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Yaw Nsarkoh Writes: Adam Smith in Beijing, Deng Xiaoping in Bisau

Bit by bit we will understand China. And then we will know we are at least a 100 years behind them, not thirty, as someone recently suggested.

Africa, in terms of political economy configurations, is, in my view, somewhere akin to the Qing era in China, or the Tokugawa period in Japan; for we have neither dealt convincingly with feudalism nor executed much-needed land reforms.

The Meiji Restoration sorted out these crucial elements for Japan; the Mao-led Communist Revolution did so for China. We must think very hard about these things when we talk about some retrograde behaviours in Africa, and think of them as “our culture.”

In a 2002 preface to his well-known book, _”Capitalism and Freedom,”_ Professor Milton Friedman, the Chief High-priest of neoliberalism, tried to claim the Chinese Economic Reforms led by Deng Xiaoping for his creed. Friedman wrote, in characteristic sure-footedness:

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-“The change in opinion has had an even more dramatic effect on the formerly underdeveloped world. That has been true even in China, the largest remaining explicitly communist state. The introduction of market reforms by Deng Xiaoping in the late seventies, in effect privatizing agriculture, dramatically increased output and led to the introduction of additional market elements into a communist command society. The limited increase in economic freedom has changed the face of China, strikingly confirming our faith in the power of free markets.

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China is still very far from being a free society, but there is no doubt that the residents of China are freer and more prosperous than they were under Mao – freer in every dimension except the political. And there are even the first small signs of some increase in political freedom, manifested in the election of some officials in a growing number of villages. China has far to go, but it has been moving in the right direction.”-

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I do not think Friedman really understood China, but my views alone are not what I lean on when up against a Nobel Laureate in Economics. Professor Giovanni Arrighi, an eminent scholar, had something to say on the matter.

Arrighi, I have no evidential basis for saying so but retain a strong suspicion that this is so, did respond to Friedman and his like, and in signature fashion for the great sociologist. His good friend, Professor Andre Gunder Frank, the man who had been Milton Friedman’s PhD student, and later turned nemesis to his supervisor, died in 2005 – three years after Milton Friedman wrote those quoted words. Two years after that, in 2007, Giovanni Arrighi dedicated a book that made an intellectual sonic boom, “To Andre Gunder Frank (1929 – 2005).”

My appraisal of the book may not be that relevant, but that cannot be said about what Professor Samir Amin says about the book:

_”The convincing power of Arrighi’s argument lies in his choice to conceive geopolitics as the endless process of construction of political cultures associating class conflicts and collective commonwealth in different specific ways.”_

Professor Giovanni Arrighi’s book was titled *ADAM SMITH IN BEIJING – LINEAGES OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY*. At a time when the global south, particularly Africa in its misery, must-read geopolitics and the interstate contestation for world hegemony and global domination very carefully, an understanding of the rise of Asia is critical. For that story is laden with many lessons.


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Drunk on ill-digested neo-liberalism, so many African policymakers parrot without thinking through it carefully, that: “the private sector is the engine of growth.” I know from lived experience and my reading of history that this is untrue. No country at our levels of poverty, has made it to prosperity by allowing the state to wilt and then abdicating and passing on responsibility for growth, and sometimes even governance, to the private sector. A competent state is a necessary condition for development. It was in Europe, in the Americas, in Asia, and it will have to be in Africa.

As Arrighi convincingly put it:

_”… the capitalist character of market-based development is not determined by the presence of capitalist institutions and dispositions but by the relation of state power to capital. Add as many capitalists as you like to a market economy, but unless the state has been subordinated to their class interest, the market economy remains non-capitalist.”_


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In my view, at a time when so many say the time for thinking is over in Africa, as though we are dead men, Arrighi’s statement must get us to think more carefully. Our states have been captured by predators. The Chinese, Singaporeans, Vietnamese and so on, broke that and put the welfare of the masses at the storm centre of their development thinking and efforts. We should dig deeper to understand better, not just believe simplistic narratives tossed at us, like unthinking development natives.

In a powerful explicatory comment, Arrighi again thundered, and I will end it there:

_”Contrary to widespread belief, the main attraction of the PRC for foreign capital has not been its huge and low-priced reserves of labour as such – there are plenty of such reserves around the world but nowhere have they attracted capital to the extent they have in China. The main attraction, we shall argue, has been the high quality of those reserves – in terms of health, education, and capacity for self-management – in combination with the rapid expansion of the supply and demand conditions for the productive mobilization of these reserves within China itself. Moreover, this combination was not created by foreign capital but by a process of development based on indigenous traditions – including the revolutionary tradition that gave birth to the PRC. Foreign capital intervened late in the process, sustaining it in some directions but undermining it in others”_

For four decades, perhaps even more, Africa has – in the main – danced to neoliberal tunes that have had deleterious impacts on the quality of our people. Public health, university education, and more were all de-emphasised at a point, in the name of structural adjustment. And for three decades, we have toyed with this Santa Claus democracy that has produced, J.M. Kariuki’s societies of “ten millionaires and ten million beggars.”

There is so much, therefore, that can be said about what Arrighi argues above, but for now, I leave everyone to think through the implications themselves. Friedman was right about one thing at least, China was headed in the right direction. And I am right about one thing too, much of Africa, my own country Ghana, is headed in the wrong direction, we need an urgent reset.

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