The Case Against Capitalism

 But why this strong antipathy towards capitalism? Why is Nyerere against individualism and personal material accumulation? Nyerere’s views on capitalism and individualism are rooted in both ethical and empirical postulates. He argues that the purpose of production is consumption and not accumulation. Yet consumption not confined to the fortunate few, but the entire community. “Capitalism went wrong”, Nyerere contends, because “it divorced wealth from its true purpose …. to satisfy very simple needs. The need for food . . .. shelter …. (and) education”. Higher income per capita does not mean anything to him if the majority of the people are poor, below or just above subsistence level.

Capitalism is wrong because it has put the emphasis in the wrong place: production. The purpose of society is not production: it is to serve man. Society exists for man – not vice versa. Like Marx, Nyerere contends that production is not the primary purpose of society; it is only a necessary condition for a true human life.

” …. humanity’s progress must be measured by the extent of which man is freed from the domination of the need to produce. When the demands of ‘efficiency’ and ‘production’ override. man’s need for a full and good life, then society is no longer serving man; it is using him.”

Nyerere’s indictment of capitalism is precisely on the point that capitalism, in spite of all its claims to uphold the sanctity of individual personality and human freedom, uses man instead of the system itself being at the disposal of man’s needs. Man has to adapt to the system, rather than the other way around. Capitalism is based on individualism and the profit motive. By appealing to the self-interests of man, and thus making him a victim of the base side of his nature, capitalism has made man less free and less of a man. As long as he is preoccupied with production and personal acquisition, or with what Senghor terms “the monetary civilisation of the stock exchange” and is thus engaged in ruthless competition with his fellow man, he will never rise to his true heights.

There is another argument against capitalism. Its introduction into Africa, as already noted, presaged the destruction of the traditional African family with all its admirable qualities. By encouraging acquisitiveness and individualism, capitalism transformed the essentially communitarian society into an acquisitive one. A stage is reached, Nyerere argues, when “ruthless competition between individuals”‘ supplants co-operation between members of the same society. And it is competition not to obtain the necessities of life, but to “seize enough …. to give themselves more power, more prestige than their fellows”. At this point, Nyerere exclaims, “one millionaire is prepared to spend millions simply in order to destroy another millionaire”. “Wealth becomes an instrument of domination, a means of humiliating other people”.

To Nyerere, capitalism is essentially an exploitative economic system, and as such it is conducive to parasitism. He remains unimpressed by the ‘capitalist’ argument that the higher earnings of the entrepreneur are a just reward for his enterprise. There must be something wrong in a society where one man, however hard working or clever he may be, can acquire as a great a ‘reward’ as a thousand of his fellows can acquire between them.

Nyerere regards capitalism’s emphasis on the development of the innate human talents and resources for the individual’s exclusive gain with society as a secondary, though inevitable, beneficiary as wrong. He does not subscribe to the economic philosophy of the invisible hand. Of course absolute differences between individuals in economic and social well-being will never be eradicated. Human beings are not endowed with equal talents, nor with the same propensity to respond to education. But these differences, especially insofar as they are man created, should not be very wide. The gap should be a reasonable and tolerable one. It was this belief in the basic equality of all members and the principle of sharing, Nyerere claims, that characterized the social ethos of the traditional African society. In his own way each person contributed to the wealth of the community. In return the society supplied him with his needs, and above all it offered him security.

As for the Aristotelian man, so for the traditional African, life outside the community was unthinkable; it was not complete. But by legitimising the basic human differences in talents and capacities without any reference to the needs and demands of society as a whole, and by encouraging the development of these attributes in individuals so as to regard them as ends in themselves, capitalism removed the individual from his society and posited him in a world of his own self; It is always his needs, his wants, that counts. As a doctor he must get as much as the ‘market’ can offer because he has invested in his own talents. And this without regard to the needs and ability of the society in which he finds himself, and without consideration for the fact that it was society in the first place – and of which he is a part – that provided him with the opportunity to learn the skill.

With varying shades of distinction and emphasis, all African theorists on African socialism invoke African traditional life both as the basis of African socialism and as the major element which distinguishes it from European socialism.

Yet the case for a ‘communitarian’ or a ‘collectivist’ traditional African life is far from convincing. There is, of course, anthropological evidence which indicates a certain degree of communal or collectivist way of life in some tribes. But even here a distinction has to be made between a ‘consumptionist’ and a ‘productionist’ collective.

African Socialists, as well as some analysts, are too ready to assume that a collectivist society is Ipso facto egalitarian. It is of course arguable that most African traditional societies were collectivist, but very few of them were egalitarian. Each society is a product of unique socioeconomic circumstances, and consequently it has evolved unique social (or tribal) mores regarding wealth and economic activity generally. Some societies have combined the collectivistic tendencies with strong elements of status and hierarchy. Others have not.

To suggest that these disparate cultures could be fused into one cultural expression – African traditions – is too ambitious. The fact therefore remains that Nyerere, and others, have too readily and uncritically accepted and propagated the notion that African traditional life has been and still is socialistic. But why this tenacity of adherence to a proposition which is clearly lacking in substantive evidence? It can be argued that such a belief, and its emphatic assertion, is one way of demonstrating African superiority, that the African mode of life before the advance of the colonial and commercial occupation was qualitatively better.

Indeed, there is implicit in the assertion of African traditions the rejection, or at least an attempt to question seriously, the validity or relevance to Africa of some key tools of analysis used by the social scientist in the West. Thus, it is often asserted that the Western concept of ‘class’ – social or economic – has no relevance to African society. Nyerere has gone further, as we have seen, and has denied the very existence of the concept in any African language. Yet as Professor Mazrui argued in support of Mboya’s position in another context, the mere absence of a word to express a phenomenon is not in itself adequate evidence that such a phenomenon does not exist.

