Africana Political Philosophy and the Crisis of the Postcolony


For Ato Sekyi-Otu

The morning on which I started writing this paper marked the fiftieth anniversary of the independence of the African nation of Ghana. I saluted my Ghanaian friend and colleague, Anani Dzidzienyo, and in my class on Afro-Caribbean philosophy the reading for the day was Kwame Nkrumah’s Consciencism. But amidst all of the celebrating there were deep concerns over the crisis that had overtaken the political order of this new but ancient nation. Even more disturbing were expressions of similar concerns over the political orders of other African states, Afro-Caribbean states, and African American politics. As I contributed some thoughts on the state of governance in my own country of Antigua, I was struck once again by the comprehensive nature of the crisis that has engulfed postcolonial states in general, and those of the Africana world in particular.

In this paper, I offer a socio-philosophical analysis of this political crisis and suggest some important contributions that Africana philosophy can make to its resolution. Philosophy’s special interest in the state or the economy is not their more objective organizational structures that engage the sociologist, but the subjective structures of self-consciousness which provide the meanings, norms, values and discourses that unify and legitimate the objective structures. For political orders to function effectively there must be a high level of coordination and integration between these subjective and objective factors. It is from this perspective of the structures of self-consciousness and their formation that philosophy sees and acts on the world in general, and in this case the political world.

From this perspective, I will examine the changing subjective foundations of Africana postcolonial states and how their multiplying and dispersive tendencies have been complicating their problems of governance. I will begin with the pre-colonial and colonial roots of these shifting and dispersing subjectivities and conclude with three suggestions –- from Ato Sekyi-Otu, Sylvia Wynter and CLR James -– that might be able to reverse these trends and create new convergences out of them. These suggestions emerge from a tradition of Africana political thought and leadership that has remained under-thematized. Pre-Colonial African States

From what we know about pre-colonial African states, it is clear that their stability and legitimacy derived largely from the extent to which their objective structures reflected and affirmed the self-consciousness or the “I” of their subjects. These pre-colonial states took the form of chieftaincies or larger patrimonial kingdoms. In the figures of the chief and king, and also in the workings of the councils with which they ruled, the people could see reflections and confirmations of the discourses and ideals that both narrated and legitimated the formation of their self-consciousness (Wingo 2001). This claim remains true in spite of the differing theoretical accounts that we have of pre-colonial African states.

These accounts encompass five distinct approaches. (1) Some authors like John Pemberton & Funso Afolayan (1996), tend to emphasize the sacred aspects of pre-colonial African states such as the spiritual functions of the chief or the sacred rituals associated with the office. These features gave rise to what I’ve called a spiritocratic as opposed to a theocratic conception of the state and the political world. (2) Some scholars, like Kwame Gyekye (1997) and Adjume Wingo (2001), have emphasized the proto-democratic structures of power that characterized pre-colonial chiefdoms and kingdoms. In contrast, (3) others like V.G Simiyu (1987) have emphasized the hierarchical and gerontocratic aspects of these states. (4) In the redistributive activities of chiefdoms, scholars like Nkrumah (1964) saw the proto-socialist and egalitarian tendencies of these political formations. Finally (5), there are scholars such as Polanyi (1966) and Falola (2001) who emphasize the military aspects of these kingdoms and chieftaincies.

In my view, all these differing ways of producing and organizing power could be found in most of the pre-colonial African states, but in varying combinations. In the smaller chieftaincies that did not develop into large centralized states, the spiritocratic, proto-democratic and gerontocratic dimensions could all be observed in the relations between the chief, his council of elders, and the political community. In the larger patrimonial kingdoms that were confederacies forged out of conquest, the military aspects were much more visible and important.

The simultaneous working of the five principles of political organization can be seen very clearly in the case of the Asante kingdom as late as the last decades of the 19th century. The sacred or spiritocratic principle could be seen in the spiritual symbolism attached to its primary authority figures: the king or Omanhene and the queen mother or Ohemmaa. The Omanhene was the earthly representative of the sun god, Nyankopon, and was believed to receive special energies from this deity that he was to pass on to the nation. Similarly, the Ohemmaa was the earthly representative of the moon goddess. As such, she embodied the feminine principle of the cosmos and symbolically represented the birth of the Asante state. In short, integral to their discursive constructions as political leaders was their capacity to represent the deities and thus to enable spirit to rule through them It was this requirement of political leadership that makes it possible to say that the organization and exercise of power in the Asante state was spiritocratic.

However, in spite of being carriers of spiritual authority, these monarchical figures did not have unlimited power. First, the Omanhene and the Ohemmaa were checks on each other's powers. The Ohemmaa could publicly criticize the Omanhene, and had her own courts to which cases involving women could be referred if the parties were not satisfied. Second, below these regents was the Berempon or the Council of Heads of States that included military chiefs of the confederacy. This was the council with which the Omanhene had to rule. In its workings, one can see how military power functioned in the Asante state (Rattray 1969).

As we move down the hierarchy of this federal structure to the state and village levels, it is the elementary model of non-military chieftaincies that predominates. At these levels, the proto-democratic aspects emphasized by Gyekye are quite evident in the representative nature of the council -– which often reflected the voices of groups such as the elderly, women, and youth. In addition, this council was an important check on the power of the chief as the latter was expected to listen to the advice of its members, and in fact could be dethroned by it. In his account of the Asante state, Gyekye acknowledges its redistributive practicies but rejects Nkrumah's view of them as proto-socialist (1997: 146). Finally, the fact that the council usually gave priority to the voices of the elderly is one of the structural bases for Simiyu’s gerontocratic view of pre-colonial African states. In short, these five principles of organizing and legitimating the exercise of power can work together –- and have done so -– in the African context.

