Standards, Weekly and Otherwise

Via Crooked Timber, an article by Ernest Lefever in the Weekly Standard arguing that African independence didn’t amount to much.

One of the oldest chestnuts around in academic circles is arguing about whether an author is responsible or culpable for the use of their ideas or words. If you’re out of things to talk about, that’s always a conversation you can start up. So I read Lefever and I think to myself, “Man, I’m planning to argue in what I’m writing now that the importance of African sovereignty is over-estimated, and that a lot of the responsibility for postcolonial African misrule lies in local rather than global structures. I’m planning to argue that you have to listen seriously when some Zimbabweans today tell you that life was better under Rhodesian rule, though you have to understand the full complexity of what’s meant when people say that. (Much as Jennifer Cole has argued that you have to think very carefully about what’s going on when people in Madagascar seem not to think much about colonialism in the ways they imagine or retell history.)” I think about that when I read Lefever because I wonder, “If I argue those things, is that going to be the intellectual equivalent of handing a loaded gun to an infant?”

I think the least successful and yet most common manner that an academic can engage in wider public discourse is by fact-checking, but sometimes you have to do it because the errors aren’t inconsequential. Lefever has England emancipating African slaves 79 years before the U.S. Emancipation Proclamation. I’m not even sure what he thinks he’s talking about there. Even if he miscalculated the 1807 abolition of the slave trade, that wasn’t the abolition of slavery in British colonial territories (1833) and neither of those dates were dates on which those goals were meaningfully accomplished in fact as well as on paper. This isn’t a merely factual error: it has an effect on what Lefever is substantively arguing.

In 1809, a woman named Mary Bateman was convicted of murder and witchcraft. A huge crowd gathered in Yorkshire to see her execution. Afterwards, many paid for a close-up view of her corpse, and at least one account claims that strips of her skin were sold as charms.

Lefever has Africans “missing the Renaissance, Reformation, Magna Carta and Industrial Revolution”. This is first off flatly stupid on both philosophical grounds and empirically wrong. The Industrial Revolution didn’t miss Africa: it happened in the Congo. It happened in the Witwatersrand. It happened in the slave ports of West Africa. It happened in the spice plantations of Zanzibar. For that matter, the Renaissance and Reformation didn’t miss Africa. It’s a question of what those processes did to you, for you and with you, not whether you were part of them or not.

This is what Africanists are driving at when they talk about “multiple modernities”. While I may agree with Frederick Cooper that “modernity” has become an empty place-holder word, I think the point of calling it “multiple” is still important. It’s why I bring up Mary Bateman. An idea like witchcraft isn’t a thing which once existed in the distant past of the West, but still exists somehow in Africa. It’s a simultaneous invention: British missionaries who preached in Africa against witchcraft and against accusations of witchcraft were speaking within their own experience of recent history. Some of the translations and transactions between African and European societies in the 19th and early 20th Century were not crossing wide gulfs of time and epistemology, but narrow cultural and philosophical distances. This is not to say that narrow distances aren’t sometimes hugely meaningful in their own way, the same way that the “uncanny valley” in human vision makes computer graphics more and more sharply unreal the closer and closer they get to photorealism.

That’s both an empirical and epistemological correction to Lefever. He’s not just wrong on the specifics of his dates and his names and his categories, but the generalities. The problem of misrule and illiberalism in postcolonial Africa isn’t a problem distinctive to Africa. Both 32 degrees and 75 degrees are temperatures, part of the same scale of measurement, and it can always get colder or hotter no matter where you are. If we talk about corruption or good governance in Africa, it’s partly because we also struggle against it in other places: these are words and ideas given meaning by a global history, born out of simultaneity.

[Note: Bateman wasn’t executed until 1809; I updated the entry to reflect this.]

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15 Responses to Standards, Weekly and Otherwise

  1. Fats Durston says:

    One of my favorite moments teaching this year was in my British Empire class.

    I gave the kidz passages from European observers going nuts about Sati alongside texts from some English witch trials (about a century earlier–I didn’t know about the Bateman case), and one of the students yelled, “They’re such freakin’ hypocrites!”

  2. It doesn’t really change what I think is your central point — that belief in witchcraft was alive and well in rural England into the nineteenth century — but Bateman wasn’t tried for witchcraft in 1809: the Witchcraft Act of 1735 then in effect applied only to people who _pretended_ to be witches, essentially denying that witches existed. She was tried and executed for providing poison to and committing fraud against the couple that accused her, even though she was popularly considered a witch. Which is only to say that the clergy and magistracy who enforced their version of modernity in the Empire were also fighting on a home front. It’s a quibble: I’m pushing a fictitious boundary of modernity back a few decades, no help at all to Mrs Bateman who died either way. I guess the finesse I’d add is that cultural forces like Enlightenment reach different classes, different families, different individuals within a society at different times. Another example: parents in the U.S. today encourage belief in fairies and Easter Bunnies in young kids, only to renegotiate what constitutes reality later in childhood.

