Religion, Hegel, and Marxism: Fragments of a Pantheist Approach

Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification.

Marx’s Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

[These comments originated in a discussion of Hegel on Facebook.]

My motives for possibly returning to a study of Hegel – which I dropped in the late 80s – are hopefully constructive, though they feel ambiguous. I am not convinced that I would learn anything helpful, and yet, Hegel often comes in at relevant points of discussion.

To take a very crucial example, when I try to discuss religion and socialism especially with Marxists, they often try to reformulate the points I raise into a “dialectical analysis” that results in atheism being the only logical conclusion of the historical evolution of humanity. I find that conclusion fails to grapple with the sources of religion that seem to go back into the earliest glimmers of culture. Human beings seem unable erase religious thinking, which I find true of even the most ardent atheists.

My theory is that our “religious orientation” is built into our relational drives, such as affection, aggression, curiosity, and creativity. Now, I am not talking about either supernaturalism nor theism proper. Those are specific forms that the religious orientation took in ancient societies, and I already see those forms being drastically abandoned in modern times. A post-theistic naturalistic religion is possible and has already begun to emerge within every religious tradition. Rather than discarding Jesus or Buddha, leading religious thinkers transcend the outdated myths surrounding each figure, while reinterpreting the crucial distinctive contributions each made to human culture. That may be called a dialectical process. Ken Wilber calls it “integral development.”

My personal view is that the process of reshaping human relationships into a global communion can be provisionally characterized as a differential convergence with unpredictable, but imaginable, outcomes.


Question from 1st respondent: Please elaborate on how our “‘religious orientation’ is built into our relational drives… [as a] post-theistic naturalistic religion.”


Human beings’ lives and mental stability depend on affectionate caregiving that we call parenting. We are helpless at birth and unable to feed or clean ourselves for many months of our early conscious lives. This predisposes us to desire affectionate nurture and to reciprocate it. Freud also points out that we come to resent our powerlessness and therefore develop an aggressive drive as well.

As we develop our relational circles beyond our core family, we extend the circle of affectionate caregiving (life-drive) and our circle of feared enemies (death drive). Religion is the projection of these drives onto the natural world as polytheists create invisible agents who created the world and evil gods who create our enemies and diseases. Monotheists simplified this scheme into one all-powerful life-drive agent Jehovah and a subordinate death-drive agent Satan.

A post-theistic evolution of religion will accept that these invisible supernatural agents are not actually non-physical deities, as science and atheism have discovered, but the projection of our life-drive onto the cosmos itself compels us to view it as a divine gift, both the source of life and death. Thus, pantheism, not atheism is the mature expression of the religious impulse.


Comments and questions from 2d responder:

You seem to be confusing symbolic kinship with “religion”
And also there are a lot of stagist presumptions which are basically circular in this.
“Religion is the projection of these drives onto the natural world as polytheists create invisible agents who created the world and evil gods who create our enemies and diseases. “
Is that what religion is? Or is that an element of religion? (For example for what I mean by stagist assumptions that are circular).


The core of religion, I maintain, is web of human desires that create our social relations. Theism is the projection of these desires onto the powerful natural forces that we could not control. Science has effectively depersonalized and disenchanted the natural world, yet our emotional make-up persists as an irrevocable part of our mental health or disease.

We cannot become rational Vulcans who entirely repress our emotions. Thus, the war between reason and emotion in matters of truth is adjudicated by science. However, science cannot decide which of a number of achievable ends is most desirable, as science has no grounds for determining what is of the highest possible value to humanity as a whole.

Capitalists believe that a world economy structured for the profit of the elite is the end of history, the rational organization of aggregate human interests. Socialism denies this and aims to transcend the class domination of this rational order. To do so, socialism must place the interests of the many over the interests of the few. This ethical decision is motivated by the elevation of the life drive over the death drive, as capitalists do the opposite.

I realize that my schema appears stagist, and in its oversimplified form of polytheism<monotheism<atheism<pantheism it is not complex enough to take in the whole of human religious development. Of course, I would argue that Hegel and many socialists make similar sequences out of history. Such as primitive communism<slave society<feudalism<capitalism<socialism<communism.

I am open to being schooled in proper Hegelian historical theory. Earlier, I offered the hypothesis that the future will be a “differential integration” of the diverse (religious and secular) cultures of humanity. As someone born and reared as a Christian, my intellectual development has taken the form of monotheist<nontheist<pantheist. However, I also retain a fascination with neo-paganism and Buddhism, which I have yet to integrate into my developmental analysis. Over time, I hope to continue working on the incompleteness of my approach.


1st Responder: If religion is defeasible because it is a merely human the product of ‘relational drives’, then it would seem that, a forteriori, any notion of reality that emerges from amidst human relations to be projected upon the world must be defeasible. However, since this very naturalistic critique of religion is, in some sense, a product of human relations and is no less projected upon the world, then so must this naturalistic critique, which aims to defeat religion, defeat itself in the critical endeavor. Since this criticism is self-defeating it amounts to no criticism at all. How, to the contrary, might we imagine that we can we know that “the projection of these drives onto the natural world” in religion to be more than merely a projection, and, for this reason, not equally defeasible?


I would not use the term “defeasible” but rather hold that religion is not fixed nor static, but dynamic and open to new truth. The split between nature and supernature was premised upon ignorance, not actual verifiable knowledge of nature.

One common form of dogmatic theology holds that only divine revelation is absolutely true. Human knowledge is viewed as hopelessly fallible, since it cannot penetrate to eternal truth. However, for those who hold to a more naturalistic worldview, science has been steadily increasing our knowledge of the world over time, and indeed, it has done so far more successfully than any previous model of truth-discovery.

However, science is inherently incomplete, since it relies on abstract intellectual knowledge, and has no basis for integrating all knowledge within a unified worldview that contains a great deal that is not abstractly factual, such as love and the arts. Religion in its pre-modern form tried to integrate all truth, arts, and ethics into one whole. We moderns accept that this task can never be completed in any single lifetime, but can only be advanced as each person contributes their distinct experience to the advancement of the whole.

It is possible that all our naturalistic knowledge might just be the dim perceptions of a brute animal. However, if that is one’s view of human knowledge then how do the dictates of revelation, which are themselves produced by talking apes, hope to claim to be a divine exception?


REBLOG: All Roads Lead to Communism, or None Do: Theses on Marxism & Intersectionality

[Reposting from Disloyal Opposition to Modernity here.]

(The following is my response to the “Exiting the Vampire Castle” controversy on The North Star webzine about tensions between Marxism, intersectionality, and left politics.)

1) Communism is the goal of ending human domination, exploitation, oppression, and repression in a world of abundance, justice, and harmony among all living beings. Therefore, the practical subject for revolutionary analyses are the social systems that perpetuate and extend systemic suffering for living beings. It is proposed based on careful study of social science and left-wing political theory that the basic categories of human social systems are eightfold:






Martial Systems (institutional use of coercion)



2) No single one of the above social systems is independent or dominant over all others.

3) Revolutionary analysis identifies institutional structures that perpetuate systemic suffering and propose political collective mobilizations to overturn these structures and replace them with emancipatory new systems and institutions.

4) Revolutionary analysis considers the objective collective systems to be the primary focus of activist mobilization and engagement. It is also engaged with collective cultural aspects of these institutional systems. It considers interpersonal and personal subjective behaviors and attitudes of subordinate importance, though not entirely unimportant.

5) By identifying eight interdependent social systems, an adequate revolutionary analysis cannot advance communist goals by minimizing the objective importance of any of the social systems. A “revolutionary” change in one or a few aspects of these social systems without attempting broad changes in all of them will leave the new institutions vulnerable to counter-revolutionary mobilization from one of the unrevolutionized social systems.

