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Classic book: How Europe Underdeveloped Africa

Firoze Manji looks back at How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972), by Walter Rodney

October 1, 2015
5 min read

howeuropeuaFor 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’.

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