Achille Mbembe discusses the history and horizon of digital communication and identity in the African continent with Bregtje van der Haak. Mbembe suggests that what some regard as the explosion of the Internet is really just the continuation of the age old cultures in the new age of the Afropolitan.
Bregtje van der Haak: The introduction of the mobile phone has caused huge changes, especially in Africa. Do you think the convergence of phones with internet connectivity will produce a similar kind of shift?
Achille Mbembe: Definitely! The introduction of the mobile phone in the continent has been a revolution in the ways in which people relate to themselves. The way they treat them, the way they take care of them, signals a shift in the modalities through which contemporary Africans understand themselves, how they relate to each other and more importantly to the world, in the sense that hardly any African today can be considered to not be connected to the rest of the world, the rest of the continent. The internet will play exactly the same role. It helps Africa to leapfrog the kind of technological evolution other continents and societies have undergone.
Do you think the techno-utopian vision of bringing all knowledge to everyone is possible?
Technology is nothing without the capacity to make people dream. That is where the power of technology resides. It is embraced insofar as people believe in the promise of inheriting it, of improving their own lives, making it better and freeing themselves of structural constraints. The internet intensifies that capacity to dream and that narrative of liberation, which was invested earlier on in other kinds of utopias – revolutionary and progressive. Narratives of liberation, the promise of total liberation is now residing in two things: on the one hand in the religious and on the other hand in the commodity and in technology. Commodity, technology and religion are being fused in a new manner. The internet itself has become an electronic religion in the service of the ideology of consumption. That is the importance of the key role played by multinationals and other big companies. The danger of this is that the political, as we understood it earlier on, is almost emptied out now. As a friend of mine was putting it recently: “The political is becoming a business for the losers.”
Could Internet also reinvigorate the public sphere, the political?
Intermittently. It is a powerful tool for mobilisation, for speedy circulation of all kinds of messages, not all of them progressive. It can serve whatever purpose, but it is not enough to create a public sphere. It is very evanescent, ephemeral, in the sense that, there is no way in which we can do without the face-to-face encounter. This is absolutely central to the political. Internet is a means, it is not the end. But we live in a conjuncture in which we are made to believe that it is the end. There is no longer any distinction. I think that that is not sustainable for those who would like to change the current social world order. This confusion of means and ends is extremely dangerous and it serves the interests of the powerful. But the culture of our times puts us in a situation in which we have to believe the distinction between means and ends doesn’t mean anything any longer. A political critique of the internet has to start from there.
This is what has been completely eliminated in the promotional clips made by Google and Facebook. They simply say: we want to bring the Internet to everyone, so the world will be a better place. It’s a very simple, one dimensional message.
The Internet has become a religion. Internet pretends that it is salvation. You own salvation if only you get hooked on Internet, because then Internet will bring all that is needed for you to be happy.
Facebook and Google both have devised strategies for global expansion. Do you think there is a parallel with the times of imperialism? Now Google and Facebook are competing for the parts of the world that are not yet connected to their networks.
Yes, it is more or less the logic of dominion. It is part of the planetarisation of capital, but this doesn’t operate in the same way in every single space. One of the major spatial forms that is typical of the geography of our time is the enclave, the offshore, the zone. It is not a flat globe. It is a globe that is segmented, so people are hopping and jumping over large chunks of territory that are not at all connected. One sees it very vividly in Africa. We have an extractive economy that is connected to a very abstract and financial economy in this huge space, which is unequally connected first of all among itself, and then with the rest of the world. It seems to me that this geography anticipates what the globe is becoming.
You have referred to Africa as the last frontier. What do you mean by that?
It is the last territory on earth that has not yet been entirely subjected to the rule of capital. Its mineral resources have hardly been exploited. It is the last major chunk of the universe which has not yet been entirely related to its many different parts. Just imagine that to go from Casablanca to Cape Town you spend almost the entire day in a plane. It’s a huge continent. But we don’t have any railway from Casablanca to Cape Town or from Cape Town to Cairo. We don’t have the kind of inter-American highways. It is a last frontier of capitalism in a sense that even for a major power like China its economy can only operate through the provisioning of basic resources from the continent. And after China, it will be Africa.
Many people surveyed in Asia and Africa say Facebook is so important to them that the rest of the Internet doesn’t exist. Are we living in a Facebook world?
Yes, definitely. The phantasm of living on many different planes at the same time. It seems to me that the capacity of Google, Facebook lies in tapping into deep and hidden fantasies of the human being and turning them into products that are then sold and bought on a market that is global and that triggers new forms of interactions we have not seen before.