For example, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 did indeed radically change the political, religious, and economic character of Russia, but it at best merely reformed systems of cultural, gender, martial, ecological, and ethnic domination and oppression, which formed the basis for the counter-revolutions against communism from within Russia and the Soviet Union.

6) There are important aspects of Marxism, feminism, anti-racism, radical democracy, pacifism, sex radicalism, progressive religion/irreligion, and environmentalism that must be applied to revolutionary analysis to better equip radicals to overturn the systems that dominate our world. Posing irreconcilable oppositions between feminism and Marxism or any of these important approaches to social criticism is to betray the revolutionary movement from the very start.

REBLOG: Killing the Capitalist God: Gospel Communism and the Death of God

[Reposting from Disloyal Opposition to Modernity originally here.]

It has long seemed quite strange to me that so many atheists find Nietzsche’s assertion of the death of God attractive. God doesn’t exist at all for atheists, his “death” can only be at most the death of the theism of some part of humanity.  Perhaps a historical point can be made about the passing of a specific era of religiosity in Europe at the time of Nietzsche.

Beginning in the 60s, Nietzsche’s ideas got re-deployed by theologians, no less, or rather, atheologians. Thomas J. J. Altizer declared the “Gospel of Christian Atheism” which asserted the historical death of God in the event of the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus. Today, Slavoj Žižek has produced his own Lacanian spin on this mostly forgotten theological fad.

On the contrary, God (as theism) never died for a substantial portion of modern society. God was redesigned, certainly, by the course of Western history. God today has become the ultimate capitalist, a Heavenly Boss who punishes the lazy and hedonists with poverty and war. Working-class Christians in the US have been lavishly courted by the ruling class into a New Religious Right with showers of campaign donations promising to end the sinfulness of society by reactionary economic discipline.

 As a Pentecostal preacher’s kid, I somehow got deformed and alienated against the New Right. Jesus was always to me a hippie, a communist, a peacenik, and a rock star. I held the orthodox doctrines as long as I could, up to my mid-30s. I can still wax eloquent about the wonders of Trinitarian mysticism and the infinite glories of being resurrected in the New Jerusalem. While still a believer I argued obsessively that Jesus was a revolutionary, a radical who prophesied the destruction of the ruling class and the victory of perfect love over the earth. And, I could show how such a theology came straight out of the biblical texts themselves. Despite their putative belief in inerrancy, most Christians today don’t follow the teachings of Jesus on wealth, but rather those of John Calvin.

One of the most puzzling mysteries of the modern world is how followers of Jesus can be such willing propagandists for the inhuman system of capitalism and tyranny under which we slave daily. Why aren’t there Christian Socialist Clubs in every church? Jesus denounced wealth and possessions in no uncertain terms. How can anyone read the gospels with an open eye and not understand that the one they call Christ and Savior is the enemy of the system of commodity production and wage labor?

If we turn from the deformed condition of Christianity to the condition of “Actually Existing Socialists” we don’t find a pretty picture there either. Although most potential proletarians in our society today are Christians, often fervently so, card-carrying socialists are nearly all deeply hostile to Christianity. Today’s socialists take the New Atheists as their models for religious criticism, not the more nuanced approach taken by Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg. My favorite quote from Rosa’s classic Socialism and the Churches reads:

In conformity with the material position of the men belonging to this [Roman proletarian] class, the first Christians put forward the demand for property in common – communism. What could be more natural? The people lacked means of subsistence and were dying of poverty. A religion which defended the people demanded that the rich should share with the poor the riches which ought to belong to all and not to a handful of privileged people; a religion which preached the equality of all men would have great success.

My experience trying to discuss Christian Communism with left-wing atheists has been quite dispiriting over the years. The business class holds massive fund-raisers courting preachers and laypersons to their causes, but except for the largely defunct religious socialism commissions of DSA and the SPUSA, there is no effort to appeal to Christians on the basis of their most fervent passion, following Jesus.

Some have accused me of cynicism when I propose a religious left as a necessary element of a revitalized left politics in the US. Since I personally no longer hold an orthodox theology, they assume that I want socialists to lie to Christians when we invite them eagerly into our ranks. Not at all, what I want Socialists and Communists and Anarchists to do is listen respectfully to the faith of these working-class followers of Jesus. Ask them why they don’t take their own gospel teachings about poverty literally.

There is no hope of ever overthrowing capitalism in the US unless we kill the Capitalist God who reigns in American Christianity. We can only kill that satanic inversion of the Father of Jesus if the Christians do that from their own convictions. I am proposing a mutual collaboration between the brilliant atheists in the socialist movement with the disheartened Christians who are daily coming to question the heresy of the Christian Right. We need each other.

We need each other not because Christians are potentially a massive pool of allies and activists, though they are indeed such. They are necessary for the revitalization of Communism as the universal vision of world emancipation. Every religion has its earthly paradise that it promises the faithful. These paradisiacal visions are the seedbed for the utopian mindset from which radical politics sprung. Communism comes from humanity’s total history, not from the mind of one philosopher named Karl in the mid-1800s! Reclaiming the communist teachings of Jesus and his early followers means reclaiming an essential part of communism’s historical development.

Communism’s axiom, from each according to ability, to each according to need is the economic corollary to the Golden Rule, do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Although many leftists like to praise the achievements of modernity and seem to forget all the blood, sweat, and toil of humanity before the onset of capitalism, in fact, communism springs quite logically from the nature of humanity and our highest values. Although Karl Marx did banish Hermann Kriege’s “Communism of Love” from his organization, it seems in the aftermath of Stalinism that Communism needs to restore its reputation as humanizing vision with affirmative principles of human mutuality. Who better to be a symbol of such a kinder, gentler communism than the Good Shepherd, Jesus of Nazareth?

REBLOG: Communism is the Truth that Fulfills All Truths: Why Christians and Atheists (& Muslims, Hindus, Etc) Will Someday Reach the Same Destination

[I'm in the process of consolidating all my blog posts under two pages, Radical Progress and Radical Righteous Love. Here is a blog I originally wrote for Disloyal Opposition to Modernity.]

from Plato onwards, Communism is the only political Idea worthy of a philosopher. – Alain Badiou

Reading this line from Badiou a few years ago pushed me over a hesitation to embrace the word “communism” in a full-throated sense. I wrote an essay not long after this point on Plato’s Republic where I explored how Plato connected the ability of his ideal city’s guardians to achieve justice to their having forsaken private property. In fact, re-reading Book V last night only confirmed for me what Badiou is saying, that Communism is the fulfillment of political rationality. If Plato’s philosophy of ideal justice requires communism in this sense, I hold that a profound truth has escaped the notice of many in our time, including advocates of Marxism. That truth is that communism does not belong to Marx and his successors, but to humanity as a whole.

Marxists often want to define just how communism will be brought into being. They have a theory of the proletariat revolution led by a Communist Party. The leadership of the Communist Party is composed of the advanced activists and theorists who correctly understand the necessary path to take towards Communism. Of course, history is littered with the failures of Communist governments. It isn’t adequate to slap a label on your philosophy and call it Communism. Communism does not belong to Marxists, but to humanity.

If communism is as old as Greek philosophy – actually older – then is it so surprising that it also makes an appearance in the most popular world religion, Christianity? The gospels are only comprehensible as a communist event with a vision of a classless society at their core. The Book of Acts presents the “Jerusalem Commune” where the followers of Jesus set up a system of wealth redistribution among the members of their new movement.

I am not arguing that Communists should become Christians, by no means. I am contending that Communists, whether atheist or Christian, have a common heritage that is older than Karl Marx. I am contending that Communism’s central axiom, “from each according to ability, from each according to need” is rooted in universal human relationships. Every healthy nuclear family operates as a commune. In “primitive communism” sharing was simple and direct exchange. It is the ruling classes throughout human history who have rejected this basic relational ethos and imposed class domination on the majority of all societies.

The rebirth of Communism in our times will not fall into the classic divides of the left of Marxist vs. Anarchist vs. Religious communists. In our post-secular world, communism is only possible with an inclusive alliance of Atheists, Christians, Muslims, and others.

Or, communism may fail to be achieved. Humanity may be forever trapped in an undesirable system of class domination. Many science fiction dystopias paint such a picture. I am an optimist, but I am not a fatalist. Humanity could fail to fulfill its own potential. That will be tragic, indeed. But, even such a failure does not prove that Communism was not the true fulfillment of humanity’s potential.

Onward Christian Soldiers: Political and Religious Dynamics of the US Civil War Era

“Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ….” Paul’s Epistle to the Church at Ephesus

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s Epistle to the Church at Galatia

Politics in the United States of America predictably falls into an all-too familiar opposition between conservative and progressive causes. Champions of a former era of lost grandeur fill the ranks of the Republican Party and its rightist milieu. Advocates of a better future for all by correcting the injustices of the past and present tend to support the Democratic Party or other elements of a leftist social terrain. American religion divides along similar lines with Evangelical, Catholic, Jewish, and other conservatives facing off against “liberals and leftists” both religious and secular. This bifurcation is ultimately an over- simplification as anyone familiar with the further reaches of both the American far left and far right can attest, as well as the existence of a persisting “centrist” or moderate constituency, who play a key role as “undecided voters.” The enduring strength of this polarization nevertheless has deep historical roots within U.S. institutions. The bloodiest conflict over these sharply opposed politics was the Civil War of the 1860s. The broad social upheaval of the 1960s echoed much of that earlier era’s catastrophic warfare with issues of race, war, and economics triggering a multi-systemic crisis that touched upon seemingly disparate domains such as gender, sexuality, and perhaps most broadly, the relation of humanity to the earth itself as a new ecological consciousness developed. Even today, the divide in US politics between left and right falls along lines that were most vividly drawn in the Civil War era.

That this polarity is fundamentally tied up with religion is less well understood. Our exploration will examine the conflicts within and around religious life that permeated the Civil War. Of all modern industrial nations, the United States of America has one of the highest levels of religious identification. Opinion polls routinely find that over 90% of the populace believe in God or a Universal Spirit. Church membership statistics and attendance at religious services are remarkably high compared to other similar nations. Surveys also find that a significant correlation exists between degree of religious adherence and identification with a conservative political agenda. This close connection is not a recent phenomena and as our study will find, much of the contemporary American religious and political landscape was profoundly shaped by the Civil War and the wider social context of that era.

As religious historian Mark A. Noll documents, religion and politics in the Civil War period were tightly interconnected. He writes,

“…the evangelical Protestantism that dominated public life at midcentury had gained its place because it successfully clothed the Christian faith in the preeminent ideological dress of the new Republic. In particular, it had vivified, ennobled, and lent transcendent value to republican political assumptions, democratic convictions about social organization, scientific reasoning pitched to common sense, and belief in the unique, providential destiny of the United States.”

Noll highlights in particular four features of the dominant US Protestant tradition that were departures from the Christian nations of Europe: Anti-traditionalism, Republicanism, an emphasis on written instruments of government, and an ideological evolution in the doctrine of original sin’s effects on human virtue. Anti-traditionalism in Christian thought grew out of developments following the Protestant Reformation in which private interpretation of religious doctrines and texts were elevated over the past pronouncement of Church authorities. While continental Catholics and Protestants emphasized the authority of tradition as a bulwark of theological orthodoxy, US Protestantism became dominated – after the Revolution of 1776 and the adoption of the federal Constitution’s disestablishment of all churches – by a counter-tradition that rejected such a view of authority. The largest denominations at the time of the Civil War were Baptists, Methodists, Restorationists, and Presbyterians, which had substantive anti-traditional orientations. These bodies grew exponentially between 1790 and 1860. This contrasts with much slower growth among the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.

This rejection of tradition generated in the US context a greater anti-intellectualism than was found in Europe. Particularly in proslavery churches, the Bible was regarded as literally true and if the Bible had a single reference to slavery as a positive good, such passages were considered as eternal truths needing no interpretation by Biblical scholars. In contrast, Catholic and Protestant Europeans deployed far more complex hermeneutics that drew on history, tradition, and formal learning. This resistance to critical thinking accounts for some of the difference between European and Canadian efforts at abolition among Christians. Their respect for tradition and scholarship allowed for a more deliberative and gradual approach to the abolition of slavery in England, Canada, and other European nations. The rigid anti-intellectualism of Southern slaveholding culture elevated the political stakes into a fundamental question of religious fidelity which made the recourse to armed warfare much more unavoidable in the US. The proverbial unmovable object met an irresistible force.

However, the story isn’t so simple as Bible-thumpers on one side opposing apostates and unbelievers. Many Christians did join the abolitionist cause and cited Holy Writ as their justification. One familiar interpretive tactic was to draw a line between the Old and New Testaments, with the latter held up as a gospel of peace, charity, and freedom and the latter as a violent record of human sin and ignorance. The cause of abolition was undoubtedly aided in the Northern States by successful antislavery legislative victories in England, the struggle for which had produced a bold and sophisticated Christian theology of abolition especially in the writings of William Wilberforce. His writings fairly bristle with piety and conviction:

“Is it not the great end of religion, and, in particular, the glory of Christianity, to extinguish the malignant passions; to curb the violence, to control the appetites, and to smooth the asperities of man; to make us compassionate and kind, and forgiving one to another; to make us good husbands, good fathers, good friends; and to render us active and useful in the discharge of the relative social and civil duties?”

In contrast, the works of the leading abolitionist in the US, William Lloyd Garrison, adopted a more critical stance towards religion:

“To say that everything in the bible is to be believed , simply because it is found in that volume, is equally absurd and pernicious… To discard a portion of scripture is not necessarily to reject the truth, but may be the highest evidence that one can give of his love of truth.”

From the proslavery perspective, Garrison’s views enabled his opponents to stand their ground on a source of authority that was widely regarded as above all human reasoning about “the truth.” That American Christianity was in many respects even more authoritarian than its Continental counterpart is one of the social ironies of modern history. The US Baptist tradition in particular incorporated into its foundational narratives stories of persecution in Europe driving sincere, simple, and faithful believers out of an apostate society into a divinely “promised land.” This desire to worship and obey God free from human traditions and institutions was also part of the founding ideals of Quaker and Puritan colonists, though Quakers came to abolitionism over a century before the Civil War. That the quest for religious and civil freedom could be appropriated into a religious defense of brutal enslavement of African human beings boggles the modern mind.

A key aspect of the power of proslavery biblicism was the widespread reliance on a single translation of the Bible by most preachers and lay Christians, the King James Version (hereafter KJV) published in 1611 which became the standard text throughout the English-speaking world. When opponents of slavery attempted to formulate careful arguments based on a historical analysis of ancient practices that were called “slavery” in the KJV, their arguments rang hollow in the anti-intellectual culture of much of American Christianity. Again, a great historical irony is that a translation created under the auspices of one of the same European governments that were demonized in standard American narratives of State-Church persecutions became the standard translation used by anti-intellectual church leaders and believers to defend an authoritarian institution.

A deeper cultural factor plays into this milieu of biblicism when considered from the standpoint of Marshall McLuhan’s theories of mass communication, notably his “Gutenberg Galaxy” hypothesis. The printing of books as a mass reproduction of ideas and language produces a shift in human culture that McLuhan characterizes thus, “Print created national uniformity and government centralism, but also individualism and opposition to government as such.” Further, “The invention of typography confirmed and extended the new visual stress of applied knowledge, providing the first uniformly repeatable ‘commodity,’ the first assembly-line, and the first mass-production.” And, “Print, in turning the vernaculars into mass media, or closed systems, created the uniform, centralizing forces of modern nationalism.”

