Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Political Messiahs and Sociocultural Change

Below are excerpts from Samuel Zalanga's reflections culled from USA Africa Dialogue Series:

The main lesson for African countries is that they should think beyond waiting for a political messiah (e.g., Buhari in Nigeria); they should also not rely on a miracle just coming from somewhere to solve their problems. It is organized social action that can do that for them. Of course in some countries, foreign support helped empowered local social movements and institutions. The judiciary has an important role to play, which opens another huge question because that is an institution. But above all, the ordinary citizens of a country (e.g., Nigeria) must set a minimum standard of human decency for themselves in terms of what kind of country or system they are willing to tolerate. If they are willing to tolerate oppressive corruption in the name of predestination, until eternity, nothing will change for them.

Personally, I am skeptical about political messiahs, even if my father was to claim to be one. Weber illuminated on the dangers of especially charismatic figures, even assuming they were straight and clean. That is why he thought of the need to routinized charisma i.e., raising the institutional question. Why some people expect a political messiah today surprises me a lot. It seems like more and more people are unwittingly looking for religious or miraculous solutions. I am too much of a realist in this respect. I am more interested in social movements. As Marcuse argues, any individual that is so smart to totally see through the irrationality of dogma has the capacity also to be totalitarian through the backdoor.
No one will deny the value of "intellectual capacity, managerial capacity and appropriate temperament," etc. If these were the only requirements for being an effective leader then Nigerian universities would have been excellent places to learn leadership skills. 

Unfortunately, as Michael Young argues in his critique of meritocracy, even when the smartest are at the top, being smart does not necessarily mean a person will also be deeply infused with moral and ethical considerations. My point is not that Buhari is necessarily an epitome of moral and ethical consideration. Rather, my concern is raising a conceptual issue that is built into the general assumption by many intellectuals that just being an excellent intellectual automatically makes someone an excellent leader. On the contrary not. You have to add so many things to being a fine intellectual.

Some of the best intellectuals in Germany took sides with Hitler during the time of his rule (e.g., Heidegger). Some of them were even great theologians in the Christian tradition. They were great thinkers but lacked the good capacity to make political judgement that recognizes the full humanity of the "other." They had great managerial capacity that impresses everyone in terms of its efficient capacity to kill. And their temperament was "in the context of what they wanted to do" appropriate. For to do what the Nazis did, requires a great amount of courage, -- only that such is not the courage that most will idealize in their effort to build a " just and egalitarian society," which is one of the national objectives of Nigeria's 2nd National Development Plan, bequeathed to us by the older generation. 

Yes, we recognize and embrace the virtues of "intellectual capacity, managerial capacity and appropriate temperament," but without a moral and ethical compass, in my view, they can be the civilian functional equivalent of weapons of mass destruction. We can hide behind intellectual rigor to question and debate forever what is morality or ethics in this age, but no matter what, as humans we cannot afford to live without that. Doing so will be a disaster.
Interestingly, in Thomas Piketty's book "Capital in the 21st Century" though an economist by training, his main explanation for the kind of relatively fair distribution of wealth and relative social inclusion that took place in the postwar period, did not focus on individuals per se, i.e., leaders; nor did he attribute it to some magical processes inherent in capitalism, assuming it is reified. Rather, he said what emerged in the postwar period was a product of particular constellation of social movements that shaped the state, the dominant discourses of the time, and the social environment/leaders that emerged. And within such an environment, certain individuals emerged. LBJ in terms of biography was not the number one candidate that one would think will make the case for the war on poverty or go and make a major speech on affirmative action Howard University. Social movements matter in shaping or changing institutions.

William Julius Wilson in one publication of his called for a reorientation of affirmative action to class inequalities because he argues that in a democratic system such as the one today in the U.S., the New Deal Coalition that supported such public policies that were relatively more congenial for social inclusion and social justice, is no more there. Politically, it is difficult for a politician to be successful with such policies. Maybe with focus on class, the policies can get more broader support. I am not sure about that because some will still accuse the proponents of such policies of class warfare. Still, social movements can shift the conversation. There has been more public discussion on widening social inequality in the U.S. because of the 99% movement that protested for some time. If nothing, they mainstreamed the discussion on widening inequality in the U.S.
I can recognize the importance or need for such leaders, no one will deny that. But as a social scientist, it will be assuming too much for me to not ask serious questions about where such leaders are going to come from. What sort of mechanism and process is supposed to lead to their emergence and sacralize them for this daunting task? We cannot just wish them into existence.