But it is also a way to publish and to disseminate ideas.
Yes, definitely. But I was more interested in the kind of self that emerges in the crucible of these new technologies, and how these technologies become an extension of ourselves and erase the distance between the human and the object. Human beings are no longer satisfied to simply be human beings. They want to add to who they are attributes of the thing and of the object.
I’m referring to the extent to which our own relationship to ourselves and what surrounds us changes, because of the kinds of technologies we practise or exchange; this capacity for multiplication and reproduction changes something in our mind set. This communion and fusion between the living human being and the object or the technology is at the source of new forms of being we have not seen before. They have serious implications for those who are interested in the question of the political and of liberation. The task earlier on was to make sure that the human being is not an object. Emancipation meant I cannot be treated as an object. Whether I’m a rational being, a woman, or a worker, I want to be treated as a human being. Now, if the human begins to desire to have some of the attributes of the object, then what is emancipation all about?
Is there a specific African turn in all of this?
Africans have been postmodern since before postmodernism
That’s where Africa becomes really interesting because in Africa cosmologies, African systems of thought before the colonial era, and even now, a human person could metamorphose into something else. He or she could become a lion and then a horse or a tree. And that capacity for conversion into something else was also applied to economic transactions. You were always transacting with some other force or some other entity. And you were always busy trying to capture some of the power invested in those entities to add them to your own powers. So, if one wants to think in those rather essentialist terms, Africa is a fertile ground for the new digital technologies, because the philosophy of those technologies is more or less exactly the same as ancient African philosophies. This archive of permanent transformation, mutation, conversion and circulation is an essential dimension of what we can call African culture. The Internet responds directly to that drive and its cultural success can be explained by the fact that it meets at a very deep level with what has always been the way in which Africans transact with themselves and with the world. And that, in fact, Africans have been postmodern since before postmodernism. If you want to have any idea of the world that is coming, the world ahead of us, look at Africa! You’ll see the symptoms and the expressions of that world that is ahead of us. And most readings of the continent have not been able to highlight that because they are looking backward rather than in a future orientated manner.
So, in a way, you’re saying that the digital world is an African world?
Absolutely. In fact the world of Africa, the pre-colonial world, as well as the world of now, has always been somewhat digital. And what we see now is the reconciliation of that culture and a form that is coming from outside. But where are the forces that will help to domesticate this form and orientate it toward social ends, of justice of equality, of freedom, and of democracy, rather than toward further aggravation of inequalities predation and looting?
The idea is that Africa was digital before the digital. And when you study the cultural history of the continent carefully, a number of things come to the fore in terms of how African societies have constituted themselves and how they operated. First, they constituted themselves through circulation and mobility. When you look at African myths of origin, migration occupies a central role in all of them. There is not one single ethnic group in Africa that can seriously claim to have never moved. Their histories are always histories of migration, meaning people going from one place to the other, and in the process amalgamating many other people. So circulation and amalgamation, you compile the gods, you conquer one ethnic group, you defeat them militarily, and you take their gods as yours, or you take their women as your wives, and therefore they become your parents.
Then, second, extraordinary plasticity – the capacity to embrace what is new, what is novel. Plasticity and the eagerness to experiment with the new was seen everywhere in the continent. People will not believe in the God of Muslims in the same way as people in Saudi Arabia. Senegalese Islam is very different from Islam in Iran or Saudi Arabia. Take forms of currency, in West Africa for centuries you had all the moneys, all the currencies were used. You go to Zimbabwe right now, you can use the dollar, the rand, the pound, the yen, that multiplicity of things. You keep changing one thing into another.
This flexibility and this capacity for constant innovation, extension of the possible, that is also the spirit of the Internet, it is the spirit of the digital, and it is the same spirit you will find in pre-colonial and contemporary Africa. And what needs to be done is to construct the encounter, the reconciliation between those forms and the cultural archive that is still part of everyday life, with the purpose of building a society that is Afropolitan, and that is committed to ideals of freedom and liberty.
How do you reconcile the idea you just elaborated on, the digital world as an African world, with the limited success of African apps and technological innovation?
It seems to me that there is no other part of the world where people are forced by bad circumstances to innovate as much as in this continent. It’s a constant, permanent innovation. If you do not innovate in ways of thinking, in ways of making things, you won’t be able to survive. But how do we make sure that this inexhaustible capacity for innovation is at the service of a bigger kind of creation that can propel the continent, can help it to stand up on its own feet and to become its proper centre?
It seems to me that there is no other part of the world where people are forced by bad circumstances to innovate as much as in this continent.
