Sunday, 10th December 2023

Deconstructing self in the World: Connecting extremes

By Olatoun Gabi-Williams
31 July 2022   |   3:55 am
Keith Hart, an economic anthropologist, who lives in Paris and Durban, is known across the globe. He has taught in universities including Manchester, Yale, Chicago, Pretoria, London School of Economics ...


Keith Hart, an economic anthropologist, who lives in Paris and Durban, is known across the globe. He has taught in universities including Manchester, Yale, Chicago, Pretoria, London School of Economics (LSE) and for the longest time in Cambridge, where he was Director of the African Studies Centre. A scholar of Africa and the African Diaspora, Hart contributed the concept of the informal economy to Development Studies and has been described as “one of the most creative intellectuals of the last 50 years.” In this interview, he expounds ideas published in his revolutionary memoir, Self in the World: Connecting Life’s Extremes, a fast-paced, totally engrossing conversation with his readers. He achieves what only the best writers can: help us acquire a clear and hopeful understanding of our own place in history by combining autobiography with speculation about the world.

You came to this idea through your dramatic and dangerous immersion in Ghana’s street economy.
A world revolution occurred after the disasters of 1914 to 45. Its vehicles were developmental states in the industrial West, Soviet bloc and newly independent former colonies. The policy was to reduce economic inequality, restrict capital flows, increase public services, raise the incomes of working families and develop international cooperation (despite Cold War rivalry). Its motto was modernisation — poor countries could become like the rich who would support the process. The result was the biggest boom in world economy before or since. But by 1970, it had become clear that modernisation wasn’t working.

I stayed in Ghana 1965 to 68 studying Northern migrants in Nima and elsewhere. It was a lawless place and I stuck out as someone with obvious external ties outside. Before long, I decided to cross the line to their side of the law and took up receiving stolen goods, money lending and the drugs trade. It seemed that the local economy was being made and remade from day-to-day. I was impressed by the migrants’ enterprise and inevitable failure in all but a few cases. I collected information for 70 individuals and wrote some up for my PhD as individual life stories.

My first job was a development group at the University of East Anglia. I knew plenty about the street economy, but little about the new states and international development. In the next decade, I worked as a consultant in the Cayman Islands, Papua New Guinea, Hong Kong and on West African agriculture. I couldn’t write a book based on my doctoral research.

The West felt uneasy at this point when the U.S. began to lose in Vietnam; and the other side emphasised development failure with books on underdevelopment, dependency and the world system mainly from Latin America. The development industry focused on the gap between the rapidly expanding populations of Third World cities and the small number of ‘real jobs’ there. This gap was named ‘unemployment’. The fear of civic unrest, even of revolution, was palpable.

In 1971, I wrote a paper for a Sussex conference on unemployment in Africa: Informal income opportunities and urban employment in Ghana. I argued that the people I knew in Nima were working, not unemployed, even if their work was erratic and poorly paid. Public bureaucracy did not reach down to their level, but most people aspired to combine formal and informal employment. The paper was well received by many participants. Next year, a team, led by the conference organisers, wrote a report on Kenya for the International Labour Office. Its main point was that ‘the informal sector’ could mitigate poverty and unemployment there. I was not mentioned.

I didn’t like the idea of a separate sector of economic activity, but several people wrote that Hart invented the ‘informal sector’. I published my article in 1973, then converted to Marxism and left the informal economy alone for 15 years, returning to it when the Cold War ended. By then, it had become a well-demarcated field in academic and development bureaucracy. My 1973 paper was often cited as its origin, even though the idea’s mixed origins led to some confusion. Since then, I have written many papers on the subject, posted on, a recent one being, How the informal economy took over the world (2015), thanks to neoliberal reductions in state power and lawless capital flows worldwide. The largest of these, foreign exchange (FX), now has a daily turnover of $6 trillion. Try controlling that.

