the incurable disease of backwardness. Survival means modernisation. But modernisation means self-destruction.

Africa - modernisation without modernity?

This is Jean Copans’ question. As he sees it, the two are out of kilter, as we reject the concept of modernity as being mimetism. In his eyes, modernisation in Africa precedes the appearance of modernity. ‘Although western modernisation looks like one of the processes of modernity’, he says, ‘we now know that black Africa has to take a different route’.

But what is modernity? Jean Baudril1and (Universalis, vol. II) says that ‘modernity’ is an historical structure of change and crisis which only has any meaning in Europe from the 19th century onwards.

Louis Dumont and Frans Furet, quoted by lean Copans, suggest that modernity lies in the invention of individuality, of the citizen free of all ‘domestic’ subjugation.

Louis Dumont contrasts the holistic societies which prize social order and the submission of the individual to the whole, with individualistic societies which ignore or subordinate social needs and deem that every man is his neighbour’s equal. All great civilisations have been holistic, he claims, and the individualistic society of modern civilisation is an exception. Separating the economic from the political and turning it into a sector in its own right is an outstanding sign of this modernity.

Cornus Castoradis also suggests that the typically western contribution is self-consciousness, in contrast to other civilisations which are based on the collective consciousness of the group.

This is where F.R. Mahieu’s analyses of African economic behaviour come into their own.

Redistributing the community in an uncertain world

Mr Mahieu notes that, in African society, survival depends not only on individual rights but also and most importantly on community rights, which depend on obligations to the community. His idea is that the particularity of the African economic operator of today lies in the superposition of two systems of constraints, i.e. community constraints and State constraints.

There has to be a link between the African micro-economic universe, which comprises a permanent relationship between the community and each individual, and various macro-economic ‘deviations’.

Africa is a society in which community transfers precede individual economic activity and are imposed upon the individuals by the community. The community must therefore have its own powers of constraint - which brings us to the whole range of rights and obligations, involving both material goods and time. Time allocation models will help us analyse various fatal rigidities of African development and the very poor productivity of labour in particular.

The transfers in question are not just in cash. They may well be in kind, in labour or in time and everyone has to make them. They form a kind of network of rights and obligations which is the result of the individual’s social status and the whole African micro-economic calculation is predetermined by this community pressure.

Everyone has a set of rights and obligations vis-is the community to which he belongs. The rights are like an insurance in that they represent credit in case of future disaster in both the real and the imaginary world and the obligations trigger fear because the community belongs both to the real world and to imaginary worlds.

So the uncertain universe of the African community makes it impossible for the individual to perceive the consequences of his individual plans and community calculations must come before economic calculations.

Effect of a society of transfers on development

Mr Mahieu maintains that, so far, ‘the importance of the transfers set up by the African community system has enabled the continent to show remarkable resistance to natural and economic disaster. However, in the present economic crisis, too many demands are being made on this transfer system and it could well lead to a general crisis of the system of solidarity, with greater poverty in its wake’.

Although the system of rights and obligations cushions the social effects of growth, it amplifies the social consequences of prolonged deflation. It is the cement of African society, ensuring a minimum amount of security by the redistribution of wealth, although it may paralyse entrepreneurial initiative.

The interaction of community and utilitarian values so typical of Africa’s economic system makes the African economic operator very resistant to the ups and downs of the economy. But the system of solidarity may collapse if there is a prolonged economic crisis which takes in both rural and urban sectors. More and more people will make demands on fewer and fewer potential donors and the crisis will emerge as a growing confrontation between rich and poor, with class consciousness emerging in hitherto socially regulated societies.

So Frans Rs Mahieu is at variance with Serge Latouche in his belief that the African cultural identity is ever-present and so strong that it constantly subverts the modern forms of development. But Serge Latouche is not as pessimistic as one might think.

Westernisation is active and deculturation problematical

He maintains that the economy may break through or even catch up in a given country. This means active westernisation, essential to development, should make it possible to build a framework of values in which techniques come into their own and to overcome the absence of any auto-dynamism.

A technical society is not a machine which only has to be taken out of its box and plugged in, the author maintains. People, their beliefs, their traditions and their skills are extra parts which ensure that the machine ticks over properly and they are not delivered with the machine. It all has to come together and any breakdown in the circuit will create problems.

If the crisis of westernisation is to be stopped, then the social destruction that could well prevent the machine from working properly has to cease too.

Frans Rs Mahieu says, however, that ‘African cadres are often the first to turn aside from it. And Serge Latouche maintains that ‘solving the problems Europe took to Africa, economic development included, is only the affair of the whites...’.

Africanist knowledge and external dependence

Jean Copans believes that the Africa of the Africanists, be they white or black, ‘has very little to do with the Africa of the African peoples’. Yet the incomprehension and misunderstanding of what societies, States and cultures are can only help maintain external dependence and internal nationalist demagoguery.


These three works show that it is possible at least to try and explain the problems of African society (and particularly its economic development) in terms of African culture, beyond the standard models of third worldism and neo-classical liberalism.

The failure of African development is more than the determinism of ethnocentric deculturation. The African cultural model is a resistant one. Should - and how - can it adapt to the imagery of the social machinery of the West?

Does African modernity necessarily mean individualism or does it mean respect for the community? This is particularly important given that redistribution by the community generates rigidity that can be fatal to African development and that the present crisis could well lead to a general crisis in the system of solidarity.

These are just some of the questions raised by these three books. The answers are for the Africans to find, first and foremost, for, fundamentally, Africa has to see itself other than in categories other people have established.

Dominique DAVID