  3. P.S., Hi! I’m Swat class of ’99. I don’t think we really interacted but I enjoy your blog immensely.

  4. withywindle says:

    I think you are being obviously tendentious when you claim Africa had an Industrial Revolution and a Renaissance, etc. But … the trouble is, that Weekly Standard article is obviously inferior in argumentation, and even spelling–Thomas Hobbs!–and skin-crawlingly sympathetic to the Rhodesian regime. So assume on my part some sort of disagreement with what you’re arguing, while at the same time a great distancing from Lefever.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    It’s a good point, Alastair–in fact, it’s a nice prologue to the interesting twist of British witchcraft ordinances in colonial Africa, which typically prohibited both witchcraft and accusations of witchcraft. But as you say, I think the main point about the relative simultaneity of “witchcraft” as a category holds nevertheless.

    Don’t mean to be tendentious by observing that, Withywindle. I’m quite serious: the Industrial Revolution happened to Africa as well. Why do you think Leopold turned the Congo red with blood to gather rubber? What do you call mile-deep gold mines in the Witswatersrand filled with migrant laborers if that’s not industrialization? Where was the cocoa produced out of West Africa going? Not to pre-industrial workshops. Africa was part of the Industrial Revolution. The question is not whether Africans experienced it, but what part of it they experienced, and what that experience did their societies and their economies. It’s just flatly wrong to act as if the Industrial Revolution has yet to happen in Africa. Now if Lefever or anyone else wanted to argue that the beneficial effects of industrialization don’t appear unless there is domestic industrial capacity and domestic industrial social relations as opposed to extractive economies that are wealth-producing elsewhere, I’m fine with that.

  6. withywindle says:

    “Industrial Revolution” is traditionally defined as “domestic industrial capacity and domestic industrial social relations.” There is also something about the human capital that generates a remarkable amount of technological innovation in short order–something that distinguishes the serf mines of the Urals in the eighteenth century (not inconsiderable in their total production) from the process that gets you to Bessemer. You ought, I think, to recognize the distinction. Certainly you should recognize that it is tendentious 1) to change the definition of the Industrial Revolution; and 2) then criticize someone else for not using your definition. And your revised definition is somewhat dubious: to provide raw materials for an industrial machine centered elsewhere is to become a supplier for an Industrial Revolution, not part of it. And the Witswaterand depended very heavily on European capital and technology; this, not the labor force, made it part of the Industrial Revolution.

    I also think you are conflating subject and object: to say “the Industrial Revolution happened to Africa” matters much less than saying “England initiated the Industrial Revolution.”

  7. Fats Durston says:

    The “traditional” definition of the Industrial Revolution is horribly flawed if it does not include the global sources of cheap labor and materials that fueled the revolution, not to mention some of the returns on the capital necessary to finance the process. How do you think the fantastic margins were generated? Because the real costs of portions of the Industrial Revolution were extracted out the flesh and soil of those who did not profit, in virtually every sense of the word. The costs of producing widgets was not fully paid by the consumers in Europe.

    The labor in South Africa didn’t make its mines part of the Industrial Revolution?! Who’s changing the “traditional” definition of the Industrial Revolution now?

  8. withywindle says:

    What is the name of the guy making a similar argument about England?–somebody Raphaels, I think. Cheap labor and materials we have always had with us–I think the distinction there should include something to do with work structure, habits, etc., if we are to think of any of these as distinctively industrial. A question: how did the Witwatersrand differ from Huancavelica? What, if any, differences were rooted in anything other than advances in European capital, technology, and organizational innovations? By your definitions, is Huancavelica taking part in the Industrial Revolution? And if it is, aren’t you broadening your definition a bit too much?

    This does, of course, lead to interesting questions as to whether, say, English coal mines were particularly part of the Industrial Revolution. I do think their participation in the Revolution is traditionally held to depend 1) upon the series of technological advances (engines, other machines, rails, lanterns, etc.) that very substantially increased productivity; and 2) the associated agricultural revolution that allowed for the feeding of both an enlarged coal mining workforce and of the urban consumers of coal. There was already a quite substantial English coal industry by the 17th century, and a great deal of mining labor; the definition of the Industrial Revolution in England, if it is to have any analytic force, has to center on the technology and human capital rather than the labor force.

  9. paul spencer says:

    withywindle –

    You’re definitely not a Marxist. If you like, we can probably agree that the Industrial Revolution happened TO the working class. Can we say that, in fact, the IR formed the working class?

    Given that, plus the suppression of worker movements in the various third world sites mentioned by the other writers above, I think that we can say that the Industrial Revolution reached Africa and South America.

  10. withywindle says:

    Mm, no, not a Marxist … although obviously one can’t do history without a tip of the hat to Marxist historians … and one of my idle thoughts is to incorporate Marxist thought into my research on rhetoric, as an invention upon the topic of labor. But I rather think Marx himself would be more likely to agree with me about the centrality of Europe, and the very limited relevance of Africa, to the Industrial Revolution. (*Many-Headed Hydra*, as I recollect critiques Marx on precisely this point.)