In Self in the World you make an heart-warming claim that anthropologists can learn much from the great anti-colonial leaders and thinkers of Africa and Asia — your mentor, C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon, Mohandas Gandhi and others.
I have no doubt that the anti-colonial revolution against European Empires in the three decades 1945 to 79 was the most important political event of the last century. Two world wars were its catalyst. Peoples coerced into a world society made by and for Europeans now asserted their right to make an independent connection with a new world. Its political leaders were often intellectuals. They had to imagine society after racist empire and persuade largely peasant populations to fight for it, a process, which required colonised people to educate themselves individually into being more effective participants in the struggle, while drawing on their own circumstances and motivations.

The greatest of these, with most to teach us as we prepare to fight for a better world, was Mohandas K. Gandhi. But because of my own focus on Africa, I have learned a lot from a trio of Pan-African leaders, all from the New World: W.E.B. Du Bois, an American, and two from the Caribbean, C.L.R. James and Frantz Fanon. In the first half of the last century, Pan-Africanism was the largest and most diverse political movement on earth with the common aim of regaining control of their land for Africans.

These leaders wanted the advantages of Western civilisation, but on their own terms without racial exclusion. Their Pan-African success in winning independence after 1945 soon gave way to nationalism in the post-war global order predicated on nation-states, not empires or international movements. Even though world society has not banished racism and unequal development since then, I very much believe that the anti-colonial intellectuals offer us the best historical material if we want to educate ourselves to think about making a new world.

I’m a Nigerian educated in Britain. I returned to Nigeria over 30 years ago, but still have family in the UK. Like you, I am fascinated by the relationship between movement and identity in the transition from national to world society.
‘Identity’ is a difficult concept. First, I regret that identity politics has replaced citizenship as an ideology of belonging in the last half-century. Identity means being the same – as others in gender, race, nationality or religion – or oneself as a person over time. I was taught that we often think we know someone by a visible marker (‘big nose’) and make do with that. But we should wait until we see how s/he treats us and respond accordingly. I am unsure how movement and sameness are related. What I do know is that we need stability to move – airports and railway stations have to stay where they are if we want to get from A to B.

One theme that lends unity to my life is movement, not just in time space, but socially and culturally. I believe that it is the universal antidote to unequal societies, which flourish when subordinate people are fixed in the ground by their masters. If I don’t like where I am, I complain; and if that doesn’t work, I move on. I have worked in 24 countries for between two months and two decades. This means that I must have methods for being received elsewhere. For academics, this means having a published reputation.

I recognised early on that I had embarked on entering the liberal professions by passing examinations. But what if I didn’t pass them? I might be forced into a job like my dad’s, a low-paid wage employee of a large company, where he had been stuck without promotion for two decades. That possibility frightened me, as it still does; and I began to think about making money without working. At 12, I took up betting on the horses and I have been betting ever since, today in global financial markets.

I paid for a large part of my higher education that way and, when moving internationally, I kept a gambling fund in case I lost my current job. I was also paid irregularly for writing and consultancy, built up capital by buying and selling houses, had my own publishing business and always aimed for ‘pluriactivity’. I eventually came up with a pseudo-Maoist slogan: ‘Walk on two legs (bureaucracy and the market); it’s better than standing on one leg and falling over.’

But you explore the idea of movement in your book in another way, don’t you?
Yes. Self in the World also employs the idea of movement differently. My central theme concerns how we can make the small and large extremes of human existence work for each of us together: self/world, individual/society, life/ideas, local/global, personal/impersonal, real/virtual? We have to bring these pairs into interaction and that means movement. I argue that money schools us in bridging these existential gaps – opening up universal society while closing down the particulars of everyday life. Apart from money, I get turned on most by music and numbers, which move continuously between extremes of emotion, calculation and belonging. Despite this, many of us find the second of these pairs a coercive threat to our intimate lives.

The memoir foregrounds ‘globalisation’. But you prefer to call it ‘the new human universal’. Why?
I start from the idea that ours is a ‘Magellan moment’, as when the Portuguese navigator sailed round the world a few years after Columbus crossed the Atlantic. At much the same time, Bartolomé de las Casas exposed the racial inequality of Spain’s American empire in the name of human unity. The second half of the last century saw the world emerge as a single interactive social network. We saw the earth from the outside, created a single framework of time for the whole planet, linked people everywhere to the ‘world market’ and built universal communications to express universal ideas. We too are painfully aware of the inequality accompanying this move towards human unity.

