Macron & Africa’s ‘civilisational’ problem

Mr Macron has been nostalgic lately. First, he was nostalgic for the 18th century and hereditary rule asserting that the French people did not want to execute the king and that the revolution has left a (king-shaped) void at the heart of the Republic that only other paternal figures can fill. Then, Mr Macron was nostalgic for the 19th century. Responding to a question about the possibility of a Marshall Plan for Africa, the French President dismissed the idea purporting that, unlike Europe after 1945, Africa’s problem is ‘civilisational’ and, therefore, an intervention along the lines of the Marshall Plan would be a waste of billions that would not stabilise anything. Macron’s response is striking, and telling not only of a certain inherited colonial mentality towards Africa, but about European ruling classes’ contemporary imperial tendencies and the links between these tendencies and attempts at restructuring capitalism at home and abroad.

Some of Macron’s assertions are so far from the truth that it is tempting to dismiss them without much discussion. However, I suggest that some turns of phrase of the French President need to be taken seriously but not literally. For example, it is difficult of square Macron’s comment that in 1948, when the Marshall Plan was initiated, Europe ‘had its equilibriums, its borders and its stability’ with even the sketchiest version of Cold War history. In the Southeast corner of Europe first Britain and subsequently the US were intervening in a bitter civil war making sure that Greek communists and their allies would not come to power. The confrontation was of such importance that it led to the elaboration of the ‘Truman Doctrine’, which set the general parameters for anti-communist intervention by the US during the Cold War. The fact that it was precisely the Marshall Plan that changed the equilibrium and even the borders in Europe, when the Soviet Union rejected the Plan and forced its satellites to do the same, confirms the suspicion that Macron’s comments cannot be taken seriously, if read literally. The same applies to Macron’s claim that African women have 7 or 8 children hindering development, since this number is inaccurate when it comes to every single African state, with the possible, but not undisputed, exception of Niger. In the age of ‘fact-checking’ styling itself as the most effective defence against ‘fake news’, it would perhaps suffice to point out that Macron’s comments are inaccurate on an outrageous scale and expect this revelation to do the (political) job for us. However, one does not necessary need to be of the Freudian persuasion to appreciate that speech acts have importance and meaning beyond their literal and/or intended one.

Here, by imagining post-war Europe as a stable and balanced political space, Macron offers us a statement of intentions rather than a statement of facts. This supposedly stable and ordered Europe is directly juxtaposed with the image of disorder, violence, uncontrolled procreation (!) and fundamentalism in Africa.  For Macron such problems might have a negative impact on the economy, but themselves do not have economic roots: they are ‘civilisational’. It is notable that this ‘civilisational’ aspect of Africa’s problems is presented here as historically unique. Within this frame of thought, even after the biggest carnage in human history, Europe’s problems were not civilisational and could be resolved by cash injections, while the problems of Africa run deeper. Many have already correctly diagnosed the racist and misogynistic undertones of the statement as well as the hypocrisy and ‘victim-blaming’, especially when it comes from the leader of a former colonial power (see here, here and here).

Curiously, the recipe prescribed for this supposedly deep-seated African malaise is more technocratic than one would expect. Regional security pacts with France, better infrastructure and public-private partnerships are presented as the sophisticated policy instruments that will succeed when a new Marshall Plan with its unacceptable simplicity would be destined to fail.  Therefore, even if we were to accept Macron’s (racist and sexist) diagnosis, there appears to be a stark mismatch between it and the solutions proposed.  After all, the idea that public-private partnerships will cure the ills of fundamentalism, drug trafficking, 7 children per woman and other ‘civilisational’ defects is at best untenable and at worst laughable.