Assuming that these different principles did work together to produce the Asante state, we can return to our main theme of a dynamic convergence or complementarity between these objective structures and the more subjective discourses, norms and ideals that shaped the political communities. The mutually legitimating correlation between the political self and its world emerges when we thematize the Asante or other African conceptions the ideal human being. Among the former, the human being was seen as consisting of three crucial parts: the honan (body), the sunsum (ego), and the Okra (divine breath and destiny) (Gyekye 1995: 19). Among the Yoruba, the human subject was seen as the unity of four crucial parts: the Ara (body), the okan (heart and ego), Ori (destiny) and Emi (divine breath) (Gbadegesin 1991: 41). In both cases, in addition to these forces, the making of a human being also required the contributions and interventions of the nature deities and the ancestors. Thus, their conception of the human being was a profoundly spiritual one, resting on a metaphysical outlook that elevated the spiritual above all other domains. It was the site of absolute creative authority and thus the correct point of departure for discursive production. It is here that we can begin to see the deep convergences that had been created between the discourses legitimating individual self-consciousness and those legitimating the identity and authority of the state. Among the Asante, the golden stool of the Omanhene was considered to be the Okra of the kingdom. It was the Okra of the Omanhene that received the special energies from the sun god.

These and other correlations between the identities of individuals and that of the state were important sources of stability and effective governing for the pre-colonial states of Africa. In place of such dynamic convergences, colonialism introduced a powerful set of divergences that reduced the legitimacy of African states, increased problems of governance, and made political world-building much more difficult.

The Colonial State

The core of European colonial states consisted of a colonial governor, an executive council, a legislative council, and a militia. These objective structures were correlates of a European political subject that was in transition from Christian monarchism to a racialized liberal republicanism. The objective structures and hierarchies of colonial states reflected imperial conceptions of a racially superior self that Europeans started affirming in the period of colonial expansion.

In the Africana communities that resulted from this expansion, colonial states were formed either through the replacement of African chieftaincies or monarchies by the European political structures (direct rule), or through the subordinate incorporation of chiefs into the colonial apparatus (indirect rule). From the socio-philosophical standpoint of this paper, the imposition of colonial structures of rule had two very important consequences. First, it created divergences between the identities of the state and its citizens, and also between the discourses, norms and ideals that narrated and legitimated these two identities. Second, these structural impositions hybridized both the objective institutions of Africana states and the subjective foundations of their political cultures.

The introducing of divergences can be clearly seen in the figure of the colonial governor. As a European, a white supremacist and possibly a republican, this new symbol of authority did not reflect or affirm the self-consciousness, values or concepts of freedom held by Africana subjects. On the contrary, the governor and the new European identity of the state negated these indigenous values which were increasingly associated with the racialized stereotype of “the negro.” The governor had no connection to the sun god, and if he had an Okra it was not dispensing spiritual energies for the good of the kingdom. However, he did have connections to his Monarch or president and possibly to the Christian God. The executive and legislative councils were there to give voice to the aspirations and interests of resident Europeans and not to indigenous or diasporic Africans. The militia was there to resist by force any attempts by Africana subjects to take control of political institutions and re-install their chiefs or whatever form of government they saw fit. These connections of Africana colonial states to European imperial monarchies and to the interests of resident Europeans in fact represented the establishing of new convergences between the colonial states and European political subjects. They constituted a radical reorienting of the identity and functioning of Africana states that alienated them from the material and subjective interests of Africans, whose identities were being increasingly negrified.

Given the introduction of these divergences, it should come as no surprise that the European-dominated colonial states suffered from high levels if illegitimacy in the hearts and minds of many Africana subjects. These legitimacy deficits made the use of force central to colonial forms of rule. The negrification and other negations of the Africana “I” that these states routinely generated, elicited strong insurrectionary responses from dominated subjects across the Africana world. Thus, before the insurrection of 1736 in Antigua was uncovered and aborted, the revolting slaves had already crowned a king, pointing to the deep urge in the diaspora to restore African monarchies (Henry 1985: 42). The Haitian revolution of 1801 was no doubt the clearest expression of these insurrectionary responses that were alive and strong all over the Africana world. Such high levels of violent resistance kept colonial states not only authoritarian but also highly militarized.

The second important consequence of imposing the European structures on African chieftaincies and kingdoms was the hybridized nature of actual colonial states and their political cultures. On the continent, the organizational structures of the state were both African and European. They were brought together in a forced but unstable unity. In the diaspora, the structures of chieftaincy found no institutional space in the organization of colonial states, and thus survived only in the minds and conversations of these transplanted Africans. But in spite of this significant difference, both continental and diasporic Africa experienced the hybridizing of political cultures and hence of political identities. Both types of colonial states became poorly integrated African/European mixtures.

Good examples of this hybridizing of Africana political cultures can be seen in the growth of European republican ideas and their gradual replacing or uneasy mixing with traditions of African monarchism. Colonial attitudes toward the monarchies of the Asantehene (now part of Ghana) and the Kabaka of Buganda (now part of Uganda) were somewhat exceptional in the degree of formal recognition they were given. Yet even they were incorporated as subordinate political structures into the European-style republics of Ghana and Uganda as a condition for ending colonial rule. In short, the hybridizing of Africana political cultures republicanized them to varying degrees without completely destroying earlier monarchical traditions. Thus a deeply fissured political culture was created that in turn partially republicanized and Europeanized Africana political identities. In the resulting situation, the divergences between these changing African subjects and their states only increased, rendering the colonial state more unstable and hence more likely to resort to violence.