‘Globalisation’ has occurred several times before, whenever a region’s people found greater freedom of movement in the world. The last time was the three to four decades before the First World War when 50 million Europeans moved to temperate zones of new settlement (37 million to the U.S.) and 50 million Indians and Chinese (‘coolies’) moved mainly to tropical areas. In Hegel’s terms, recent history has been organised by a dialectic of state vs. market. In the 1970s this pair became blurred (market socialism, state capitalism) and was named ‘postmodernism’ (for Hegel ‘negative dialectic’). This gave way to a new positive idea which, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, was globalisation, one-world capitalism or a world unified by the American Empire’s market fundamentalism and the free flow of capital everywhere.

ism, militarism, financial monopoly, private property in ideas and the digital revolution. The ‘free market’ is an implausible fig leaf for this. In the last decade we have seen market fundamentalism split globally and within the US itself between neoliberal globalisation and xenophobic autocracy, between moving into the world and staying at home.

At various times in the last half-millennium when the West took over the world, their hegemony has been expressed as an idealised human universal. At first this was Catholicism, then White racism and finally bourgeois economics. The “new human universal” I speak of is not an idea, but 8 billion people crying out for a global social order based on common human interests. Its enemy is durable social division, especially nationalism and racism, fuelled by runaway economic inequality. Most of us, certainly the young, know that humanity’s most pressing problems are global in scope, not least poverty, ignorance and the need for social justice. The two great principles driving our civilization are democracy and science. People must be equal to be free and they must know what is real in the world to achieve it.

OGW: People must be equal to be free. I fully agree but there are social forces opposed to this idea, Keith.

KH: Yes, there are. And the strength of their opposition is a measure of the West’s decline. Regrettably these forces seem to be getting stronger. But if we fail to make a world society for all humanity this century, there will not be a 22nd. My book addresses individual readers who may sometimes feel like a puny self, lost in a vast unknowable universe. Belonging to the world as a whole seems to be impossibly remote. I hope to show that we can learn how to make the connection, to place ourselves in history, each in our own way.

4. OGW: Let’s talk some more about the digital revolution.

You compare the digital revolution with the invention of agriculture as a force in human history. Like you I am very excited about it.

What role does it play in your vision of bringing self and world closer together?

KH: The invention of agriculture had two phases: small-scale domestication of plants and animals for several millennia and ‘the urban revolution’ which I discuss below in the context of African development. I compare the agricultural and digital revolutions for several reasons. They are both hugely significant in human history and our times could be understood, not so much as a break with the past as adding machines to the institutions of agrarian civilization. We are literally at the beginning of this second revolution, so that our age resembles when agriculture was invented 10,000 years ago. In that case, rather than being pillars of modernity, we should compare ourselves with the first digging stick operators scratching around unprofitably in the dirt, primitive pioneers with no clue where our stumbling efforts will end up – which in their case was Chinese and European civilisation. I once asked myself what interest future generations will have in who we are. The answer of course is ‘the digital revolution’. The main reason for their interest would be to see how we closed down possibilities that they no longer had because of us, as we stumble blindly into a future we cannot imagine.

It is only two centuries since we entered the revolutionary age of machines. In that time the world’s population has grown from 1 billion to 8 billion; the proportion living in cities rose from under 3% to a half; and energy production has been doubling every 25 years. The societies that have been negotiating this hectic transition from the village to the city as our normal habitat are still significantly shaped by 5,000 years of agrarian civilization. Our institutions echo the priorities of the small urban elites who designed society long ago with the aim of controlling a passive rural labour force. These priorities include territorial states, landed property, warfare, embattled cities, impersonal money, long-distance trade, and lay emphasis on work, racism, world religion and the nuclear family.

National capitalism, a reactionary alliance of big money, traditional enforcers and bureaucrats, is the main reason why we have made so little progress. If you doubt this, consider what happened to one of the largest concentrations of money in history – the taxes paid to centralized industrial states after the Second World War. The money was spent on subsidizing food and armaments, the priorities of the bully throughout the ages and on sedatives to dull the pain. If you are still not convinced, take a look at world society today.

