Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
For many of us, Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, first published in 1972, was a groundbreaking book. It provided a completely new way of looking at the continent and its history, a way of understanding not only how we got to where we are, but also what is needed for the peoples of Africa to reclaim their destinies. Re-reading the book, as I have several times these past few years, I am struck by the enduring importance of this brilliant analysis.
Conventional wisdom at the time the book first appeared, and sadly even today, described Africa as having always been destitute, impoverished, full of tribal conflicts, corrupt and incapable of developing itself without foreign aid and its entourage of experts and NGOs. What Rodney managed to do was to demonstrate how the historical trajectories of societies across the continent, whether they were communal or more socially differentiated ones, were not dissimilar to those that prevailed in Europe, much of Asia and beyond.
Civilisations that emerged in, for example, Yorubaland, Dahomey, the interlacustrine kingdoms, Zululand, Ethiopia, Egypt, Sokoto, Zimbabwe, and so on, were, in the 15th century, far in advance of the conditions of carnage and civil war that prevailed in much of western Europe. Rodney’s research showed how the trajectories of such civilisations were subsequently cruelly cut short and often annihilated by the interactions with Europe, beginning with the European slave ‘trade’ (trade is hardly the correct term for the warfare that was the primary method of obtaining captives) and later by the exploitation associated with colonialism.
Of critical importance in Rodney’s scholarly approach was his situation of his analysis in the framework of the emergence and development of capitalism. Capitalism in Europe could not have emerged without the accumulation of wealth associated with slavery, which tore tens of millions of the strongest and most productive young people out of the continent to work, if they survived the shipping across the Atlantic, in the Caribbean and the Americas. Rodney showed the devastating impact on societies directly raided for slaves and also those further away from the Atlantic coastline.
Rodney went on to show that European capitalism could not have survived without the continued rapacious subjugation of the peoples and the dispossession of the products of labour of Africans in the mines, farms, plantations and industries. ‘Colonialism was not merely a system of exploitation, but one whose essential purpose was to repatriate the profits to the so-called “mother country”.’ Few had previously analysed in such detail the specifics of how capitalism actually operates in the peripheries, how Africa was so thoroughly integrated into the world capitalist economy to the detriment of the continent itself and to the benefit of Europe, how Africa’s history had been riddled with the betrayals of collaborators, and how the development of capitalism in Europe itself required the underdevelopment of Africa.
For Rodney, development of capitalism and the impoverishment of the African continent were intimately related: ‘Development and underdevelopment are not only comparative terms . . . they also have a dialectical relationship one to the other: that is to say, the two help produce each other by interaction . . . The developed and underdeveloped parts of the present capitalist section of the world have been in continuous contact for four and a half centuries. The contention here is that over that period Africa helped to develop western Europe in the same proportion as western Europe helped to underdevelop Africa.’
Rodney does an astonishing job of bringing together empirical evidence of the different ways in which Europe appropriated Africa’s wealth. He shows also how, after the second world war, US capital increasingly dominated the economies of Africa.
Rodney’s analysis ends in 1970, just as the majority of African countries were transitioning into neocolonialism. This was the same period in which, in response to recession and the ‘oil crisis’, the US delinked the dollar from the gold standard in a move that presaged the neoliberal hegemony. With striking parallels with the forms of exploitation under colonialism that Rodney describes so well, accumulation by dispossession is still the order of the day, and is accelerating: land grabbing that results in the dispossession of millions of a means of livelihood; elimination of jobs and the reduction in the value of the living wage; natural resource extraction and the amputation of non-renewable resources; commodification of nature so that it too can be a source of profit through speculation; forced opening of territories for exploitation, if necessary through the use of military force – all resulting in the forced distribution of wealth from poor to rich.
People would do well to study this exceptional and rich text to understand and thus to challenge more effectively the dynamics of the current pillage of the continent that is often promoted and even financed by public institutions in the name of ’development’.
The police spend little of their time making arrests, and most crimes are not solved, writes Alex Vitale – their real purpose is social control
Many important things happened on conference floor, reports Alex Nunns – but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers
Radhika Desai says Capital by Karl Marx is still an essential read on the 150th anniversary of its publication
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes
Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference
Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki
Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going