McLuhan’s theory provides a lens on the biblicism of the proslavery culture. Bibles had become the most easily accessible books in the US than in any prior society and given the dominant theological view that these texts were infallible and inerrant, these portable objects became an external authority that stood over against the private opinions of “sinful men” and “human reason.” One could discover what God’s eternal view on any subject was by consulting this book. Such intense emotional investment in an external object calls to mind Freudian theories about the super-ego. Freud postulated that as a child grows to fear the punishment of its parents for its misbehaviors, it begins developing an internal system of self-protection that can turn into a toxic internal critic. The fear of punishment from an external authority is turned into an internal self-punisher. In the cases of exceptionally troubled personalities, an external object can be invested with this authority to punish, most notably a religious ideal, whether embodied in priests or a sacred inviolable text.

Tying Freud’s superego theory to McLuhan’s Gutenberg hypothesis leads us to another element in Mark Noll’s analysis of the religious culture of Civil War America, that of an emphasis on written instruments of government. The US Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights assumed the character of infallible documents in the popular mindset, much as the Bible itself. In our time the current debates over the intentions of the “Founding Fathers” seems to carry a similar religious cast of mind as that of the study of scripture for many religious conservatives. Not only could one not challenge the Biblical authors, one could not challenge the august phrases of the American Constitution, least of all the passages that defined slaves as 3/5s of a person!

A further level of analysis is suggested by Karl Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. If the Bible and the American political texts are sacred documents, their mass production as objects of commerce plays into their roles as markers of value.

“[In] the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world … the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.“

If the transformation of human labor, including the labor of writing sacred texts and perpetuating their existence over two millenia from the ancient “cradle of civilization” to deliver them into the hands of millions as the infallible word of God isn’t the perfect example of commodity fetishism, what else could be? This text potentially judges every social interaction with moral rules that are considered timeless. Little wonder that proslavery theology flourished in the South.

However, the Civil War did happen and slavery was forcibly abolished in the entire United States despite the solid support that existed for it in some quarters. This brings us to face one of the unresolved aspects of the Civil War era, the role of racism as a systemic devaluation of human beings based on perceived ethnic membership. The aftermath of the Civil War is characterized by a sustained struggle over the human and civil rights of the newly emancipated slaves. Simply ending the basic institutional forms of slavery did not resolve a whole host of problems that were directly or indirectly connected with that system.

This history of US racism also reveals that to a significant degree, Northern society participated in the dehumanizing practices of segregation, economic discrimination, educational rationing, and excessive police force directed at African-Americans. Despite the overt victory over the slave system, racism lived on.

Cornel West identifies three cultural sources for American racist attitudes, a

“…Judeo-Christian racist logic, which emanates from the biblical account of Ham looking upon and failing to cover his father Noah’s nakedness, thereby provoking divine punishment in the form of blackening his progeny, links racist practices to notions of disrespect for and rejection of authority, to ideas of unruly behavior and chaotic rebellion. The “scientific” racist logic, which promotes the observing, measuring, ordering and comparing of visible physical characteristics of human bodies in light of Greco-Roman aesthetic standards, associates racist practices with bodily ugliness, cultural deficiency and intellectual inferiority. And the psychosexual racist logic endows black people with sexual prowess, views them as either cruel, revengeful fathers, frivolous, carefree children or passive, long-suffering mothers.”

Of course, our analysis to this point has focused on the biblical theology of slavery, but West points to a specific theology of racism that is today quite discredited. The “Curse of Ham” was identified by white Christian racists during the Civil War as black skin. Thus, the oppression of Black persons was merely carrying out the will of God. This viewpoint survives in more subtle fashion among Christians today when the history of the faith is told through a trajectory from Judea to Rome to Germany to England to the USA. Missing from this history are the stories of Egyptian, Ethiopian, and other African forms of Christianity. Africa is religiously characterized as a dark continent of tribal superstitions and Islamic strongholds. Even today one can find Evangelical Christians who reject slavery, yet wonder whether there would be such vibrant American Black Churches without that experience. In an odd twist, this analysis seems to suggest that Blacks are in fact a modern type of the Hebrew slaves in Pharoah’s Egypt.

West’s second source, “scientific” racism is also still present in society, most notoriously in the 1994 publication of Hernnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. They wrote, “It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences.” In the Civil War era, Samuel George Morton theorized that it was possible to judge intelligence by cranial capacity. Many prominent Western intellectuals held perhaps less crude, but nevertheless comparably racist ideas of biological inferiority.

The final form of racist logic West identifies is both highly suggestive, but also perhaps more difficult to establish as true. Earlier, this field was hinted at in the brief remarks on Freud and the superego. West elaborates,

“… psychosexual racist logic endows black people with sexual prowess, views them as either cruel, revengeful fathers, frivolous, carefree children or passive, long-suffering mothers. This logic—rooted in Western sexual discourses about feces and odious smells—relates racist practices to bodily defecation, violation and subordination, thereby relegating black people to walking abstractions, lustful creatures or invisible objects. All three white-supremacist logics view black people, like death and dirt, as Other and Alien.”

To return to the Civil War era, Mark Noll notes that while proslavery biblicists were quite willing to defend slavery as divinely ordained, they were unwilling to consider that slavery might be an appropriate system to apply to whites. This discriminatory aspect of US slaveholding is very likely the critical flaw that spelled the end of favoring slavery in Northern states. The rise of industrial production and capitalist waged labor produced an enormous demand for hourly workers in a variety of growing businesses. Slave labor simply had very little utility in an industrial economy.

    The growth of capitalist industry carried with it new conceptions of individualism that weakened the racist assumptions of American society, though subsequent history proved that they never fully disappeared. The calculating logic of modernizing society was ultimately incompatible with slavery.

“America’s Most Segregated City” Revisited

Pierre Devise loved to ride his bicycle around his adopted home city of Chicago. He often would ride to the Chicago Tribune newsroom to deliver his latest research findings on urban problems. As a professor of sociology at both the University of Chicago and Roosevelt University at different points during his career, Devise had earned the reputation of being a gadfly on the pragmatic rump of Chicago city planners. Decried by the infamous Mayor Richard M. Daley as “a man not fit to teach,” Devise first came to prominence in 1967 with a published study, “Chicago’s Widening Color Gap,” that established his reputation for critical analysis of the city’s racial divide.

Today, Chicago continues to be the “most segregated city in America,” a label arising from Devise’s research, though there have also been significant shifts in this gloomy picture. In their 2012 study, The End of the Segregated Century: Racial Separation in America’s Neighborhoods, researchers EdwardGlaeser and Jacob Vigdor concluded that, “Over the last decade, Chicago had the second-largest declines in dissimilarity and isolation among [the nation’s top ten urban areas].” The two criterion studied here are labeled dissimilarity and isolation. Dissimilarity is measured in terms of how many individuals of the racial groups being studied would need to move into a neighborhood to attain equal residency levels for both groups. For example, a neighborhood of 200 persons with 150 white residents and 50 black residents would have a low dissimilarity ranking, as the large majority were from one racial group. Racial isolation indices measure the tendency for members of racial groups to live in neighborhoods where their race is the majority. Given that Chicago has long had a sharply “super-segregated” (another Devise characterization) landscape, its improvement in the 2000-2010 period is merely one small step in a century-and-a-half-long uphill climb.

Chicago’s racial problems precede the founding of the city itself. The area now known as Chicago was inhabited by several Algonquian native groups at the time traders and missionaries of European descent began to enter the region in the 17th century. The Algonquins were first displaced by the Pottawatami who had been driven west by European settlement, and then the Pottawatami were displaced altogether by Europeans by the 1840s. The first permanent non-Native American settler was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a Black Frenchman generally considered to be of Afro-Caribbean heritage. Du Sable lived near the Chicago River from some point in the 1780s until the turn of the 19th century when he moved to Missouri. While it is a point of pride for Chicago to claim a Black man as its first resident, the modern city we know wasn’t formally identified until 1830.