The digital revolution will end when distance communications can replicate all features of face-to-face conversation (currently no human energy exchange). We need to take more seriously the scientific modernism of quantum mechanics (Planck) than social science did in the last century. ‘You can’t measure position and movement at the same time and every time you observe something, you change it.’ Before now the masses could only receive bits of information, not produce them. Suddenly, everyone who goes online is a broadcaster to the world. We already know how that encourages bad behaviour, but not what to do about it.

OGW: You say that our rulers are panicking about the loss of central power as a consequence of the digital revolution.
KH: We can now live anywhere and work somewhere else, but how to sustain close personal relations under those circumstances? If agriculture promotes stability and modern transport promotes movement, the internet already shows we can change the terms of their interaction. The pandemic amplified this lesson – the internet’s power to reconfigure stability and movement- during the lockdowns when it restricted our movement and made normal life, work and transport impossible. Of course, governments and bosses are wondering if they can force us back into their cages. Is it surprising that humanity is hurtling into natural catastrophe, world war and economic collapse with no central government guidelines, only those offered by a Swedish teenager?

5.OGW: Let me quote you:

‘The period 1800 – 2100 is a drama in three acts (the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries) of which the last has just begun. The main issue this century will be the political and economic consequences of Africa’s population explosion.’

KH: The growth of Africa’s cities in the last century should have led to cumulative exchange, as farmers supply food to city-dwellers and buy the latter’s manufactures and services. But this requires a measure of protection from the big beasts in the world market that is now forbidden by neoliberal globalization. The rise of cities has spawned weak and venal states, dependent on foreign powers and content to leave the rural and urban masses to their own devices. Any strategy for African development must build on the urban revolution of the last century. Let me explain further: The rise of cities in the 20th century did not support a progressive political economy but the rise of cities did provide the framework for the much bigger population growth in the 21st century. With appropriate policies, this could support genuine progress. But of course, it won’t if African leaders depend on minerals, agriculture and manufactures and do not understand the new global urban services economy.

National elites first relied on revenues from agricultural exports, then on dubious loans, finally on the financial monopoly that came from supervising their country’s relations with global capitalism. But foreign capital discovered that it could dispense with local state intermediaries and concentrated on collecting debts from them instead. Hopes for African democracy were replaced by dictatorship, whether civil or military.

OGW: And Africa’s population explosion?

KH: There have been three great shifts in the composition of the world’s population since 1800. The first was Europe’s growth between the 1830s and 1930s with industrial capitalism as its motor – better food, sanitation and living conditions made possible by steam engines and then electrification. The second was Asia’s after 1945, for similar reasons; but Asia already had the largest share of world population. Europe had 25% of the world’s population in 1900 (36% including lands of temperate zone settlement). Africa had only 7.5 per cent then, but twice its share of the world’s land. ‘The scramble for Africa’ was an unequal contest. Its global population share doubled from 1900 until now.

The UN projects that Africa will have 25% of the world’s people in 2050 and 40% in 2100; Asia’s share will then be 42% (60% now). All the rest will have 18% between them (25% now). Europe’s share be 6% in 2100.

This third epochal change in the regional balance of humanity is much larger than the other two. Its motor is Africa’s annual population growth rate of 2.5 per cent, while population is shrinking everywhere else. Bursts of population growth occur when birth rates stay high while death rates fall owing to material improvements. When children’s survival becomes surer, people invest their energies in fewer of them and birth rates fall. Africa’s death rates have fallen too, but continuing precarity of births has not yet persuaded African women that they should have fewer children.

6.OGW: How can Africa take economic and political advantage of its rising preponderance in the world?

KH: The Asian manufacturing exporters already recognize that Africa will soon be the fastest-growing market in the world; not so the West which wallows in nostalgia for its past glories. Africans might stand up for themselves more effectively under these conditions. One aim of my book is to suggest strategies that could help them to do so. The institutions of agrarian civilization are alive and well today, not just in postcolonial Africa. The greatest riches are no longer acquired through selling manufactures cheaper; rents secured by political power keep the super-rich afloat today – Big Pharma’s licenced income from patents, monopoly profits from DVDs and CDs and banks being bailed out by tax revenues.