How do we make sure that institutions do not hinder that capacity for innovation? The possibility that the Internet might help to solve that institutional dilemma is something we have to think about creatively. It might very well be the wedge that helps to cut the Gordian knot of suppression between institutions and innovations.
The Chinese and the Indians are coming here to get something from Africa, but the Americans and Europeans are still stuck with the idea they need to bring it something…
Yes, that is the big divide. The divide of the early 21st century is exactly between those who think that this is a land of charity, where you bring something to these poor people who hardly manage to live, and those who come here because they know that it’s the laboratory of the future and that there are things here that can be harvested. The West, of course, is still an important player, but new players are coming in, new connections are being made for those of us who live in a place like Johannesburg for instance. It’s easy to see that. Just catch a flight going to Shanghai or to Mumbai or to Sao Paulo, and compare it to a flight going to New York or to London. These are two entirely different worlds. On the one hand the world of the future and on the other the world of the past. Where is it that the continent wants to go, with whom? And what are the forces that have to be mobilised to make a difference?
Do you think increased internet connectivity will dissolve the boundaries between countryside and cities, or will the city belong to the connected people and the countryside to the disconnected?
First of all, we are noticing a reduction of the distance between cities and rural areas, an intensification of the circulations and transactions between these two. People are moving constantly back and forth, to the point where it is becoming a bit difficult to say what is urban and what is rural. In a place like Kinshasa for instance, according to those who are studying the city, you see a ruralisation of the city and an urbanization of the rural. This is the trend that will intensify in the coming years. In a number of countries, we have seen an increase in the electrification of rural areas. In southern Cameroon for instance, most of the villages are now electrified. And with electricity comes all what we were talking about: television, internet access, mobile phones and so on. What we will see is the densification of all kinds of networks, both human and technological, which will reshape the entire African spatial map.
Do you think that with increased connectivity, internal African borders will tend to dissolve?
What we will see is a pluralization of borders, in the sense that we will still have these physical borders, colonial borders. But then these physical border will be superseded by all kinds of interactions, most of them virtual. This is already happening, so gradually the idea of physical borders will be delegitimised because of the intensity of virtual traffic which may lead to the reshaping of national entities. I think the future is wide open, but the contestation of borders will increase, even more so because Europe is now out of reach for many Africans. You will have an increase of urbanization. If you travel today from Lagos to Accra, it’s like one big coastal city. In fifty years nobody will know the borders of Lagos, because it will expand physically from Lagos to Accra. So the question is political: do we anticipate this? Or do we wait for it to happen chaotically and in a disorganised manner?
But culturally and psychologically, will this contribute to a new kind of pan-African mindset and identity?
It will contribute to the emergence of something I call the Afropolitan mindset, in the sense that there would be more circulations within this incredibly huge continent. I told you about the 1 million Chinese. In Angola and Mozambique, over the last five years, we have witnessed the return of 18,000 Portuguese some of whom had left during the colonisation, others just coming in. You have people coming in from South Asia. Moroccans coming from the north and establishing themselves in major cities in South Africa. So Afropolitanism is the cultural movement that accompanies these historical processes, some of which are totally new. It’s more than pan-Africanism, it’s something that makes of Africa the point of encounter of different migratory movements.
In some places, we see new borders being established with the use of technology, for example here in South Africa.
That is typical of the era of globalisation the world is undergoing. It is also typical of the era of financial capital which for its reproduction constantly needs to exempt itself from any obligations to a specific location, thus increasing the importance of the offshore, for instance.
Do you think totalitarian regimes in Africa could turn into technologically assisted totalitarian regimes?
If totalitarian regimes in Africa want to become more sophisticated in their control of the people they could do it, but I’m not sure they have the means or the intelligence. Sometimes, totalitarian regimes are quite stupid.
In the best case scenario, five to ten years from now, where will we be?
In 15 years we’ll have an entirely different continent. You will have populations that will be moving around at a faster pace than now: You will have more physical connections between the different parts of the continent; you will have a larger middle class; you’ll have enclaves of poverty, unemployment, even warfare; you will have many more people coming and settling in the continent, especially people coming from Asia; and you will have, since it is the topic of our conversation, millions of people who will be even more connected to the new technologies. Incidentally, the very poor will benefit from those developments. The biggest challenge will of course still be how to put people to work. Internet alone will not solve political issues. We have to reinvest in the political, meaning in forms of struggles, social and political struggles aiming at, and creating better just societies.
This interview has first been published in the Chimurenga Chronic (May 2015 edition).