The 19th century was a period of intense racial conflict centered on the Southern US slave system. While Chicago did follow the industrial path of most Northern cities in rejecting slavery, it also missed its opportunity to become a racially integrated metropolis. Despite passing anti-discrimination legislation in the period before and after the Civil War, the early 20th century saw the rise of a post-slavery system of racial segregation in many Northern cities, and Chicago often lead the way.

An early watershed in Chicago race relations was the five-day long Chicago Race Riot of 1919 which began when a black man, Eugene Williams, accidentally swam too close to a segregated beach on Lake Michigan. He was pelted by rocks from a white man, according to witnesses, and Williams drowned during his attempt to escape the attack. The Chicago Police did not arrest the rock-thrower, but rather a black Chicagoan accused of violating a minor ordinance by whites at the beach. In the aftermath, Irish gangs clashed with outraged blacks and ultimately the National Guard were called in to quell the violence after dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. No whites were ever convicted of any wrongdoing.

In 1920, landlords and realtors in Chicago began using racially restrictive covenants to prevent Blacks from owning property in white neighborhoods, eventually legally segregating 80% of Chicago real estate from African-American residency or other uses. The notorious “Black Belt” of Chicago formed during the “Great Migration” of 1910-1930 as hundreds of thousands of Blacks moved from Southern states to escape Jim Crow discrimination and find work in the rapidly expanding job market. Of course, the racism that greeted those hopeful enough to migrate quickly demonstrated that white supremacy was no stranger to the urban north. Continuing immigration waves from European nations resulted in fierce competition for jobs, and whites usually won.

The Black Belt was anchored at its northern end by housing abandoned by upwardly mobile European immigrants and their descendants to be taken over by slumlords who barely maintained their properties. Overcrowding and poverty became the norm. As some Blacks did struggle into higher income brackets, a southern extension of the Black Belt developed to contain markedly better housing and businesses catering to Blacks. Chicago became known as the “capital of Black America” as, even under conditions of extreme racism and segregation, a community identity formed dedicated to struggle and improving their life conditions. The promise of such efforts make the subsequent history of racial suffering even more tragic, as even today most of the Chicago area’s Black residents live in areas with higher levels of crime and poverty.

One might have expected the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s to have improved the conditions of Black Chicagoans, but the results are decidedly mixed. A proposal to create subsidized housing in areas outside the Black Belt met with fierce political opposition and resulted in the creation of the city’s notorious “housing projects,” essentially high-rise ghettos that deteriorated over time from neglect and abuse by the city’s power structure. While many Blacks were able to take advantage of expanded opportunities under affirmative action legislation, the majority of Chicago’s blacks did not benefit. Limited improvements in housing access were created during this period and the resulting slow exodus of some residents from the Black Belt did begin a glacial shift to better situations reflected in the small yet significant difference in racial segregation in the recent census data. Nevertheless, the continuing barriers and divides between blacks and whites in Chicago still call for a grim determination to fight against enormous odds.

The consequences of segregation are manifold and not limited to housing and employment challenges. The higher incidence of criminal activity in majority black neighborhoods arises from not only the obvious negative incentives of poverty, but also from the malign neglect of police and other city authorities. Why call the police to track down criminal offenders when they either do not come at all or only come to make perfunctory attempts to address the incidents?

Segregation also coincides with substandard educational opportunities. Given historic discrimination against Blacks in higher education, very few teachers are willing to take on the daunting task of educating children raised in the harsh conditions of Chicago’s Black Belt. The reliance of education funding on property taxes guarantee that schools in impoverished districts will be chronically underfunded for decades to come without effective reforms.

The pervasive negative incentives to crime coupled with substandard education have fostered an unofficial, but highly effective, “school-to-prison-pipeline.” To combat crime, public schools in segregated areas are subjected to harsh security regimes including random locker searches, metal detectors at entrances, and “zero-tolerance” policies that result in funneling a high number of Black youth into the juvenile, and eventually, adult criminal justice system. Blacks are more likely to be convicted of crimes due to ineffective public defenders and the biases of white judges and juries. More Black men are in the prison system than in college-level educational institutions. While these problems exist across the US, in Chicago we find an unusually high concentration of these systemic issues.

A lesser-known consequence of segregation has been dubbed “environmental racism.” The rise of middle-class “green” consciousness has spawned a “not in my back yard” (NIMBY) attitude among more affluent neighborhoods towards factories and other toxin-producing facilities. The lack of real political power in Black neighborhoods has resulted in a markedly high level of toxic pollutants in the air, water, and ground of many of these neighborhoods. Altgeld Gardens, one of the first Chicago housing projects, was built on a landfill area ringed by dozens of industrial sites of toxic pollution and several other city landfills. Altgeld Gardens has the dubious distinction of being one of the last remaining of the city’s public housing projects and a new generation is being raised exposed to its toxic environment.

And yet, segregation has declined overall in the US, and even Chicago is not untouched by these trends. Building on the open housing, school desegregation, and other gains of the Civil Rights era, a slowly emerging system of paths across racial barriers has taken shape and borne fruit in the last two decades especially. In Chicago, the demolition of most of the housing projects have dispersed some areas of high segregation. Significant numbers of Blacks have moved out of the city into neighboring suburbs, or moved to Southern cities with surprisingly less rigid barriers to open housing. Glaeser and Vigdor document that out of every 200 US neighborhoods, only one maintained an all-white populace in 2010 and these are mostly in areas isolated from Black migrations patterns in the 20th century. Also, the intensely segregated neighborhoods populated by Black residents have begun to depopulate, and gentrification has enticed many whites to take a chance at urban living in much closer proximity to Blacks than ever before.

Nevertheless, some of the gains made in recent decades seem to be in peril as the political climate of the US shifts against some of the initiatives that made the limited progress gained possible. Affirmative action programs are now often made the target of political attack. Some states have ended affirmative action practices altogether and Illinois is not immune to such political pressures. Despite the advances made in the past two decades, we are far from a situation in which race is an irrelevant factor in housing or hiring practices.

College admissions are also directly impacted by the affirmative action debate. Chicago-area universities and colleges are still visibly stratified by race, with the City College system taking up the slack when restrictive admissions practices keep promising students out of mainstream higher education. Taking into account the continuing degraded condition of majority Black public schools, redressing such injustices is simply a matter of common fairness.

And, public school reform is still a far-off dream. Decades of Local School Councils, Selective Enrollment, and Charter Schools have not produced a general improvement in the educational opportunities for the majority of Black Chicagoans. Ending the system of property tax funding is a key plank of undoing the biased system of education that currently exists.

In the face of the school-to-prison-pipeline, sweeping reforms of the criminal justice system are a fundamental need in the struggle against racial inequity. Blacks are more likely to be convicted and serve longer prison terms than whites, and this is no less true in the Chicago area. Beefing up the public defender system, increasing systems of police accountability, and decriminalizing the sale and use of marijuana would massively decrease the likelihood of prison terms for thousands.

Chicago is a city that belongs to all white and black residents, as well as Latino, Asian, and other ethnic groups. Defeating the remnants of white supremacy in our city would make the city a more wonderful place for all who live there.


Arnold Richard Hirsch. Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960. Univ. of Chicago Pr., 1998.

Devise, Pierre. “Chicago’s Widening Color Gap.” Reports of the Interuniversity Social Research Committee 2 (1967).

Drake, Saint Clair, and Horace R. Cayton. Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

Glaeser, Edward, & Vigdor, Jacob. The End of the Segregated Century: Racial Separation in America’s Neighborhoods, 1890-2010. Manhattan Institute, 2012.