Crisis Tendencies of the Postcolonial State

Given the internal tensions and contradictions of the colonial state that flowed from its growing divergences with Africana subjectivities, it would seem reasonable to expect that its successor, the postcolonial state, would have a difficult time governing, as it would inherit all of these problems without the coercive and economic resources of its predecessor. Yet, such was the excitement of the decolonization period that the leaders of the various anti-colonial struggles were filled with great confidence and hope for the postcolonial period. Representative of this mood was the confidence that informed Nkrumah’s already mentioned text, Consciencism. Philosophical consciencism was his discursive attempt to forge a new harmony between the re-Africanized identity of the postcolonial state and the conflicting subjectivities that emerged from the forced mixing of indigenous African, Islamic and Euro-Christian traditions during the colonial period. His strategy was to see the modern socialism of Marx as the fulfillment of the communalism and redistributive policies of pre-colonial chieftaincies, and also as the supersession of Islamic feudalism and Christian liberal capitalism. Nkrumah’s hope was that, in spite of neo-colonial pressures, socialist postcolonial states would be able to contain the above “schismatic tendencies” before they ripened (1964: 104).

This synthetic and integrative philosophy of African socialism was shared with other African leaders such as Leopold Senghor of Senegal, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, and Sekou Touré of Guinea. In the Caribbean, the period of decolonization was marked by a similar optimism based on philosophies of democratic socialism and black laborism. However, as indicated in my opening paragraph, the years of postcolonial rule have not been easy. Indeed, crisis tendencies both old and new have ripened and in the process have exploded the integrative tendencies of African socialism, black laborism, democratic socialism, and other Africana political philosophies of the early postcolonial period. These explosions have forced many to migrate and to seek refuge in more stable Africana communities such as those of Black America, Black Canada and Black Britain.

CLR James

In spite of the excitement of the decolonization period and the confidence of its political philosophies, there were Africana scholars who had already sounded important notes of caution, regarding the destructive powers embedded in the crisis tendencies of postcolonial political orders. Two of the most important of these were CLR James and Frantz Fanon. Both offered great insights into some of the major problems that would in fact challenge the leaders of Africana postcolonial states. In his classic account of the triumphs and failures of the Haitian revolution, The Black Jacobins, James identified some of the crucial difficulties that postcolonial leaders would have to confront as the crisis tendencies matured. In particular, he placed great emphasis on the seriousness of the counter-revolution that imperial countries would organize, and on the economic dependence that would follow from the legacy of foreign control.

James described in brilliant detail French attempts to retake Haiti and to re-impose slavery. But even more striking are his accounts of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s attempts to restore Haiti’s plantation economy to its pre-revolutionary levels of output even though this required inviting French planters back to Haiti and forcing ex-slaves to work for them as wage laborers. James describes the fissures that this decision opened up in the black nationalist and anti-slavery unity that the revolution had forged. Because of the coercion that this economic dependence generated and the militarization produced by the threat of counter-revolution, James described L’Ouverture’s regime as “the absolute monarchy in its progressive days” (1989: 247). By that he meant an absolute but populist regime with a balanced vision of competing class interests that was “rooted in the preservation of the interests of the laboring poor” (247). The policies of this regime – especially its concessions to the mulattos and the white planters – elicited strong opposition from the Haitian masses and from some of L’Ouverture’s generals. Forging an Afro-Caribbean nation out of this contradictory set of interests in the shadow of the counter-revolution was L’Ouverture’s difficult challenge as James saw it. In the end, it imploded and overwhelmed him. In this tragic outcome, James saw many important lessons for future postcolonial leaders.

Frantz Fanon

Fanon’s analyses of the possibilities for postcolonial collapse were as incisive as his unforgettable phenomenological descriptions of the nationalist self-consciousness that drove the colonized all over the Africana world to revolt. He began by examining the hybridized consciousness of party and union leaders, many of whom were educated abroad, whose consequently limited vision was further blinkered by class interest. Unable to see the local terrain clearly, these leaders are likely to make mistakes that will abort the birth of the new nation. Three mistakes are crucial to Fanon’s analysis.

The first is that these mis-educated leaders will ally with the urban working classes rather than the rural masses and the lumpenproletariat. On the continent, this decision will set the stage for conflicts with remaining structures of chieftaincy power and for the emergence of dual systems of power in the postcolonial period. In contrast, Fanon saw the postcolonial nation-in-formation as coming into being not in the consciousness of the political leaders, or the small urban working class, but in the immediacy of the insurrectionary consciousness of the rural masses. His challenge to postcolonial rulers was for them to create the discursive and organizational forms that could take the young nation from its fragile rural womb and raise it to maturity in spite of the external counter-revolution and internal class and ethnic conflicts. In other words, it was to find the objective structures that would be appropriate to the new nationalist subjectivity that was coming into being. This point makes us think immediately of one of L’Ouverture’s mistakes noted by James.

The second likely mistake of postcolonial leaders is to underestimate the lengths to which imperial powers will go to contain anti-colonial revolts or to preserve their economic and strategic interests in the postcolonial period. Rural as well as urban leaders were likely to make this mistake. Fanon pointed out the ways in which colonial elites would ally with the lumpen elements or with the chiefs that they themselves taught the urban leaders to despise. On this point James and Fanon converged.

