Reviewed by Guy Lancaster
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s novel Devil on the Cross tells the story of a competition, set in modern Kenya, “to Select Seven Experts in Modern Theft and Robbery,” with prizes, consisting of bank loans and directorships of several finance houses, awarded by a panel of American, European, and Japanese industrialists and investors. The Kenyan competitors regale the audience with stories of how they rose from humble origins into positions where they could take advantage of their own countrymen’s sense of inferiority, as well as foreign “generosity,” for their personal profit, and they also share their respective visions of future thievery—package the soil, package the air, leave to the worker nothing which is free in this life. All seems to be going well until the upstart Mwĩreri wa Mũkiraaĩ offends these foreign dignitaries by proposing that Kenyans, rather than being reliant upon imported goods, set up their own factories, create their own millionaires and billionaires: ‘I want to end with the battle cry: every robber should go home and rob his own mother! That’s true democracy and equality of nations! Per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen” (Ngũgĩ 171). His suggestion outrages the leader of the foreign delegation, who threatens to leave, accusing Mwĩreri wa Mũkiraaĩ of attempting to create divisions among the international brotherhood of thieves and robbers.
Ngũgĩ’s would-be crown thief should certainly agree with author Babacar Camara’s observation that “What the Africanist ideologies and struggles for national liberations really did was to accelerate the African countries [sic] access to capitalist modernity without the basis of a heavy industry, hence the proliferation of imported goods from anywhere outside Africa.” Where they differ, however, is on the locus of resistance. In Marxist Theory, Black/African Specificities, and Racism, Camara moves beyond the sterile framework of “Africa versus the West” to observe that the modern conditions of life overall belie any easy African specificities, which are rendered epiphenomena, such that “the same Western critical theory that explains any capitalist region, explains Africa” (xiv).
Of course, race was the original division which gave ideological backing to the plundering of Kenya and other such lands, long before folk like Mwĩreri wa Mũkiraaĩ could even dream of establishing their own bastions of native capitalism mirroring the industrial “first world.” However, current trends in academia, especially postmodernism, make it difficult to produce any analysis which might facilitate positive change; as Camara notes, “Key concepts for the comprehension of society such as alienation, politics, power, difference, identity, boredom, etc., have been diffused, separated, and turned ambiguous because they have been multisigned, thus delaying or preventing any consciousness or aspiration to totality” (3). Like Christopher Kyriakides and Rodolfo D. Torres, authors of Race Defaced: Paradigms of Pessimism, Politics of Possibility (2012), Camara decries the sterility of so much modern theory as he draws explicit connections between the production of race as a classificatory system and the practice of capitalist exploitation, insisting that colonization “is not about semantics, othering, being primitive or civilized,” as postcolonialists would have it, but rather about the destruction of traditional values or practices that “were incompatible with the new form of economy—that is merchant” (12). The author briefly summarizes the Marxian concept of ideology so as to demonstrate how race and racism serve class purposes, with special analysis given to South Africa’s apartheid system. In South Africa, the separation of races was mandated by history, religion, and law, ostensibly for moral reasons, though in reality “the fundamental capitalist socio-economic structure … need[ed] to brutally exploit the resources of the country and in order to do so safely, need[ed] to cover itself with the cape of race to hide that very exploitation” (33).
In contrast to the idea that African freedom and independence depend upon following the model set down by the economic superpowers—becoming self-sufficient in the capitalist system, as Mwĩreri wa Mũkiraaĩ dreamed—does there exist something unique in the black/African experience that offers a deeper model of resistance? The literary and philosophical movement known as Négritude attempted to reveal and celebrate a fundamental black/African culture and personality, contrasting especially the putative European proclivity for rationality with an inherent (and particular) African valuation of intuition and emotion, in extremes even understanding culture as lying more along a genetic rather than a social axis. While acknowledging that Afrocentricity can initially be justified on the basis of providing an affirmation of non-Western cultures and values, Camara warns that Négritude and similar ideologies risk fostering a collective African narcissism and can blind individuals to the oppression carried out by the local bourgeoisie, concluding that “A new criticism of Négritude is a sine qua non for a modern understanding of any product in the Black Diaspora. Otherwise, Afrocentricity stagnates and becomes an obstacle, in the sense that it tries to bury Black/African intellectual reflections under ethnophilosophical problems, entirely peripheral to the real struggle of human beings” (79). For Camara, historical specificities—especially those which give rise to yet further fragmentation of the social order—should not be given precedence over universal laws, and therefore any Afrocentric theory “that is abstracted from the historical movement is an obstacle to a proper understanding of Africans and the fate of the African Diaspora, which means the world” (88). The current trend toward compartmentalization or “ghettoization”—the ascription of impermeable cultural barriers between populations—only facilitates exploitation and allows racism to be perceived as diminishing when, in fact, it lies concealed behind a curtain of irreconcilable cultural differences, becoming understood as a psychological problem rather than as “a state of things that capitalism organizes to control the masses and perpetuate its system,” stronger now in this era of globalization than it has ever been (102).
Camara does not, however, argue for an attitude of colorblindness, or the pretense that race no longer matters, given that such an attitude simply ignores the material conditions produced by the ideology of racism. His book avoids the simplistic exclusionist and universalist ideologies trumpeted abroad, recognizing, instead, that the specificities of the black/African experience illuminate a universal struggle. It has been one of the great conquests of the ruling classes to get human beings to turn upon each other so easily on the basis of phenotypical gradations. As Martin Luther King Jr once remarked, “If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow … a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man.” Recovery of that stolen world, then, depends not upon some new psychological bird which provides the illusion of cultural superiority for people black or white, but rather a recognition of shared oppression and, in that, a struggle against the original thief. This is what Camara demonstrates so deftly in Marxist Theory, Black/African Specificities, and Racism, showing how postmodernist “thought” and well-meant ethnic ideologies, rather than serving as tools of liberation, only provide an obscuring haze within which the same ruling ideas are made manifest.
3 June 2013
- 1982 Devil on the Cross Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers