Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid of Millennial, Postmodern Capitalism (6)

By Biodun Jeyifo   |   19 September 2009   |   10:00 pm  

Everywhere in the world, work disappears in some places and reappears in others. Great magnitudes of wealth and prosperity are created through speculation, through financial operations of a shadow economy that has little or no relationship to the real economy. And value becomes seemingly detached from work, from the production of goods and services that keep human beings, singly and collectively in communities, alive, healthy and dignified.

Under these conditions, the occult economy takes many diverse forms, especially between and within the rich and poor countries of the world. In the rich countries, the main manifestations are in the shadow economy of big time, high risk financial operations in which speculation and gambling run amuck, playing havoc with the lifetime savings, the pension schemes and the employment prospects of hundreds of millions of people. For me, one of the most interesting examples of the occultation of the relationship between work and value in the rich, developed economies is the deployment of disciplines like physics and mathematics to generate models that might help to predict how high risk speculation in the financial services sector might yield super profits. There are indeed textbooks and monographs in print on this phenomenon that, in the Nineties, sought to turn the traditionally exact, scientific disciplines of Physics and Mathematics into talismanic aids to generate wealth in extremely risky financial operations. I invite those of my readers who think I am making this up to consult the search engines of the Internet by linking the key terms of “Economics” and “Physics”. You have my word that you will find many titles and websites.

For Physics or Mathematics, what we have in the occult economy of the poor countries of the world are Anthropology and Ethnography. Work disappears massively and endlessly in these regions of the world, more spectacularly than in the rich countries. There are, typically, massive cuts in public expenditure on services and utilities like education, health care delivery, power supply for domestic household consumption and economic production and road construction and maintenance. Without unemployment compensation, reliable pension schemes, and social safety networks maintained by the state and its agencies, people turn to God, to their pastors or “witchdoctors” both for spiritual and psychological succor and for assurance that wealth, prosperity and the good life are still within reach for them.

Anthropologists in particular, have been very attentive to these manifestations of the occult economy in the poor countries of the world. Many of them are radical and progressive Western scholars; they have written dozens of books, monographs and articles on the “magical thinking” that fuels the recourse to the supernatural in Africa and many parts of the developing world as people try to negotiate the crises and challenges of millennial capitalism. But they do tend to see Africans and other peoples in the developing world in ways dangerously and disturbingly close to the primitivist Anthropology of the heyday of colonialism.

Nigeria presents us with a remarkable complication of the classic stereotypes of the Anthropologists of the occult economy. True, there are many manifestations of the standard phenomena like witchcraft as a means of getting wealthy; the nefarious cases of kidnapping by and for occultists who trade in human body parts for exotic rituals; and witch-hunts perpetrated against victims thought responsible for people’s misfortunes, most of these victims being women, especially widows. Nollywood, the national video film industry of our country, is notorious for playing up and endlessly milking themes and plots having to do with these particular primitivist dimensions of the occult economy.

But by far the greatest, the most extensive and the most critical expression of the occult economy in Nigeria is the role of the mega-churches in particular and the commercialization of religion in general as the real center of the country’s integration into millennial capitalism. Let me explain.

Like most of the other African countries, Nigeria has no true multinational corporations able to compete on the world stage with other transnational conglomerates. Indeed, the story of the so-called Transcorp, is an instructive lesson in the great failure of Nigerian entrepreneurship in this domain of global capitalism. Formed with great fanfare and heavily capitalized, this was to be our answer to other developing countries like South Africa and Brazil with transnational corporations self-identified as South African or Brazilian. Transcorp never got off the ground, despite the relatively very high capitalization. It was beset by corruption, incompetence and mediocrity. For a while, it was actually declaring huge, astronomical dividends for its investors, even though it didn’t produce anything, not even a pencil or razor blade!

Compared to this, the mega-churches are a study in effective and competitive globalization. With their bases in Nigeria, they set up branches – really business franchises that are obliged to make financial returns to the headquarters – throughout the African continent. And as we saw in last week’s essay, some of these mega-churches have extended their reach, their markets, to Europe, East and West; the Americas, North and South and the Caribbean; and even to the Asian Far East. For the most part, they are very well organized and make full use of the latest and most innovative hardware and software products of the information and communications industries. They may – and do – manipulate the supernatural as the main source of their influence, legitimacy and prosperity, but they are not credulous, benighted “natives” looking to witchcraft to help them contend with the crises of the present global economic order.

It is instructive that these mega-churches have, for the most part, embraced the latest advances in the information and communication technologies. For this places in high relief the most alarming aspect of their reach and power. Simply put, this lies in the fact that they are going very heavily into secondary and tertiary education as sites of heavy economic and ideological investment, especially at a time when the Nigerian state is under-funding public investment in tertiary education.

Nigeria now has over 100 universities and polytechnics, the highest figure for tertiary education on the continent. Roughly half of this figure are private institutions; of these, the great majority are founded by religious bodies, many of them of the evangelical, Pentecostal expression. As a matter of fact, the presence, the influence of the Pentecostals in publicly-funded universities is itself quite phenomenal as droves and waves of the professional intelligentsia, in all disciplines, are converting to the Pentecostal movement.

For all of these reasons, it is safe and incontrovertible to state that the Pentecostal movement, through the mega-churches, has now and is likely to expand its grip, its influence on the formal training and education of the young in our society. This, is a grim, alarming prospect for the country. I make this assertion not primarily because any modern nation-state and society must strive, to the best extent possible, to keep its educational institutions secular, though that is definitely a consideration on my mind as I write these words. The primary basis of my sense of great alarm here lies in precisely the dominant form of Christianity in contemporary Nigerian evangelical Christianity which, all exceptions to the norm being duly noted, tends to be extremely superstitious, fetishistic, fear-mongering and commercially driven. For such a form of Christianity to have such a powerful and extensive influence on the institutions of education in our country at the present time forebodes dire prospects and ramifications.

Throughout the ages, Christianity has played many different roles in human society and history, some of them honorable, humane and compassionate, some extremely reactionary and diversionary in matter of social equality and economic justice. In next week’s concluding essay in this series, we will explore these particular aspects of the crises generated by millennial capitalism on our continent and in our country against the background of a consideration of education as a very critical factor in these matters.

bjeyifo@fas.harvard.edu

 



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