The third major mistake that nationalist leaders were likely to make was economic in nature. As in the case of James's analysis of L’Ouverture, this mistake is linked to the problem of the underdeveloped nature of local bourgeois classes in the postcolonial period. This class fraction “is in no way commensurate with the bourgeoisie of the mother country which it hopes to replace…. Neither financiers nor industrial magnates are to be found within this national middle class” (1961: 149). Given this fact, levels of economic performance, management and innovation are likely to decrease or collapse if this class takes control of the economy. It is to avoid such collapses that we get the sending out of “frenzied appeals for help to the former mother country” (149) as we saw in the case of L’Ouverture. In situations like these, economic development is not very likely to occur, and in cases where it does, it will be accompanied by greater social inequality. In the Africana world, the years that followed Fanon’s diagnosis have certainly been punctuated with the consequences of mistakes of the type described.

Since these classic accounts of the postcolonial situation by James and Fanon, other scholars have contributed their views on the problem. George Lamming’s Season of Adventure and Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born come immediately to mind. Lamming’s account of the exploding of class tensions into the murder of the vice-president, and Armah’s images of decay and putrefaction are unforgettable. When we turn to more contemporary political theorists, the sense of a deepening crisis continues. In the work of Robert Fatton (2002), we have accounts of the continuing crisis of the Haitian state that update many of the tendencies identified by James. In the work of Selwyn Ryan (1999), we get detailed treatments of the crisis of the two-party system in the English-speaking Caribbean. In particular, he details the tendencies toward neo-patrimonialism and to conditions of one-party dominance. In the works of Brian Meeks, the concept of “hegemonic dissolution” is developed to describe the case of Jamaica. By it he means "an invidious standoff, in which the people, broadly defined, are more disconnected from the old national project, though the political, as exemplified in its institutions, remains battered, but relatively intact” (2007: 19).

However, of all the more recent accounts of the postcolonial condition, none has had quite the impact of Achille Mbembe’s On the Postcolony. In this work, Mbembe attempts to explain the distinctness of present postcolonial orders now that all of the major Jamesian and Fanonian crisis tendencies –- from the collapse of plantation economies to the eruption of genocidal conflicts -– have ripened and exploded. The result in many cases has been complete economic and political meltdowns that have brought many Africana communities to the edge of the political abyss. In cases such as Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and now Darfur, there have been actual falls into the abyss. In the Caribbean, an earlier case of such a fall was the 1937 massacre, by the Trujillo regime, of 30,000 Haitians living in the Dominican Republic.

For Mbembe, the distinctive experience that these meltdowns have brought is an increasingly contingent, dispersed and powerless mode of political being; one that conceals its inabilities by assuming masks of absolute power. Concealed in its opposite, this increasing inability of postcolonial states to govern takes the form of arbitrarily administering death, any time, anywhere, and by any means. In these meltdowns we see the destructive failures of arbitrary military responses to increasingly ungovernable situations. These responses are capable of institutionalizing terror, destruction and death as political practices that conceal and bury a great deal of human suffering. This is the distinctive political order of the current phase of the postcolonial period, the political order that is generating so many refugees and emigrants.

Rethinking the Crisis

Building on these observations, I would like to revisit the causes of this crisis in terms of the subjective conditions necessary for building and sustaining viable political worlds. From this perspective, there are two crucial conditions for meeting these goals. The first is a high degree of complementarity between the “I” of political subjects and the “We” that grounds the identity of the state. Second, these subjective complementarities must be reinforced by similarities or convergences between the discourses, symbols, and ideals that narrate and legitimate both the “I” of the subject and the “We” of the state. The “We” is the subjective ground of the objective existence of a state as the “I” is the subjective center of the individual’s objective existence. These two subjectivities constitute the first-person modalities of both individuals and states. These first-person modalities are distinctive human sites of freedom, volition, the capacity for making claims through dialogue, and hence the need for recognition, justice, and equality. These are core political values that cannot be separated from the first-person subjectivity of each of these sites. If the divergences between the two sites are too wide, then the core values, rather than being affirmed, will be negated and crushed in the ensuing conflicts between the two subjectivities. In other words, without the forging of structures of complementarity between them, political governance and stability become very difficult to achieve.

In Africana postcolonial states, widening patterns of divergence have continued the sundering of everyday political experience that began with the introduction of European colonialism. The intensification of these disruptions in the present period is very much a part of the subjective foundations of the crisis. Ato Sekyi-Otu captures this intensification when he asserts that the data of political experience are now encountered as a “disarray of meaning” (2005: 261). Similarly, Menkiti describes the present situation as one of “cognitive disarray” and goes on to suggest that when this disarray is added to the “presence of raw centralized power that European statism introduced into Africa, we have on our hands… a combustible mix” (2001: 133) In other words, the structures of complementarity and consensus-building that made mutual understanding and collective action possible have been overwhelmed by centrifugal forces. As a result, political life is experienced as a whirling vortex in which very little is stable even though some things like ineffective or violent regimes keep returning with empty promises. Inside this vortex –- this zone of political nonbeing -– the situation is one of hermeneutic and political entropy. Climbing out of this political abyss, or avoiding being too close to the edge has quite often become a Sisyphean task.

From this perspective of the subjective foundations of political orders, three additional factors must be added to those suggested in the above review if we are to fully grasp the severity of the crisis in the Africana world. The first is the continuing divisive and fragmenting impact of racialization and cultural hybridization on the subjective foundations and complementarities of postcolonial states. The second is the distinct set of problems caused by the unleashing from religious and spiritual regulation of passions for wealth, fame and power. Third is the fact that the postcolonial state must manage these problems in spite of being significantly weaker that the state it has replaced.

As noted earlier, political colonization racialized Africana identities and republicanized Africana political cultures without completely destroying their African foundations and monarchical traditions. As Du Bois has shown, racialization divided the consciousness of Africana subjects. The process of domination forced us to see ourselves not only through our own African eyes, but also through the eyes of our European colonizers (1969: 17). The colonizers did not see Africans primarily as Yoruba or Asante, but as negroes, that is, blacks who were primitive heathens. This new epidermalized identity radically altered the self-consciousness of Africana subjects. It negrified and divided it; making it not just African/European but “negro”/European. Similar analyses of the subjective impact of racialization have been provided by Fanon, Lewis Gordon and other pioneers of Africana phenomenology (Henry 2005). For Fanon, it produced the phenomenon of black skins wearing white masks. In the words of Sekyi-Otu, racialization gave rise to the “spectacle of black men straining to be white even as they claimed to represent their people” (2005: 268). In the English-speaking Caribbean, the racializing of African identities produced the formation that Lloyd Best has called the “Afro-Saxon” (1998). Wilson Harris referred to the same formation as an “embalmed Lenin” (1993) -– referring to Caribbean leaders, such as Forbes Burnham of Guyana, whom he saw as inauthentic copies of Russian leaders (or Russian counterparts to the British-oriented Afro-Saxons).

Within these hybrid identity formations, the masking strategies demanded by the negative and positive racial markers placed on the African and European elements were such that stable and effective unities were difficult to forge. Neither could successfully conceal the other as the two pulled away from rather than toward each other. Consequently, the experience of self was profoundly changed, as the destabilizing of subjective roots further imploded the earlier and more integrated African worlds of meaning.

As racialization negrified and split Africana identities, hybridization split and destabilized Africana political cultures. In republicanizing Africana monarchical traditions, colonization succeeded only in building the outer frames of houses of republicanism, but not the subjectivities that would find complementarity and recognition and thus genuinely fill out these frames. On the contrary, these bureaucratic structures would be occupied by Africana subjects whose identities were still significantly inscribed in the political and spiritual discourses of the chieftaincies. The results were the contradictory and unstable political formations that emerged from monarchical recodings of republican practices. This was very evident in the reworking of European two- or multi-party systems of governance into one-party (Ghana), one-party dominant (Antigua), or violently clashing two-party systems (Jamaica). In Africa, the appearance of one-party regimes led to their being designated as forms of “presidential monarchism” (Mazrui & Tidy 1984: 191). This term echoes James’s earlier description of the L’Ouverture regime in Haiti as the absolute monarchy in its progressive days. The subsequent fall of these presidential monarchist regimes pointed both to their inability to contain the contradictory tendencies of the postcolonial situation and to their own inherent instability. Their fall, like the failures of the divided African/European identity, added further to the imploding of earlier structures of political meaning.

Our second factor aggravating the political crisis of postcolonial Africana states has been their failure to find effective alternative principles and structures of political sociality to replace the role played by religion and spirituality in the pre-colonial period. This failure is important because it removed earlier religious restraints on identity formation and economic pursuits, on the assumption that these could be politically satisfied and regulated. Instead, the releasing of these economic and identity strivings has overwhelmed most postcolonial states with uncontrollable epidemics of corruption.

This dis-embedding of Africana identities and political economies from religious and spiritual regulation was a colonial inheritance. As Karl Marx and Max Weber have shown, such a dis-embedding of political economy from Christian regulation was an important condition for the rise of European capitalism. Marx referred to this phenomenon as the melting into air of all fixed and solid traditions (Tucker 1978: 338); Weber referred to it as the disenchantment of the world (1995: 105), while Emile Durkheim described the resulting condition as anomic (1951: 248). All three accounts point to the opening up of modern vacuums which could easily have become whirling vortices of great destructive power if they were not adequately filled. For James in particular, Nazism and Stalinism were two examples of Europe’s fall into these vortices that are inherent in the modern situation. These political black holes and the possibilities of states collapsing into them are only likely to increase as ongoing processes of globalization are sure to worsen the anomic condition of modernity.

However, in the European case, the opportunities opened up by this receding of religious authority also nurtured the rapid rise to dominance of the economic and political dimensions of European subjectivity. The rise of these new identities initiated a multiplying of secular identities that would continue throughout the modern period. From their new positions of dominance, these economic and political identities now began to project their own worlds, norms and values, and to de-legitimate the Christian world and its system of moral and normative regulation. The new norms and values celebrated and rationalized the acting out of selfish and worldly desires as opposed to their ascetic restraining by Christianity. They rejected religious regulation of political and economic behavior in favor of distinctly economic and political modes of regulation. These new European discourses on the virtues of selfishness and the amazing creativity that accompanied the releasing of the passions reached their political peak in the philosophies of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke. Their economic peak was reached in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.

For both Machiavelli and Hobbes, the vacuums created by the rejecting of religious authority over political life could only be filled by an absolute and authoritarian ruler –- a Prince or a Leviathan. For Hobbes in particular, embedded in the modern political situation is indeed a radical melting of earlier structures of complementarity that made mutual understanding and collective action possible. Thus one of the important tasks of Leviathan was to stabilize the meaning of words by creating and imposing a new shared political language. For Locke, the alternative to religious regulation was the liberal state which could only recognize and satisfy the released desires of a few, primarily the property owning bourgeois groups. In Marx, the alternative was the socialist state, which would attempt to make the state responsible for the entire social question of bringing material satisfaction to all, particularly the proletariat.

In Adam Smith, the new European economic subjects, the bourgeois capitalist and the proletarian worker, appeared as players in a new world of their own. Rejecting Christian moral restraint, the maximizing of self-interest in the pursuit of wealth was no longer a sin but the most important project that human beings could undertake. Homo Economicus and Homo Spiritus had traded places. In the former’s selfish pursuit of wealth, there was a new regulative order that had to be recognized: the workings of the invisible hand of the market. For the market was the providential transformer of individual selfish acts into economic and moral goods. In short, for Smith the market was the new moral force, his Leviathan, which could take the place of religious regulation in the age of Homo Economicus. Together, these secular political constructions of the prince, Leviathan, the liberal and socialist states along with the market and the technocratic rationalizing of the social order were all European responses to the problems of governance opened up by the releasing of economic desire from religious regulation. Technocratic rationalization has been so important that Habermas has described Western modernity as the colonization of the “lifeworld” by systems of technical-instrumental action, as opposed to the colonization and hybridization of one lifeworld by another as in the case of Africana states (1987: 322).

As part of their hybridization, Africana postcolonial states inherited from their colonial predecessors this dis-embedding of their political economies and processes of identity formation from religious regulation which brought into the political arena the full weight of the social question. The releasing of processes of identity formation led to new orders of subjectivity: first, the “negro”/European of the colonial period, then the African/European of the early postcolonial period, and finally a multiplying but still racialized order of subjectivity in the present period. In other words, the decline of the era of the Afro-Saxons and embalmed Lenins has been followed by a multiplying of sub-national modes of subjectivity around factors such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or diaspora. Consequently, the subjective push in this period has been in the dispersive directions of “post-national” or “transnational” communities of difference. This push exists even in former internal colonies such as the Africana communities of the U.S. and Britain. These post-internal/colonial communities have also witnessed a sharp turn toward cultural/identity politics that has further complicated relations with the state (Hanchard 1996: 257-61). Coming at a time of decreases in state governing capabilities, this multiplying of identities and subjective interests has only increased the pressure on Africana postcolonial states.

Further complicating the problems of postcolonial governance was the fact that Africana states only acquired the easier and more accessible parts of the regulatory practices that accompanied these dispersive trends in the West. What they did not really master were the foundational processes of secular political world-building. Africana postcolonial states had the market forced on them, or they appropriated the outer frames of Western socialist and liberal states but not the creative art of their actual production. Our subjective relationship to these secular constructions of the West was that of maintaining and legitimating political worlds we had inherited rather than ones we had fashioned by our own intentional creativity.

Consequently, in the Africana world, these secular constructions did not have the same binding and regulative power as they did in the West. Only our primary and originary responses to the specific vortices that modernity has placed before us will have corresponding regulative power and thus be able to fill the void left by the loss of religious authority and thereby ground a stable postcolonial order. In short, we did not grasp the subjective depth of this problem of modern political regulation: in the language of Rousseau, the problem of fashioning for ourselves the principles and structures of sociality that would be able to form the general will of Africana polities out of the multiplying individual wills released by colonialism.

The third and final factor aggravating the Africana postcolonial crisis is the specifically political deficits incurred by most postcolonial societies as a result of having to replace the stronger and more authoritarian colonial state. As already noted, the former have neither the military power nor the economic resources of the latter. These types of political deficits usually accompany the fall of strong empires. The political chaos, or the so-called Barbarian invasions, that overtook much of Europe in the period during and after the decline of the Roman Empire is a case in point. More recently, we have seen the political meltdowns that have occurred in Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Empire. These collapses took Europeans into destructive zones of nonbeing that can be usefully compared with those that have opened up in the Africana world.

Africana Philosophy and Political World-Building

These three factors, together with those elaborated by James, Fanon and others reviewed above, enable us to understand the major meltdowns of political substructures of complementarity, leadership, and administration that have kept us on the edge of the abyss. This dangerous edge, frightening as this may be, is often the point at which political and metaphysical experience become inseparable (Sekyi-Otu 2005: 260). In Moral Philosophy and Development, Teodros Kiros makes this dangerous edge the occasion for a profound set of moral and ethical reflections. Similarly, Fanon tells us that in spite of their aridity, zones of nonbeing can be the site of authentic upheavals and great creativity. Such upheavals make possible the kind of metaphysical creativity that lifts us out of the vortex and onto the ground of being. Hence the relevance of Africana philosophy at this moment of deep crisis.

Although eclipsed by our imitative and inauthentic appropriations of European ideas, there have been a number of important Africana political alternatives to the modern receding of religious authority. Apart from fundamentalist moves, our primary response to this de-absolutizing of spiritual and religious authority has been metaphysical (Sekyi-Otu). Most important for our purposes has been the replacement of the absolute order of spirit with an improvisational concept of the founding order of things. This Africana improvisational metaphysics I have called creative realism (2005). Its point of departure is the affirming of the spontaneous self-organizing creativity by which the human self projects its identity and the worlds that are correlated with it. While possessed of inner dynamics, this creativity is also one that moves in response to modern aporias and zones of nonbeing that threaten its desire for integrity and wholeness. Ontologically speaking, creative realism assumes the primacy of this type of self-formative creativity. However, this does not imply any final or absolute claims for the products of such creativity. Thus, it is a de-centered metaphysics in which different perspectives are temporarily allowed to occupy the position of “center.” In this sense, the improvisational orders established by creative realism are not the hierarchical ones of a spiritual metaphysics. These improvisational responses to the hermeneutic challenges of modernity have been best expressed in the African American musical genre of jazz.

