Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A Life Looking Forward: Farewell Samir Amin

A Life Looking Forward Beyond Capitalism: Farewell Samir Amin

Chambi Chachage

I only met him once. It was at the Mwalimu Nyerere Intellectual Festival Week in the hallowed Nkrumah Hall of the University of Dar es Salaam. In an electrifying keynote, he summed up the long history of capitalism and its discontents, charting the way out of it.

As a historian of capitalism, I was awed. "Capitalism is a small bracket in the long history of human civilization", he asserted. Then he asked: "If it continues for another 100 years so what?"

 For him, capitalism is not a given. It is not inevitable. There was life  before capitalism. And there will be life long after capitalism.

So, there are alternatives to capitalism and its neoliberal form of globalization. Elsewhere, Samir Amin stressed that "globalization is never absolute, it is always relative...." With the possible exception of Noam Chomsky, probably no one has consistently unpacked the history of capitalism from a radical leftist viewpoint than Samir Amin in our contemporary times. No one since Marx.

When we mourn his passing, may we celebrate his contribution to, and indeed innovation, in making sense of capitalism. It is in light of this that I share the excerpt below from my old essay on the history of capitalism in Africa. One may see what I mean when I say he was innovative in his diehard analysis of capitalism.


To the Egyptian Marxist, Samir Amin, capitalism is a global system that developed out of ingredients that came from various sources[1] His analysis is in tandem with the institutional analysis of Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson & James Robinson at least in one respect.[2] Both perspectives view the rise of capitalism in Western Europe in the 16th century as an outcome of a long and gradual process. However, Acemoglu et al. locates its evolution within the disintegration of feudalism in Europe that went hand in hand with what they view as the consolidation of institutions that provided checks and balances to the monarchs. For them, these legal and administrative institutions protected private property and created the conditions for the accumulation of wealth through trade and other means.[3] In contrast, Amin locates this evolution within the long transition from the tributary mode or system that was the form of organization that generally characterized pre-modern society. This lengthy preparation of, and for, capitalism, he asserts, started in about 1000 CE and lasted for nearly 8 centuries.[4]

Thus, in Amin’s historicization of capitalism, in contrast to Acemoglu et al., internal contradictions of advanced pre-modern societies were not only confined to feudal Europe. Rather, they characterized all such societies and thus created successive waves of the inventions of ingredients that were to constitute capitalist modernity. In this regard, the first major wave came from China in the 11th century during the Sung era followed by the Middle Eastern wave in the Arab-Persian Caliphate before moving, in the context of the Crusades, to Mediterranean Europe in the towns of Italy such as Venice. According to Amin, the “last wave”, then, “concerns the long transition of the ancient tributary world to the modern capitalist world which began in the Atlantic part of Europe as from the conquest of the Americas, and took the form of mercantilism for three centuries (1500-1800).”[5] Thus, as he reiterates elsewhere, historical capitalism “did not start and appear suddenly in Western Europe as most of Eurocentric visions of history presented”, but rather, it was a product of a series of waves whose ingredients made possible the last wave “that crystallized in the small triangle between London, Paris and Amsterdam late in the 16th, 17th centuries.”[6]

What Amin attempts to do with relative success is to deconstruct the Eurocentric history of capitalism that renders it a western phenomenon. However, he pays little attention to the contribution of Africa’s tributary modes in this development. This is particularly striking given that all the three key waves that Amin refers to as having played a major role in the development of capitalism were linked, at least in relation to trade, with Africa. Such a conspicuous absence, it seems, stems from locating Africa primarily within the last wave that is associated with the Atlantic trade. It also appears to stem from his selective engagement with the world system theory. As a reviewer of his book on Global History: A View from the South points out, Amin does not, at least in this case, think in terms of such system that reaches back 5000 years hence his reluctance to conclude that prior to 1500 CE “the trading links between these different tributary systems implied that they were part of one and the same overall system.”[7] Nevertheless, this historical approach is useful since it does not outright preclude contributions of other waves in the history of capitalism. 

[1]Samir Amin's Lecture on 'The Trajectory of Historical Capitalism' at the International Conference on 'New Emancipatory Struggles' in Zagreb on May 17, 2011 accessible at <> (last accessed: December 10, 2012).

[2] Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson and James A. Robinson, “The Rise of Europe: Atlantic Trade, Institutional Change and Economic Growth,” American Economic Review95, 3 (2005).


[4]Amin, “The Trajectory of Historical Capitalism and Marxism’s Tricontinental Vocation,” Monthly Review62, 9 (2011): 1.


[6]Amin’s Lecture on 'The Trajectory of Historical Capitalism'.

[7]Andreas Bieler, “Samir Amin, Global History and the critique of Eurocentrism, ” Trade Union and Global Restructuring Blog May 24, 2012accessible at <>(last accessed: December 10, 2012).

Farewell Samir Amin. Like you, may will live a life looking forward as we struggle with this (bracket) called capitalism. May we realize your childhood dream of changing the capitalist world.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Having Friends in Power

Having Friends in Power

Chambi Chachage

Why aren't you writing about it, a former colleague asked. She/He was referring to my practice of analyzing political appointments in Tanzania. In this case, it was in reference to her/his appointment.

Her/His appointment, like those of a couple of my other colleagues,  has left me contemplating about what does it mean to have friends in echelons of power. This question is particularly troubling given the old adages claim that power corrupts and in politics there are no permanent friends. And politics is more or less about power.

So, what do you do when your friends are in power? Do you speak up publicly against them when they wield that power unfairly? Or do you seek them out to quietly lobby against their abuse of power, if any?

Being in power, however, does not necessarily mean having power all the time. This means that a friend in the corridors of power may have little say on what their superiors or colleagues in other spheres of power do. In other words, they may also find themselves in the same corner as you, having to speak up publicly against their bosses and coworkers, keep quiet or raise issues privately.

In a regime that is based on collective responsibility, speaking up publicly is tantamount to getting fired or having to resign. So, when a friend with a position of power opts to be silent when their colleagues beat people with impunity, what do you do? What do you do when a friend watch silently when their superiors evict people mercilessly and arrest them indiscriminately? 

Do you disown or admonition them? Do you distance yourself or keep them closer? Do you criticize or plead with them?

For some, the choice is clear. To continue to hobnob with the powerful is to partake in their wielding and abuse of power. By continuing to rub shoulders with them, one is complicit.

One should thus relentlessly be vocal against them when they participate, passively or actively, in the abuse of power. It should not matter whether they did it themselves or not. As long, as they are part and parcel of the same regime, they are accountable.

Noble as it is, this is a tall order. It literally means each and everyone in a regime that abuse power is responsible. It does not matter if one is only a civil servant or junior political officer. As long as they don't denounce the abuse of power, they condone it. 
Criticizing such friends could have its consequences. This may range from simply cessation of friendship to severe censure. And political history is replete with cases of friendliness turned awry.

Having friends in power can thus be scary for a diehard critic. After all, in politics people have interests to protect. The anecdote below aptly captures how the tables can easily be turned:

Power, as vested in the President, soon asserted itself. It does especially when one speaks the truth to power. May critics be empowered to contend with it when they criticize friends in power. 

Karibu kwenye ulingo wa kutafakari kuhusu tunapotoka,tulipo,tuendako na namna ambavyo tutafika huko tuendako/Welcome to a platform for reflecting on where we are coming from, where we are, where we are going and how we will get there

  © Blogger templates 'Neuronic' by 2008

Back to TOP