For ideas, vision and courage to thrive and flourish, they have to be nurtured. And there are certain social conditions and environments that do better in allowing such things to thrive and flourish. It does not sound very inspiring to for one to expect that the future of Nigeria will be built around the idea of "Great Men" and "Women" of history as Hegel would say, who are presumably beyond moral reprimand. Social movements mediate the gap between institutions and the lonely individual who is expected to perform great things. The idea of genius as just people dropping from nowhere because they are genius is sociologically too simplistic. Asian students according to research do better in the U.S. because culturally they do not see performing well in school as a function of being smart, but rather being disciplined and diligent.

But increasingly the powerful in the world are afraid of social movements. Even here in the U.S., they try to co-opt any kind of social movement that has the potential to bring about a major paradigm shift. Those leaders we are thinking of need to be part of a new social movement that is broad-based and committed.

When I did my doctoral field work, I visited two oil palm plantations in Nigeria: One in Edo State and the other in Rivers, i.e. Risson palm. I was interested in the role of ruling elites in transforming their societies through agricultural development policies, which Southeast Asian countries have been more successful in this respect than African countries. Agricultural policy was a site for me to explore the question of state capacity and role of elites in development. From Edo and Rivers, I drove to Sokoto to visit a friend who is also a sociologist. It was then I became impressed that Nigerians will condemn each other but injustice is practiced in all regions, all states, and ethnic groups: The strong take advantage of the weak. 
This is one thing I concluded. I learned this from the people. They will tell you. And the people taking advantage of others are not coming from another planet. The social disease is like a kind of virus. But it is easier for Northern elites, for instance, to deflect attention from their failures by projecting all the problems of the region to someone else just as other regions do without applying as much rigorous analysis to internal processes. If the germs of injustice, greed, entitlement and avarice (some of original deadly sins) are not taken care of, it does not matter in my view, even if every family in Nigeria or Igbo land gets its own country, there will still be problem of neglect and exploitation. The literature on patriarchy shows many injustices even within the family -- this is as small as it can get.

Along the same line I will argue that, no one will deny that the international global capitalist system is structured in such a way that it puts Third World countries at a great disadvantage. But in my assessment, if this is all that our universities in Africa will preach against, it will not take [us] anywhere. We have to seriously look internally also, and examine how our societies do things differently. Asian countries did not just sit down criticizing the West. They recognized the lopsidedness of the international system but chose to compete with the West and beat them in their own game. With different kinds of institutions and commitment, we can transform many things in Africa, which will then put us even in a better position to confront the international system. 

We can decide to break away from the international system because it is unjust to us, but if we do not address the fundamental issues in our systems, that will not be a solution. I do not deny the fact that there are problems in Igbo land and indeed many parts of Africa. Indeed, I will stand side by side with Igbo people who are oppressed against others, whether in Igbo land or Nigeria, who oppress them. But this line of reasoning is subversive because it diminishes the significance of blood ancestry and makes a broader case for struggle along the lines of shared humanity or common purpose. Some Igbo elites as in other parts of the Nigerian federation and Africa have been part of the problem of the strong taking advantage of the weak. A thorough and honest class analysis will show that there are many persons from Igbo land who benefited from the same Nigerian system that is corrupt, but they ignored other ordinary Igbos, which is exactly what is happening in other parts of Nigeria. Class analysis will show that the best struggle we need is that of the oppressed against the oppressors, wherever they come from. This is as simple as it is. If you do not have money to feed yourself or get medicine, it does not matter what is your blood ancestry.

I have painfully arrived at the conclusion that sometimes it is often easier to try to by-pass the fundamental questions of social justice, moral and ethical concerns that need to penetrate or infuse our social reality in a rush to arrive at the New Jerusalem or Dar es Salaam very quickly. Are there short cuts in such struggles? Many of the postcolonial African sates became predatory because many people who participated in independent struggles were more concerned about their exclusion from the privileges that the colonial officials enjoyed instead of the fundamental questions of social justice for all. But often such situations end up in disappointments because as St. Augustine said, while quoting Cicero, without Justice, we are all a gang of robbers.
It seems to me that in many postcolonial African countries, there was more agreement on chasing White people away than a clear unity on what exactly to do with the new nation. In some cases, there was also a sense that the problem was people with White skin and if you chase them out, we will be alright -- in effect reification of skin color. But there are certain challenges of building a society that are universal and I think we ignored some of those things because we are in a rush. 

One conclusion I arrived at is that Whites or Europeans colonized Africa and treated us terribly bad, because of what someone like St. Augustine characterized as "Libido Dominandi" i.e., the lust to conquer and to only have things one's way. He said Romans have courage but humility is not part of their type of courage. To be powerful or privileged and have humility to care for others when you have the opportunity to treat them like trash and get away with it requires is something special. It requires a different kind of courage.