On these new metaphysical foundations, Africana political thought has produced two divergent but connected responses to the challenge of building political orders in the postcolonial period. These are historicism and poeticism. One could make a case for a response of rationalism, but it has not sufficiently separated itself from Western rationalism. Both historicism and poeticism have brimmed with the creative ethos of their underlying metaphysics of creative realism. We think immediately of James and Fanon as representing the historicists and Aimé Césaire and Leopold Senghor as representing the poeticists. The key to the subterranean unity that links Africana historicists and poeticists is their shared improvisational metaphysics. However, in terms of leading the practical response to the challenges of creating postcolonial political orders, it has been the historicists who have predominated, providing conceptions of freedom and order that have been generated from subjective locations somewhere between the metaphysical scaffold of creative realism and our zones of political nonbeing. Let us look briefly at four examples of such projections of postcolonial alternatives.

The first of these is what Jamaican political scientist and philosopher Clinton Hutton has called the “repatriational” political order that emerged during the period of slavery (2005: 59). At the core of this political universe was a concept of freedom that was fashioned by diasporic Africans out of their memories and dreams of returning to Africa, along with notions of post-death transitions to the spiritual community of African ancestors. In short, it was a political vision in which death was the door to freedom and to returning to Africa. Although no specific state structures emerged from this view, it had remarkable normative power for its producers and subscribers.

The second is what we can call an independent peasantist political order. This creation emerged very clearly among the Haitian masses and constituted the basis of their resistance to L’Ouverture’s policy of restoring the plantation system. In strong opposition to this system, they projected a political identity whose freedom was rooted in the ownership of sufficient land to make a good living from the soil. In short, they saw postcolonial Haiti as a state of independent peasants rather than of urban or rural proletarians. Again, the literature attests to the normative power of this vision.

Third is the Rastafarian conception of political order. This political formation could be seen as a combination of elements from the repatriational and the independent peasantist models. Rastafarian communities are organized around “yards” or groups of families. These yards are autonomous bodies with only a religious leader. But there is no centralized authority, religious or political, over these yards. However, these anti-statist tendencies are primarily rejections of colonial and neo-colonial structures of power. The only political authority they recognized was that of Emperor of Ethiopia. Thus it was an order that combined a decentralized rejection of local political order with a repatriational embrace of the Ethiopian monarchy (Niaah 2005: 20-59).

Fourth and finally, we have the envisioning of a direct democratic order. At its core it is the socialist vision of a self-organized working class in control of production and the state apparatus. The direct democratic order was an attempt to go beyond representative democracy in politics and managerial rule in economics. This philosophy was associated with James and what has come to be called the Caribbean New Left (Henry 1992: 225-39).

These are some of the more original visions of postcolonial political order that have emerged from our wrestling with the hermeneutic and political vacuums that our modernity has opened up at the center of our subjective experience. Together with the African socialist, presidential monarchist, one-party dominant, the fighting two-party, and the military political orders, they constitute the major imaginative productions of our modern tradition of political theorizing. When we examine these creations against the specific challenges of postcolonial modernity, it is clear that they have either fallen short of or gone beyond the desired mark. In cases such as the Rastafarian and the independent peasantist orders, the impact of these political formations just did not match the dimensions of the economic, political, identity and hermeneutic forces that must be integrated if viable postcolonial orders are to be constituted. For example, their constructions of the identity of the political community, its “We,” were not sufficiently inclusive to embrace the class/race diversity in many of these societies. At the other end of the spectrum is the direct democratic imagining of our postcolonial modernity. In my view, its requirements of economic self-organization went too far beyond the reach and capabilities of the masses in Africana societies. In the middle we have the better known and battle-defeated orders such as the African socialist, and one-party dominant political formations. As we’ve already seen, the experiences of these political orders have exposed fragilities and cracks in their constitution that have not been able withstand the complex of identity, hermeneutic, political and economic pressures that are embedded in our distinct condition of postcolonial modernity.

In short, none of our major political projections in response to the historically distinct vacuums of the modern period have hit the mark. Their principles and structures of sociality have not enabled us to forge more inclusive constructions of our general will and to effectively regulate the selfish activities that are now integral to our political economy. However, it is important to note that before succumbing to these modern pressures, many of these postcolonial regimes produced short periods of significant economic growth and increases in representative democracy. These positive developments occurred primarily between 1965 and 1980. In Antigua this period saw the start of attempts at industrialization and the birth of a tourist sector that together significantly increased the gross domestic product (Henry 1985). Jamaica witnessed a similar trend with the start of bauxite mining and industrialization (Girvan 1971). Consequently, there may be some economic and political achievements that we may be able to salvage from this early postcolonial legacy as we engage in future attempts at rebuilding.

At a juncture such as this one, the task of Africana philosophy must be the careful review and critique of the entire associated tradition of political thought. In my view, creative realism remains an excellent foundation upon which to rest our efforts at rebuilding our political orders. Its de-centeredness embodies an egalitarian, democratic and anti-authoritarian spirit that is equally open to the secular and the spiritual. Further, its discursive strategies and syntheses differ significantly –- in their improvisational character -– from those of spiritual, dialectical, or analytic approaches. This entire tradition of political thought must now be lifted from its existence in the shadow of the Western tradition, where it has been for far too long.

Given its logical and self-reflective capabilities, Africana philosophy must pay particular attention to the subjective foundations of our postcolonial modernity. It is a unique subjective terrain with fissures and vortices that only original theorizing by us will overcome. These subjective challenges, unlike the more objective ones, cannot be addressed with borrowed theories. In dealing with our multiplying subjectivities and our legacy colonial divergences between individual and state identities, Africana philosophers must work very closely with the contributions of our poeticists, who I have not dealt with adequately in this paper. From Wilson Harris and George Lamming to Ayi Kwei Armah and Ama Ata Aidoo, they have consistently emphasized the importance of examining processes of self-formation and the subjective foundations they provide for political orders.