Grossman, Ron. “Pierre DeVise (1924 – 2004): Urban Sociologist Gave Life to Studies.” Chicago Tribune 27 May 2004.

State-Building In Africa: An Attempt at a Critical Survey of the Problems



A superficial comparison of the political regimes of African and European nations in terms of “strong”, “weak”, and “failed” states conventionally places most European states in the strong category, with many African states falling into the weak and failed category. This general schema has been developed by Jeffrey Herbst, among others, through decades of political science publications since 1986. Herbst is well-known for proposing that a fundamental reason for weak and failed states in Africa is the absence of a history of inter-state warfare, which Herbst points out was not the case in Europe. European states fought each other directly for centuries and developed enduring state organizations that are effective in taxation, governance, and military readiness. Herbst’s 1990 article “War & the State in Africa” summarizes the case:

“War in Europe played an important role in the consolidation of many now-developed states: war caused the state to become more efficient in revenue collection; it forced leaders to dramatically improve administrative capabilities; it created a climate and important symbols around which a disparate population could unify. While there is little reason to believe that war would have exactly same domestic effects in Africa today as it did in Europe several centuries ago, it is important ask if developing countries can accomplish in times of peace what war enabled European countries to do. I conclude that they probably cannot because fundamental changes in economic structures and societal beliefs are difficult, if not impossible, to bring about when countries are not being disrupted or under severe external threat.

“I conclude that some [African] states will probably be unsuccessful in finding ways of building the state in times of peace and will therefore remain permanently weak. Accordingly, the international community will have to develop non-traditional policies for helping a new brand of states: those that will continue to exist but that will not develop. Other states, perceiving that peace locks them into a permanently weak position, may be tempted to use war as a means of resolving their otherwise intractable problems of state consolidation.”

In sum, a lack of inter-state warfare in Africa has led to weakened development of the political states on that continent and Herbst’s prognosis is that most states in Africa will remain weak or failed. However, a very different perspective is suggested by a critical knowledge of the shared history of Europe and Africa, that of the colonial exploitation of Africa by European states in partnership with the United States of America. That Herbst does not seem to consider this history strongly relevant – though he acknowledges it – is startling, given the centuries of political struggle within his homeland of the USA against the racial oppression of enslaved Africans and their descendants. The US economic and political system from well before its founding in 1776 up to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was profoundly enmeshed in the Trans-Atlantic system of slavery. Similarly, the growth of European political states was likewise enmeshed in the slave trade and an even more direct colonial domination of the continent’s people groups. To state the alternative premise as a leading question, perhaps the “strength” of European versus African states was deliberately intended by those European and their allied states?

This “postcolonial” perspective on African politics has been developed by many analysts, such as Pal Ahluwalia, who has labeled the perspective articulated by Herbst and similar theorists as “Afro-Pessimism.” He summarizes his critique in his 2001 book, Politics and Post-Colonial Theory: African Inflections as follows:

The ascendancy of Afro-pessimism … has a tendency to homogenise the ‘African tragedy’, concluding that Africa has neither the political will nor the capacity to deal with its problems. The African condition, it is claimed, is largely of Africa’s own making, and therefore there is little or no hope for improvement. Afro-pessimism resonates in metropolitan centres where, in the aftermath of the Cold War, both former colonial powers and the United States are seeking ways to disengage themselves from Africa. This is a convenient way for the West to wash its hands of a problem that is largely of its making. Since at least the fifteenth century, Africa has been raped and plundered, first through the slave trade and then by formal colonisation. The assertion that Africa has gained full independence and that the transfer of power from coloniser to colonised is complete is one that is challenged by the post-colonial approach of this book.

Herbst intends his theory to suggest possible directions that African nations might pursue towards creating stronger states, drawing lessons from European history. On the alternative premise, if the formation of strong states in Europe was bound up with the domination of Africa, does this suggest that Africa should now turn north and seek to dominate Europe? Recent clashes within Europe between populations of African immigrants and authorities of those exemplary “strong states” of Europe suggest that warfare is being carried on by other more social means, perhaps? Various radical movements and uprisings in Africa over the centuries suggest that Africans haven’t been as passive in state-building as Herbst implicitly projects, but that they have been outgunned by forces that intentionally prevented their success? As much as Herbst might imagine that the histories of Europe and Africa were separable like so many petri dishes in which isolated organisms grow, cross-contamination is systemic and ineradicable when pursuing the messy business of human politics. Political science is ultimately also politics, by other means.

As another pole of analysis, the work of Paul Collier in his book The Bottom Billion (2008) will be examined. Collier might be considered a more hopeful “Afro-Realist” contrasted to Herbst’s Afro-pessimism, though not an optimist. Collier identifies four “traps” that he argues keep African nations in the world’s “bottom billion” from improving their economic development. These 4 traps are “Conflict,” “Natural Resources,” “Landlocked with Bad Neighbors,” and “Bad Governance in a Small State.”  Thus, the core of the analysis undertaken from this point will move through contrasting and comparing the claims of Herbst, Ahluwalia, and Collier. The goal of the analysis will be to critically evaluate state-building as a proposed solution to the well-known – albeit less well truly understood – problems of African societies.


The European Model: Herbst

Herbst identifies two features of European political development that are missing in Africa prior to the arrival of European colonizers, effective taxation and nationalism. Both of these political characteristics were propelled into effectiveness by inter-state warfare. Herbst (1990)  writes of European state taxation,

The permanent requirement to mobilize human and material resources for military purposes [i.e., taxation] intensified tendencies toward the monopolization of power and the elaboration of auxiliary institutions of social control.

On nationalism he writes,

In Europe there was an almost symbiotic relationship between the state’s extractive capacity and nationalism: war increased both as the population was convinced by external threat that they should pay more to the state, and as, at the same time, the population united around common symbols and memories that were important components of nationalism.

In contrast, Herbst (1990) characterizes the typical African government’s taxation practices thus,

Government revenue poses a major problem for all African states and many others in the Third World. These states are desperately short of revenue to fund even minimal state services (e.g., pay nurses’ salaries, buy books for schools, supply transport for agricultural extension services) that their populations have long been promised. In addition to these recurrent costs, Third World countries are in need of more extensive and more efficient tax systems because the process of development requires large expenditures on infrastructure to promote economic activity throughout the country and to handle the ramifications of development, especially the large expenses incurred by urbanizing countries.

Herbst connects this endemic poverty of African states with their lack of inter-state warfare. In other words, if African governments don’t ramp up to militarily seize power in other nations, they will be doomed to poverty and failure. Herbst notes that most inter-state military actions in Africa since independence have been carried out to preserve social order in troubled nations, and routinely act to preserve colonial borders. To the contrary, annexation played a strong role in European political developments as more successful states toppled foreign governments and annexed their territories. While Herbst hesitates to actually advocate wide-scale inter-state warfare and annexation by strong African governments of weaker nations, his logic makes it hard to reach any other conclusion.

However, approaching the comparison of European states with African states by emphasizing colonial incursion makes it clear that Herbst’s approach insufficiently takes into account that European states colonized Africa using military force supported by taxation. European incursions into Africa were conducted to extract resources and export slaves. African national borders established during colonialism were drawn specifically to embody colonial interests, rather than any ethnic or territorial imperatives of African peoples. Existing African societies at the time of colonization often did fight against the European colonizers, to little avail. European military dominance emerged from the history that Herbst considers paradigmatic, but this raises the question of whether such a history is better viewed not as a model, but as a warning? It might be tempting to therefore reject the very project of state-building in Africa as yet a further legacy of colonialism itself. Perhaps Africa can make a radical departure from the political trajectory laid out from its domination by Europe and create a new political developmental path? However, it seems more plausible that Europe and other “strong states” will continue to exert influences on the African situation that will continue to work themselves out only through conflict and struggle.