Unfortunately, "Libido Dominandi" is not a strictly a White or European problem only. It is not just applicable to them. It is a human problem as I have come to painfully realize during my lifetime. I tell my Black students that the mere fact that I am Black does not guarantee them that I am inherently immune from taking advantage of them. Depending on the makeup of a person, it is not only a White person that can do that. The skin color is just an appearance. What matters is the deeper substance or essence therein. Much depends on context, structure, institution and system in place. 

In some way, the human body and mind is like a machine, and what the machine ends up being used for depends on the "software" that goes into it, i.e., the values, norms, ethics, and moral commitments that shape the person. What goes into us as humans, which is shaped by too many factors, is part of the explanation for our relative backwardness. It is not that there is something wrong with the African but the kinds of institutions and social processes set in place can shape the calculations of a people and once they are in a trap, unless they can get out of the trap, it will be difficult to make fast-paced progress. I hate to think that in some parts of Africa, if there is going to be free and fair referendum, some people are so disappointed with the postcolonial state that they would not mind voting for Whites to come and manage the system. I think people like Nyerere, Nkrumah, Fanon, Cabral, Samora Machel et al., will feel very sad about this in their graves.
Furthermore, as Ha-Joon Chang argues in "Bad Samaritans", while culture can be an obstacle to development at a particular historical juncture, it is not really a problem if a people are determined. In one chapter in the book, he cited examples of how Germans were described by the British and how the West described Japan --- Very negatively. Without being told, the quotes would never be thought to be referring to Germans and Japanese because they have transformed their societies. The same thing with China. Thus for some of us, it is dangerous to essentialize cultural arguments.

There is a term used in business ethics: "Agentic Shift." It describes how moral agents shift their moral standing once they become part of organizations. I think the problem is not just with the individual per se, important as that is, but even more importantly, is the problem of institutions which Professor Mbaku stressed very much. 

It is easy to assume that once the right people are in the right places, everything will flow well. No one will deny the importance of having such people. But there is evidence all over the world that people may start with great moral and ethical reasoning/ commitment, but soon end up being either corrupted or being forced to bargain with the devil in order to accomplish what they want to achieve. 

General Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian commander of UN forces in Rwanda during the genocide in his reflection brought this issue into sharp focus. He had to bargain with the "devil." This is more so in politics, where the Nigerian population often vote for people who probably are not the best in terms of representing them. But legally such persons would have to be part of the business.

On the other hand, there are persons who at the time they get into office, no one gives them a chance but they end up doing things that no one thought they could do. F. W. de Klerk was one of such. With all the limitations of the transition to post-apartheid South Africa, at the time de Klerk assumed power, no one thought he was the kind of man that will move South Africa in a direction that would not plunge the country into chaos, even though there was some. His biography does not indicate he comes close to the kind of personality that will take Mandela and ANC seriously. And he did not have the initial support of many people. At one point, he lost many friends. Institutions and their challenges can compel people to rethink whatever their initial positions were. Our hope is that they will always change for the better.

The major moral and ethical challenge we have today in organizations is the challenge of "Agentic Shift." That is why some feel it is better to fight from outside the system. In the U.S., for instance, even a religious-oriented organization "Moral Majority" run into this problem of agentic shift. The organization started as a prophetic voice, but when they decided to become part of the Republican Party kind of, as Ed Dobson, the VP for Moral Majority later confessed, they lost their ability to even tell the truth, i.e., be prophetic. They got into politics in their right things, with a moral compass, thinking of changing the world. Unfortunately, the world changed them. It is not only Americans that are susceptible to this tendency, but all humans. This does not mean that people cannot change the world, but the process requires careful thinking and strategizing because of the reality out there. 
Institutions matter in all this discussion but it takes long to build them and there is a cost. Unless there is some supportive framework to continuously defend and empower such clean people, the institutional environment for conducting public affairs can corrupt them. Nigerians, often even intellectuals want to always defend culture in general, but sometimes, what makes corruption in Nigeria difficult to fight is that some have tried to embed it in the culture and thus, it becomes a huge struggle.

And because we have a lousy political system where most politicians are inspired more by the desire for power than certain values, moral and ethical commitment, this may even take long. Amazingly, the leaders of the Meiji Restoration in Japan moved their country so fast in terms of adapting it to the modern world, From 1868 to the first decade of the 20th century, they have transformed their country by laying the foundation for a competitive modern society, which still honors some aspects of its traditional cultural identity.

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