    I’ll certainly say that the IR happened to the working class, and eventually, patchily, reached Africa and South America. As for forming it? … I feel a wave of Burkean complexity coming over me, and the name E. P. Thompson glows in my mind’s eye–vague thoughts about the non-identity of the nature of work and the nature of class consciousness. I think when I’m teaching class, the IR formed the working class; when I’m writing professionally, I append a page of footnotes qualifying the statement.

  11. paul spencer says:

    OK – a tip of the hat to “TO” the working class, plus a wave of my right hand to show that I’m not carrying a weapon.

    “the non-identity of the nature of work”, huh! Sorry, but I have to laugh a little. I’m going to guess that E. P. Thompson never actually worked in the sense discussed in the postings above. Such work teaches a bit about the “nature of class consciousness”.

  12. jpool says:

    I’ve been thinking about this for a few of days, and the thing that strikes me most about it is that whenever I’m ready to sign on to the No More Defensive/Compensatory-African History campaign that Tim and others have championed, I run into some racist schmuck like Lefever, and think, no we really do still need to counter this. Of course, Tim is entirely right that this shouldn’t be the thing that guides our scholarship or research agendas anymore, if it ever should have been. It do think, however, that even as we take apart the broad colonial legacy and dependency arguments we have to be careful to point out the structures and conditions (as well as the direct or indirect actions of other nations) that have worked against African political and economic success alongside local failings.

    I’m not sure it has to be a question of Marxist versus non/anti- (though I generally fall in the neo- camp myself). I think it’s more a question of how ones defines these things as global processes: whether one sees them as formal developments in technology and organization in which particular individuals or classes are given authorship of those developments (and one could see either a classical History of Science or a classical Marxist approach fitting in here) or as systemic processes with more complex authorship (the Braudelian thing). Even so, as long as one includes labor practices it’s difficult to see how Africa or Latin America was secondary to the industrial revolution. While plantation and industrial labor was certainly something that happened to the sugar producing slave populations of the Americas, it was not something that they, or the society around was separate from. And while you could conceivable refer labor the system of labor organization in the Witwatersrand to the BSAC, you couldn’t do the same for the vegetable oil revolution in West Africa, which greased industrial wheels before the petroleum revolution.

    On a more persnickety point, if the IR happened to the working class (or those that became the working classes) then it can’t make any sense to say “England initiated the Industrial Revolution,” since the vast majority of England was in the “happened to”

  13. ajay says:

    Lefever has England emancipating African slaves 79 years before the U.S. Emancipation Proclamation. I’m not even sure what he thinks he’s talking about there.

    Well, you know, I may not be an important fact-checking academic like you, with your… very fine hat. But I suspect he thinks he’s talking about the emancipation of slaves in England in 1772 (Somersett’s Case) which decided that slavery was not permitted by English law. Look it up. It’s one of the most important dates in the history of the abolition movement.

    Not to defend Lefever here, but on this point he is right and you are wrong.

  14. jpool says:

    I’m going to assume that Tim’s got better things to do this time of year and go ahead and make the point that this would be fine, except it that it would require us all to rewrite our histories to reflect the new date for the Emancipation Proclamation of 1851, rather than the more conventional 1862-1863 (issued vs. came into effect). So you are almost certainly right, that Lefever thinks he’s talking about the Somersett Case, but this does little to vouch for his facts as well-checked.

    If you boil down Lefever’s substantive point in the second half of that single sentence (“[The Kenedy administration was] Unduly critical of the European colonists, they seemed unaware that the British, for example, had ended slavery 79 years before Lincoln signed the Emaciation Proclamation.”) to “the British ended slavery first” then he is certainly correct. The years, however would either be 90, with the necessary caveat “for the 10-14,000 slaves in England, and in that they did not act to recreate slaveholding rights after the justices found that they had no standing in English Common Law,” or they would more reasonably be 29 years, with the recognition that graduated emancipation meant that some were still enslaved for years afterwards. This sentence, however, is part of a set of drunkenly stumbling paragraphs whose overall points are that a) the colonial powers in Africa were generally doing good things, and b) independence failed because Africans are historically shown to be barbarous and corrupt in their natures. Fact-checking pales beside this, but it does help to show what a sloppy writer Lefever is, as well as a sloppy thinker.

  15. Timothy Burke says:

    What jpool said. If what Lefever meant is the Somersett case, it’s very weird to not date the U.S. Emancipation Proclamation to 1862-63. But more substantively, it’s just a very strange comparison, because the abolition of slavery in England in Somersett proper pales in importance to the 1807 and 1833 abolitions, which are far more comparable in impact and significance to the 1863 US Emancipation Proclamation. If I were going to compare Somersett to anything, it would be to the commitment to end new importations of slaves in the US Constitution. jpool puts it just right: all Lefever has to say is, “England was the first European power to act against the Atlantic slave trade, well before the United States”, and he’s fine. When he throws in that date, it really suggests (as does the whole article) that he’s very unclear on the history he’s talking about.

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