Academic journal article New Formations

The 'Moral Empire': Africa, Globalisation and the Politics of Conscience

Academic journal article New Formations

The 'Moral Empire': Africa, Globalisation and the Politics of Conscience

Article excerpt

   Do you know why people like me are shy about being capitalists?
   Well, it's because we, for as long as we have known you, were
   capital.

                                               Jamaica Kincaid (1)

In February 2004, less than a year after the invasion of Iraq by British and US forces commenced, Tony Blair launched the Commission for Africa, with 17 members from Africa, Europe and North America. All were apparently working in their 'individual and personal capacities', though most were, in fact, either high-profile politicians or captains of the private sector in Africa. The publication of the Commission's report, entitled Our Common Interest: An Argument, in March 2005, coincided with 'Africa 05', a cultural festival lasting several months, led by the British Museum, the Arts Council England and the South Bank centre with several partners, including the BBC. (2) At the same time, the Make Poverty History campaign--a coalition of several non-profit organisations and charities spearheaded by Oxfam--stepped on to a global stage with Nelson Mandela addressing a huge rally in Trafalgar Square urging leaders of the G8 to recognise that the 'world is hungry for action, not words'. The media was saturated with cover stories, reportage, and programmes on Africa, including a high-profile television series on the BBC which was based on Bob Geldof 's whistle-stop tour of parts of the African continent and was narrated by the musician-turned-humanitarian activist. As Iraq reeled into disastrous mayhem, narratives of Africa were proffered as the cultural and political mainstay of the year 2005.

In the raft of cultural texts, policy documents and political declarations that have emerged in the wake of these initiatives and Africa '05 more generally, certain discursive shifts are worth noting. The first is an invocation of 'common' or 'shared' interest which holds that an amelioration of poverty in Africa and elsewhere benefits humanity as a whole (in contrast, for instance, to an earlier rhetoric of 'enlightened self-interest'). Second, and even more notable, is a cautious acknowledgement that the reduction of poverty is an issue of 'justice' rather than 'charity'. And finally, albeit in fragmented and weakly articulated ways, emerges the understanding that politics and economics are not separate entities and that human agency, beyond the abstraction of market forces, must be deployed to effect any change in the situation. Nominal or notional though some of these shifts may seem, there is much about them that is salutary. They are to be read as responses to the global activism and grassroots organising of the last decade which have strenuously interrogated the premises of corporate 'globalisation' as an economic programme. Commentators as diverse as the former World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz and scholars Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have remarked on the impact that protests in Porto Alegre, Seattle, Davos and elsewhere have had in forcing large transnational institutions such as the IMF and the World Economic Forum to modify policy and practice. (3) Meanwhile, campaigns such as the Make Poverty History attempt to transform criticism of corporate globalisation into effective action through political lobbying but more controversially, also seek to work with and within dominant political and economic institutions. Given the present political conjuncture, this is a move that has implications beyond the pragmatism argued for and intended by its advocates. Coming from Tony Blair, initiatives such as the Africa Commission and Blair's attempt to associate his government with the Make Poverty History campaign, also have a determinate role to play in attempting to seal (off) the fractures and fractiousness created by the unpopular invasion of Iraq by calling for political unity and moral resolution in fighting poverty (elsewhere, of course). Indeed, the famous 'scar on the world's conscience' around which we must rally is categorically not Iraq but Africa, in relation to which there can be historical and imaginative distance and so, little sense of direct culpability. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.