How do we reconnect the identities of Africana postcolonial states to those of their citizens under the current conditions of multiplying but still racialized identities? We must attempt to do at least two things: 1) identify new subjective universals that will allow us to see these multiplying subjectivities as creative expressions of broader and deeper self-formative processes; and 2) show that politics is still an integral part of this complex process of subject formation. We can begin to address the first of these goals by making use of Wynter’s notion of the mode of producing the human. In the case of the second, we can build on James’ argument that politics can be a humanistic practice -– an art of cultivating the self through participatory collective action –- and not just an instrumental practice of domination and material extraction. Here I will develop only the first of these two suggestions.

Particularly important for addressing our heritage of subjective divergences is the work of Sylvia Wynter. She has challenged the entire historicist wing of our political tradition with her claim that at the foundation of any political order is not the mode of material production but the mode of self production, or the mode of producing the human (1984: 1-30). By the mode of producing the human, Wynter means a semio-linguistically integrated order of individuality, sociality and narratives of origin that frame the production of the type of human being desired by a society -– be it the sage, the patriot, the capitalist, or the mother. For Wynter, the poetic and narrative processes which auto-institute the self-in-formation are the a priori and universal features shared by all modes of producing the human. These universal features of our subjectivity can be thematized with the aid of poetic and phenomenological discourses, and could then serve as the basis for establishing new convergences between individual and state identities.

For example, in the case of the Asante, we saw the complex array of creative contributions and interventions that were required for the production of a good human being. Further, the Asante did not assume a smooth and automatic completion of this process. On the contrary, the path to the paradigmatic Asante was very open to errors of representing both self and others -– including the deities -– that could compromise this process of self-formation. Thus at a later date, when the individual is more conscious and mature, he/she will be expected to correct these errors, by returning to the earlier phases and sites of self-formation with the aid of some type of ritual or self-reflective practice. In short, the mode of producing a good Asante included the Sankofic move of looking back to go forward –- a looking back that quite often brought one into an encounter with the authority of the gods and the power of destiny.

This Sankofic mode of producing the Asante model of the human is clearly different from the process by which the Christian or the liberal models of the human subject are produced. But in spite of these differences Wynter suggests that there are common factors in these different modes of producing the human just as there are common factors in different mode of economic production. These more universal but insufficiently thematized factors would be the shared autopoetic order of instituting these different models of the human subject.

Wynter is interested in these a priori autopoetic orders of self-organization for at least two reasons. The first is that modes of producing the human can generate and release great resources of moral and normative power –- a claim that bears very directly on our current problems with political anomie. Thus in the case of the Asante, we saw the ways in which the Sankofic mode of producing the human involved individual experiences with the expectations, interventions and authority of the gods. To the extent that these are integral parts of the narratives shaping and legitimating the identities, it becomes quite understandable why the Asante state had a strong religious identity. For Wynter there are broader lessons here about how about how societies are able to generate the moral forces that constitute real antidotes to anomie. However, to get these lessons we need to understand more profoundly the shared autopoetic dimensions of modes of producing the human.

The second reason Wynter is interested in a deeper understanding of our modes of self production is that their semio-linguistic foundations trap them in binary divisions of the “We” versus “They” type. That is, great as our modes of producing the human are at creating a sense of “We” on the basis of structures of similarity, they must at the same time generate structures of otherness that will constitute a corresponding sense of “They”. Thus deeply embedded in our modes of self production are both convergent and divergent forces about which we do not have sufficient knowledge. With the multiplying tendencies of the present period, these “We”/”They” dynamics will only increase in complexity and make political unity or the forming of political coalitions more difficult. Greater knowledge of these forces may help us to deal with the complex patterns of divergences and opposition that are currently fracturing the subjective foundations of our polities.


From the foregoing socio-philosophical analysis of the political crisis confronting the Africana world, three crucial factors emerge. First, given the depth of the crisis, we must, as Sekyi-Otu suggests, stand on that line where political experience merges imperceptibly into metaphysical reflection. On that line we must make an ontological turn toward our crisis situation. As we do so, we must let the disarray of political meaning produced by the crisis take us back to the edge of the zones of nonbeing or of pre-conscious being out of which our own self-creativity has lifted us and established us in the realm of conscious being. This is precisely the kind of creativity that we must mobilize, as it is the proven link between this perpetual pair of being and nonbeing. The more our political world-building arises as direct responses to the threats of nonbeing inherent in our situation (and to the anxieties they trigger), the more genuine and morally binding will be our solutions. In short there is a definite ontological dimension to our crisis that must be fully grasped.

Second, with Wynter, we must undertake the search for new structures of subjective universalism that will allow us to forge new convergences between state and individual identity, and also between our growing communities of difference.

Third and finally, with James, we need to re-thematize the humanistic dimensions of politics, in particular its ability to cultivate and help realize the self. For James, the potential for participatory collective action that is inherent in politics was the special medium -– better than books –- through which the masses could educate, reveal and realize their subjectivity. Indeed, participatory collective action was their “book.” On its pages they were capable of writing their own projects of self-transformation. It was in such educative and self-revealing moments for the masses that politics touched what was best in itself. It fulfilled it highest possibilities when it enabled the subjectivity of the masses to reach new heights of self-consciousness and autonomy. On this Jamesian reading, politics joins the ranks of the humanities. As such a discipline, it is not just about the exercise of power, any more than literature is just about the production of texts. In addition to these, both must also be about the production and transformation of subjectivities. This is the humanistic dimension of politics that James thinks is still very much with us.

With our ontological faces turned to this crisis, our search for new subjective universals, and this humanistic view of politics, we just might be able to reestablish our postcolonial states on firm subjective ground. The problems of their objective foundations we must leave for another paper.

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