Postcolonial Critique: Ahluwalia

To explore a different take on the question of African state-building, the work of Ahluwalia (2001) approaches the subject in terms of postcolonial analysis. He begins with the fact that African states are not “native” to Africa, but also not simply European imports.

“…the African state is itself the product of transculturation. The institution of the nation-state is one which has European roots and origins, and one which was introduced into Africa. The state in Africa, however, has been inflected over time. Whilst retaining its linkages to its European past, most clearly manifested in the project of colonisation, the state in Africa is constantly evolving. In short, through the process of hybridisation and transculturation, the African state has been and continues to be inflected locally.”

Ahluwalia situates the question of the state in Africa within a narrative of internal and external challenges. In contrast to Herbst’s approach that artificially isolates the states of Africa and Europe, Ahluwalia emphasizes how continuing “neocolonial” influences frustrate the project of state-building in Africa. For example,

the African state today is entrapped within a discourse of power whereby foreign institutions and agencies map out its future. In this new configuration, it is the World Bank, the IMF and a host of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which determine and dictate fundamental policy. They are, in many respects, the new ‘colonial administrators’.

Ahluwalia also characterizes the problems of the one-party state, failure of African socialism, neopatrimonialism, historic interruption of organic African society, and the demands of a developmental logic in Africa. Although Ahluwalia does not offer a solution or the beginnings of a new “African strategy” in the light of the failures of recent attempts, he clears the ground of some of the problematic assumptions that underlie Herbst’s pessimism.

Ahluwalia (2001) points out how nearly all newly independent African nations adopted a form of one-party state, often at the expense of narrowing the pluralism that actually existed under colonialism. Competition for political power was claimed to not be authentically African. However, the absence of a cohesive national culture in most cases resulted in an artificial unity. Privileged elites within former colonial regimes imposed their visions of what was best for all citizens. A central nexus of institutional power was formed on the remains of colonial administration without robust attempts to enfranchise subordinate sectors of the populace.

One-party states after independence were immediately faced with the economic degradation carried out by colonialism. The economies of Africa had been structured to export their most profitable outputs to foreign markets, leaving very little domestic infrastructure to sustain society after the end of direct colonization. This gave rise to several attempts to create African socialism. Taking lessons from the industrialization of Russia, China, Cuba, and other nations under Communist regimes, African socialist regimes also sought to adapt some of the social democratic institutions of Europe to their situations. The results were meager at best and as an aggressive ideology of free market policies within international finance became dominant, African socialism was systematically starved of resources and suffered a similar fate as the official communist states in the 1990s.

African socialism gave way to what some analysts characterized as neopatrimonial politics. These regimes were less bound by modern ideas of bureaucracy and legal rigor and acted in a more arbitrary manner often using a “strongman” leadership approach. While still a one-party state functionally, neopatrimonial states gave rise in many cases to a “competitive authoritarianism” characterized by high levels of civil violence and obstructive tactics while also utilizing competitive elections. In the worst cases, neopatrimonial states became failed states as warring factions destabilized all political institutions. Ahluwalia recognizes the salience of the neopatrimonial patrimonial accusation, but also considers it insufficient as a useful analysis.

Haunting the persistent struggles of African state politics is the specter of pre-colonial Africa. What might Africa have become had it been not invaded, enslaved, colonized, exploited, and depleted by European and American interruptions of its organic history? The charge of “Western imperialism” hangs over all contemporary attempts by NGOs and Western states to improve the situation in Africa. Some African regimes have turned to a sort of “Black Man’s burden” that aims to reclaim elements of the shattered pre-colonial civilizations as the basis for a new cultural renaissance that is distinctively African. This culturalist approach tends to issue appeals for a mass participation in a project of reclaiming agency as Africans over against Western civilization. Ahluwalia finds this approach suggestive of possible lines of cultural development but not a strongly political solution. Africa is now wholly enmeshed at multiple levels with non-African politics and asserting an organic African identity does not appear promising.

Ahluwalia locates a larger target plaguing African state politics, the global logic of “development.” Herbst’s attempt to compare European and African states suffers from a historical obtuseness that posits nations and states as organic entities that have a sort of biological destiny. His language of weak, strong, and failed states disconnects African states from the actual complexities of history and imposes a sort of medical symptomology on the challenges of African societies. One can almost imagine Dr. Herbst playing doctor with African states, “are you eating enough vegetables and getting enough exercise? You need them to grow into a strong healthy adult.”

Ahluwalia writes,

“As globalisation and cultural imperialism intensify, it is vital for the nation-states of Africa to consider the costs of a modernist project that celebrates economic development above all else. Certainly, tensions already are evident with the assertion of African values, albeit these values are being subsumed rapidly by the development conundrum.”

The post-colonial analysis of Ahluwalia helps immensely to clarify the African situation with a more empathic grasp of the human costs of colonialism and its aftermath, as well as the stakes in the question of African state-building. Herbst’s clinical approach sets European and African in isolation and never takes account of the real humanity they share in common. While political science aims at a clinical objectivity, that objectivity should never become an end in itself. Science is not a holistic human activity, but a practical tool for clarifying the means towards possible attainable ends. The situation of suffering in Africa has been paraded before Western eyes for decades now by mass media and a sort of compassion fatigue has degenerated into a callous disconnect. The challenges Africa faces are devastating, but ultimately human problems, not alien ones. Pessimism may be understandable, but paralyzes effective engagement. Romantic appeals to a lost past don’t get us very far, either. The way forward is difficult and only discernible with patient and honest dedication.

Pragmatic Strategizing: Collier

To flesh out at a more practical level the problems of African statehood, Paul Collier’s work on the “bottom billion” will provide key points for reflection. His “Four Traps” of African development don’t exhaust the challenges that Africa and her allies face in alleviating the suffering of that continent, but one must start somewhere. In contrast to some other proposals, Collier begins with a genuinely sympathetic stance that appeals to basic humanism. He writes,

This problem matters, and not just to the billion people who are living and dying in fourteenth-century conditions. It matters to us. The twenty-first-century world of material comfort, global travel, and economic interdependence will become increasingly vulnerable to these large islands of chaos. And it matters now. As the bottom billion diverges from an increasingly sophisticated world economy, integration will become harder, not easier.

Collier identifies the first trap that constitutes a “black hole” for ending poverty in the bottom billion as “Conflict” which he clarifies goes beyond conventional ever-present conflict. Collier finds that in the bottom billion, civil war is a particularly deadly trap. Civil wars are always costly and often leave legacies of ongoing suffering in their aftermath. In an impoverished nation, civil war is even more devastating than a more prosperous society such as the USA. Civil wars in a poor nation typically reverse any economic progress achieved in the period prior to war. Collier determines that the best opportunity for reversing the civil war’s devastation occurs in the aftermath of the civil war. While typically aid programs spend a few years in a nation after a civil war, Collier argues that at least a decade of extensive aid is necessary to really promote robust development after a civil war in a poor nation. Collier stresses that this massive aid program should not occur too soon and it should not be an influx of money, but rather resources like hospitals, schools, road-building, and other infrastructural projects.

Collier’s next trap is natural resources. Regions with large reserves of oil, precious metals, and similar exports typically fall into a cycle of poverty, which Collier describes as,

… the surplus from natural resource exports significantly reduces growth. Economists term the excess of revenues over all costs including normal profit margins “rent,” and rents seem to be damaging. Over time, countries with large resource discoveries can end up poorer, with the lost growth more than offsetting the one-off gain in income provided by the rents.