This gap is, however, bridged, if we recall that ‘civilisation’ and its derivatives have a long history when it comes to imperial encounters with Africa. Brett Bowden’s work provides us with perhaps the most comprehensive historical account of the broader origins of the concept ‘civilisation’. Bowden traces the origins of the word in the three languages that dominated diplomacy at the time: English, French and German. According to Bowden, the first recorded use of the word was in French by Boulanger in 1766.[1] In this context, the word had a dual meaning, since it was used to signify both the process through which someone became civilised and the outcome of this process. The word appeared in English close to that period too, without it being clear whether that happened under French influence or whether we are confronted with two parallel processes. In both languages, ‘“[c]ivilisation” is not usually used to describe the collective life of just any group, as culture sometimes is; it is reserved for collectives that demonstrate a degree of urbanization and organization’.[2] Crucially, ‘civilisation’ was never simply an academic concept. Rather, from the last quarter of the 19th onward the language of ‘civilisation’, including rhetoric about the ‘mission civilisatrice’ or ‘civilising mission’ depending on the colonial power, became a powerful tool in order to legitimise, rationalise and legalise practices of imperialism or outright colonialism. The idea was that humanity is divided in distinct civilisational stages (civilised-semicivilised-uncivilised) that exist in a relationship of clear and indisputable hierarchy between them. Western states were on the top of the hierarchy, even though it is worth pointing out that the working classes, especially when militant, were also conceptualised as backward or uncivilised. Western states enjoyed full international legal personality and they purported to have not only the right but also the duty to spread the gifts of civilisation, even against the will of uncivilised peoples. Polities like China, Japan or the Ottoman were in the middle of this global hierarchy. They enjoyed limited international legal personality, which meant that they could sign legally binding treaties, but they were subjected to extensive exceptions to their sovereignty. Africa was at the bottom of this civilisational hierarchy, and even though achieving civilised status was theoretically possible, pseudo-scientific theories of biological racism combined with embedded interests of colonial powers and colonial bureaucracies, meant that the prevailing view was that it would take decades, if not centuries for it to be achieved. It was only then, at some point in the distant future, that African societies could (theoretically) become independent. The First World War shook the intellectual and material foundations of ‘civilisation’ as a way of organising imperial projects, but did not undo it. In fact, Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations framed the Mandate System as a ‘sacred trust of civilisation’. Unsurprisingly, the moralistic language of the ‘civilising mission’ not only did not deter, but also justified and legitimised colonial violence and oppression in the mandates as much as it did in the colonies.

Even though the language of civilisation gradually lost its popularity after 1945 and got replaced by subtler notions, such as development,[3] it still survives in Article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice, to the great embarrassment of those international lawyers who consider imperialism to be a thing of the past. Still, even if the language of civilisation seemed temporarily to be going away, the functions it performed in international law and politics did not. As Japanese ruling classes found out in the 19th century, the only thing that would ensure their participation in the ‘family of civilised nations’ was fundamental economic, political and legal reform. Such reforms aimed at the legalization of social relations, the protection of property and other rights, the establishment of independent courts, the professionalisation and bureucratisation of administration and the dissolution of pre-capitalist forms of productions and their corresponding legal relations.[4] Similarly, under the supervision of the League of Nations the ‘sacred trust of civilisation’ covered functions such as administrative and legal reform, the provision of basic education and hygiene or the development of rudimentary infrastructure. This does not mean that empire was in fact benevolent, or that it at least had certain benevolent aspects, as its apologists often claim. Rather, the standard of civilisation legitimised, rationalised, and legalised the managed transition of colonised regions to capitalism. The infamous Indian railways built by the British Empire and legal reform introduced in Japan or China in order for them to be considered sufficiently civilized served diverse purposes and had different effects on the fabric of the societies in which they were introduced. However, linking colonised spaces to global markets, as well as to the rest of the country, creating a unified space that was later to become national and bringing about administrative reform necessary for the state to assume a de facto and de jure monopoly of violence were all part of the same trajectory of capitalist transformation. After decolonisation this continuing process of capitalist transformation was partly assumed by postcolonial states themselves, especially after the defeat of experiments in ‘African socialism’. Still, imperialism in its many manifestations (legal, illegal and a-legal) did not lose its relevance in disciplining the postcolonial state in accordance with the imperative of capitalist accumulation. In fact, following the 1973 oil crisis and its transmutation into a debt crisis in the Third World, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank assumed a crucial role in reshaping postcolonial states away from developmental and socialist models.

This continuation of imperialism by other means did not entail one single legitimising concept the way its 19th century counterpart did. Rather, it mobilised rules, techniques and actions as diverse as bilateral investment treaties (BITs), rankings about the competitiveness and openness of economies, Macron’s public-private partnerships and, of course, military intervention. Therefore, Macron’s comments about Africa should not only be read as outrageous inaccuracies informed by crude racism and France’s imperial hangover. Rather, it is imperative to understand that ‘civilisation’ and its derivatives emerged and acquired their meaning through the ruthless process of colonisation and capitalist expansion since the last quarter of the 19th century. Therefore, the public resurrection of the terminology by a French President, who has also stated his intention to transform France into a ‘startup nation’, needs to be properly contextualised, so that its full implications are understood: it is European (and other) ruling classes that have a ‘civilisational’ problem and they plan to inflict it on the rest of us.

* Laureate Postdoctoral Fellow, Melbourne Law School. Thanks are due to Ms Kathryn J. Greenman for her insightful comments.

[1] B. Bowden, The Empire of Civilization: The Evolution of an Imperial Idea (Chicago Press, 2009), 27.

[2] Ibid., 29.

[3] S. Pahuja, Decolonising International Law: Development, Economic Growth and the Politics of Universality (CUP, 2011), 63.

[4] For the passage of Japan, China and the Ottoman Empire into (capitalist) modernity and the role of international law, and particularly extraterritoriality, in this process see: T. Kayaoğlu, Legal Imperialism: Sovereignty and Extraterritoriality in Japan, the Ottoman Empire, and China (CUP, 2010).

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