To this assertion, the African Socialist would reply that that might be so, but not to the traditional African himself. The African never regarded himself, or others, as belonging to different classes. As Nyerere would put it: “Binadamu wote ni ndugu zangu, na Afrika ni moja”. (I believe in Human Brotherhood and the Unity of Africa) and between brothers there are no class distinctions. They all belong to the same extended family. Thus, although the Western social scientist may be able to observe some evidence of social stratification in a traditional African society, the African socialist ‘refuses’ to see them primarily because they do not constitute part of his social frame of reference. Adolescence is a case in point here.

Adolescence has long been a social problem in Western society, but this has never been the case in Africa. Yet all young people, wherever they may be, in Africa or in China, pass through a period of adolescence. But the problems they present are not the same in all societies. Indeed, in some societies they might present none. The fact that adolescence is a problem in Western society might be a function of the society itself. The African traditional society was so structured, the African socialist would assert, that such problems did not exist.

It was the European education which made the ‘educated’ African consider himself different from his brother. And the colonial education policies, particularly in their emphasis on creating the middle classes as the backbone of a viable modern state, further underlined this discrimination. “Many educated Africans”, the Reverend Father Onuoho asserts, “are definitely no longer spiritually African”. Years of European education have corrupted them.

The Western impact, as we have noted, radically transformed the traditional African society from a basically egalitarian to a stratified one. As Nkrumah pointed out, what Western education, colonialism and capitalism did was to transfer European social conflicts to Africa. And it is perhaps in this sense that Nyerere would on occasion venture to admit that classes did exist in the traditional African society but, and this is the major distinction, they were not indigenous: they were introduced by foreigners.  And on this point Sekou Toure echoes a similar accusation: “The voice of the African people is not individualistic. On the contrary in spheres contaminated by the mentality of the colonisers, who has not observed the progress of personal egoism?” The traditional African was born free: it was the foreigner who committed him to social and economic chains.

But what is Nyerere’s concept of a traditional African society? Is it the extended family, the tribe, or does the expression denote an African local community untouched by Western or other – African included – influences? Clarity is lacking here. In some cases, traditional African society seems to refer to an African community before the Western impact. This emerges in his analysis of the corrupting influences of Western values on African society. In his defence for a classless traditional African society, Nyerere uses the concept ‘traditional’ to denote, by implication, a distinct African extended family or a tribe untouched or uninfluenced by other African extended families or tribes. A traditional African society in this latter sense will take us very far back into history, indeed farther than recorded history “can reveal. Surely that cannot be the African society Nyerere has in mind. What he seems to be most concerned about is the precolonial African society, and that one, as Nkrumah pointed out, is no traditional. “Our society is not an old society, but a new society enlarged by Islamic and Euro-Christian influences”.

More often Nyerere uses the term ‘traditional’ as a convenient concept for comparative purposes, to show how far contemporary African society differs from that of our great forefathers, and that these changes have been the result of the colonial impact.

There is a strong streak of un-restrained idealism in Nyerere’s conception of the traditional African society. And this idealism has slipped into some of his earlier writings. He tells us that the traditional African society was one of equality, or no rulers and ruled, with leaders simply as “first among equals”. Thus, in presenting his case for a one-party state in 1962, in which the traditional African society was part of the supporting arguments, Nyerere proposed that in a genuine one-party state “any patriotic citizen” could stand for election. And added: “If that is not democracy, I do not know the meaning of the word”. In 1965 he was politely brought back to reality by the Presidential Commission set up by himself to explore the practical method of establishing a democratic one-party state. The Commission recommended not more than three party candidates should be allowed to contest for elections. The number was later reduced to two by the Joint Meeting of Afro-Shirazi Party (the ruling party in Zanzibar) and TANU National Executives.

Still, the case for a classless African traditional society is more of an emotional nostalgia for the ideal which was never really achieved in the past, than a description of historical reality. Nkrumah is correct, though it may be painful for others to accept, when he said:

“Today the phrase ‘African socialism’ seems to espouse the view that the traditional African society was a classless society imbued with ‘the spirit of humanism and to express a nostalgia for that spirit. Such a conception of socialism makes a fetish of the communal African society. Colonialism deserves to be blamed for many evils in Africa, but surely it was not preceded by an African Golden Age or paradise. A return to pre-colonial African society is evidently not worthy of the ingenuity and efforts of our people.”

There were classes in the African traditional society. The fact that they did not assume the same acute arrogance, hostility, indifference and cruelty towards each other as in industrialised Europe was simply a question of opportunity. Should opportunities for class formation occur, as is most likely once modernisation in African states gets seriously under way, and in the absence of any positive public measures to counter such formations, social stratification will take place in Africa. Indeed, it is the prospect of the emergence of an African bourgeoisie and proletariat, and of what Thiam Habib calls a “bourgeois class of politico-administrative origin” that disturbs Nyerere immensely.

Nyerere’s case for a classless society is based less on a ‘nostalgic’ pest’ than on a new and positive future. His argument for a classless society which is linked with the case against capitalism already discussed, is based on the simple fact that Africans cannot afford to have a stratified society. Why? “We aim at building a classless society for one reason. In no state is there enough wealth to satisfy the desire of a single individual for power and prestige”. Hence to avoid the main source of friction in society, i.e. competition between individuals for the acquisition of wealth, new African states must opt for a classless society. And such an option is far easier at this stage of development, because the traditional African society, which has not yet been completely destroyed, had always been ‘classless’ and ‘socialistic’; and secondly, although classes are now in the process of formation due to modernization, this trend can easily be eliminated or at least controlled. But action must be taken immediately before it is too late.