Collier proposes that the natural resource trap be addressed by an international charter that sets rules on how both wealthy and poor nations are able to develop and use natural resources. His analysis claims that not only do poor nations with a wealth of oil or metals have problems turning this wealth into a domestically beneficial industry, the wealthy nations have incentives to extract these resources in a manner that exacerbates the negative outcomes. In the context of a growing global concern about climate change, it makes sense to demand international agreements take a hard look at how these natural resources are being developed, exported, and consumed.

The third trap Collier occurs when landlocked nations have bad neighbors. His stand-out example is Uganda whose economic development is deeply stagnated by being landlocked with neighbors that are also struggling to grow their own economies. Uganda cannot export its products easily since it neighbors have little in the way of efficient transport infrastructure to port cities that are key to international export. If a landlocked nation was rich in natural resources, it might escape this problem, since the demand for its exports would subsidize the costs of transport. But if not, stagnation would become endemic.

Collier’s prognosis is that the landlocked trap is largely reinforced by the bad neighbor problem. Until the neighboring nations of the struggling landlocked neighbors reach developmental thresholds sufficient to make interstate transportation infrastructure profitable, these poor nations will need to survive on massive imported aid merely to stem the hunger and destitution of thedr nations. Over time, raising the standard of living incrementally will make larger leaps towards developmental progress possible. If initiated in concert with appropriate aid in the bad neighbor nations aimed at making the changes that will lay the groundwork for addressing the landlocked problem, there is conceivably a future opening to a healthier developmental achievement.

Collier’s final trap is the one that is most directly relevant to the concerns of this paper, “Bad Governance.” This problem is the boogeyman upon which all the problems of Africa are often blamed. If only the people would rise up and create a new regime that was better at bolstering economic development, all would be well. Of course, this is precisely the rub. States, and the reform of bad states, are not created by fiat, nor by ideology alone, but by political forces that obey social logics that are not easily malleable. Collier’s work analyzes the internal problems of failing states and the costs of such failures to economic development. There is an inverse correlation, a weak or corrupt state may very well have little effect on a nation that is on a track of strong economic growth, such as Bangladesh. However, if a nation’s economy is struggling to grow at all, bad governance will nearly always exacerbate the collapsing economic situation.

Collier is quite optimistic about the strategic possibilities of correcting bad governance. He dismisses military intervention citing the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan. He examines nonmilitary aid and reaches the conclusion from case studies that in fact foreign aid to nations struggling with bad governance problems can be quite successful. Collier proposes setting up ex ante conditions upon aid to regimes that encourage public accountability. He sees this approach as the most likely alternative to the European history of inter-state warfare leading to strong states. By tying aid to accountable reforms in public transparency, the people of a struggling nation are given leverage to press for reforms.

Collier also proposes aid in the form of importing governance skills to states in the early stages of a turnaround from a weak or failing condition. Since corrupt regimes have often deformed civil service agencies and driven competent civil servants outside the nation altogether, rebuilding a body of competent civil servants requires a large amount of expertise and training, something which Collier believes aid agencies have done and could do more often quite effectively. He cautions against sending in technical assistance too early in the turnaround period, but soon enough that the window for an effective intervention is still open.

Reading Collier in contrast to Herbst and Ahluwalia emphasizes that Collier is a master of statistical analysis. Whereas Herbst seems stuck in his awe at the power of European political systems, and Ahluwalia spends his energy contesting Eurocentric political biases, Collier basically amasses numbers and tables. The result is that Collier provides the reader with a veritable smorgasbord of reform proposals and strategies. His optimism and sincerity are infectious and, well, charming. While we cannot do without a serious grasp of the historical legacy of European development and the impact of European colonialism on African politics, there seems to be little alternative to simply getting our hands a bit dirty and diving into a robust engagement with the political realities of the “African Tragedy,” a term that Ahluwalia quite rightly despises, but which nevertheless expresses a real truth that lies in the statistics Collier amasses in his focused analysis of the “Bottom Billion.”


Conclusions or More Questions?

Like many of my generation, I was raised on what might be derisively labeled, “famine porn.” We North Americans were children of a privileged society while most of the world languished in poverty and suffering. Some theorists even lay the blame for anorexia nervosa upon the ubiquitous imagery of starving children with distended bellies colliding with the fragile body images of teenage females. In my case, I became sensitized over my teens and early adult life to the question of poverty and racism, and Africa was the object of my deep internal sadness at the fate of humanity. A world divided into rich and poor has always seemed an obscenity, a failure of our species to use our capacities for cooperation and empathy to their fullest potential.

But, a stubborn perception of the problems of Africa being as intractable as they were tragic has only gradually turned into something resembling a realistic hope. Perhaps the long shadows of pain might be receding. Economists tell us that most African nations are growing quite well, though Collier’s work reminds that there are still “hard problems” among the poorest nations of the continent. Our analysis here has focused on these cases most closely and it is helpful to zoom out to a wider focus and recognize that Africa is not a monolith of political catastrophe. Our review has tended to approach the problems of state-building in terms of comparison between two continents, one in the north and one mostly in the south. However, we live on a much larger planet and our survey has barely glimpsed some of these larger contextual considerations.

Collier and Ahluwalia do take up the grand question of globalization, yet our approach did not take us very directly to considering that larger context. The study we’ve undertaken has clarified the conditions in Africa, but at the end of the exercise the question of the future still looms uncertainly. The history of Europe and Africa and their intertwined politics did not occur in a vacuum. Combined, these two continents do not constitute even half of the planet. While North America, especially the USA, do figure quite directly in the history we’ve viewed, human history goes much further back than even Europe itself. Some theorists today are venturing into an even larger global picture that takes in the history of societies before Europe and its familiar states were formed. Some detect a pattern within this long view; others see a panoply of distinct histories with incongruent features that resist assimilating human history into one large metanarrative.

While the past may seem murky, the likely future seems less so. The aggressive European incursion into Africa was in some sense only the opening gambit in the emergence of an intercontinental reality. Whereas, before colonialism, Europe and Asia and Africa and the Americas were all relatively self-contained geographies, today we are increasingly aware of a growing interconnectedness. Technology is one major driving force of this awareness, as are the economic and political events that are routinely flashed around most of the entire globe in a matter of microseconds. While such images may barely penetrate into the troubled regions of the bottom billion, Collier’s pragmatic strategies make it plausible that even these regions will one day be directly connected to the new global infosphere and world order. The growth of cellular telephone technology, even in these poor nations, is a reasonable indicator of where things are going.

If the upshot of the postcolonial analysis of Ahluwalia was that Africa’s tragedy was not of its own making, but rather the outcome of a deadly parasitic attack from the north, then we have reason to throw into question a commonplace certainty that the “European (and American) Model” of politics represents the final form of human society. The founding of the United Nations after World War 2 suggested that the victors of that conflict were acutely aware that politics was now global on a scale never before glimpsed and that we were compelled to face the horizons of that newly enlarged perspective.

If the sort of modern democratic (polyarchic) states we accept as routine in the northern hemisphere were really just the product of a specific historical trajectory and not somehow inscribed into human nature itself, perhaps we can discard a too simple expectation that Africa must repeat our model in every one of its colonially defined territories? The poverty and famine that drives many Westerners to guilt and anxiety is still very real and simple human decency compels us to care, if only from a distance. But, as capitalism reaches its global limits and democracies appear in unlikely places like Tunisia, one can foresee perhaps only dimly that a new era may be just over that horizon of globalization. Marxists have often predicted that capitalist republics would be revolutionized into socialist democracies which would then give way to stateless communism. Marxism being the bastard child of European politics gets some things right, but on the African question it has seemed just as myopic. African attempts at socialism came to the same ignoble end as the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. However, the persistence of China in claiming the mantle of communism long after it has adopted market reforms, suggests that just as the historical past resists simple schemes for linear organic continuity, the future may be far stranger than we can imagine. We can only hope that this strange future will also be a world where the “bottom billion” is a meaningless statistic. Simple human sympathy can hope for nothing less.