Clearly, trade and finance are not organized, in Africa or the world at large with encouraging popular movements in mind. As well as mass popular support, successful revolutions need allies with significant wealth and power. Africans must develop their own transnational associations to combat the huge coalitions that would deny them self-development. My favourite of these, as I argue below, is the formation of large regional trading blocs (but not an African Union run by national politicians who sign pieces of useless paper). A national framework for development never made sense in Africa and it makes even less sense today.

Africa’s revolution in the coming century will be based on its booming share of the world’s population. This coming revolution could leapfrog many obstacles in the continent’s path, but not if African societies still wear the national straitjackets they have inherited in a world society conceived of as the United Nations.

Shipping has reduced transport costs for material objects as radically as the digital revolution has for information. A car made in Shanghai costs roughly $5,000 to make and ship to Dar-es-Salaam. It costs another $4000 to transport overland to Kampala, 1,500 kilometres away. As in pre-revolutionary France, local thugs (here police and soldiers nominally employed by the state) extract tribute at every point, while holding up all travellers, however poor.

If the first stage is to build up expanded areas of free trade at home, [with harmonised economic policies and less political interference, intrusive rules and enforcers inhibiting population movement], the second stage could be to expand and protect regional home markets from global predators. Strengthened African trade federations, representing the fastest-growing world market demand, could lobby for assembly and similar plants to be relocated within their boundaries.

7.OGW: What might Africa’s human economy look like in the future?

KH: The key to Africa’s economic growth is the production of its new urban populations. So far, African countries have relied on exporting raw materials. Minerals have a promising future owing to scarce supplies and escalating demand; but the world market for food and other agricultural products is skewed by Western dumping. Conventionally, African governments have embraced manufacturing as an alternative, but here they face intense competition from Asia. The world market for services, especially digital, is booming and greater opportunities may exist there.

Services were once performed personally on the spot; but today they increasingly link producers and consumers at distance. The fastest-growing sector of world trade is culture: entertainment, education, sports, media, software and information services. The future of the human economy lies in the infinite scope for us to do intangible things for each other – like singing songs or telling stories. The largest global television audiences are for sporting events like the World Cup or the Olympic Games. The terrain here is not as rigidly mapped out. Africans are well-placed to compete because global audiences already like their music, plastic arts and movies. The largest music company, Universal, is betting on Afro-beat. American popular culture is still that country’s most successful export. African popular culture could occupy that status for Africans too. Africa’s median age is under 20; the culture industries would give young people something to do they might like. Look at what Rap has done for young African Americans or, for that matter, high life (forged in Brazil, Cuba and New Orleans) for Africa’s independence generation.

OGW: So you believe that Africa’s future is bright?

KH: Africa must escape soon from varieties of Old Regime that owe much to the legacy of slavery, colonialism and apartheid; but these alone should not be made responsible for conditions today. Africa now leads the world in mobile money networks, notably Kenya’s M-pesa, after missing out on the steam and electricity phases of the machine revolution. Africans have taken to digital economy with great energy and imagination while benefiting from small, powerful and cheap personal machines (mobile smart phones). Learning from earlier commercial revolutions, while using contemporary technology, could open up fresh solutions to Africa’s challenges regarding development.

Its future economic growth lies in the cultural production of its cities, not rural extraction or the reactionary hope of reproducing western capitalism’s industrial phase. This will require a broad-based social revolution or several of them. Contributing elements could include the energy of youth and women; the religious revival; exploding modern arts; the digital revolution; and a returning African global diaspora since 1945. African revolutions will be shaped by the continent’s own history. But the history of liberal revolutions in the Americas, Europe and East Asia provide important lessons too.

8.OGW: Money, money, money! Why is “money how we learn to be more fully human”?

KH: If language divides us, so too does money; but money, unlike language, has the power to unify the world. It already has – what else does the world market run on? I claim that money is always personal and impersonal. That makes it an ideal instrument for bringing the two together. Just using it every day schools us in integrating our double nature.

Money – the main device in capitalist societies for making social relations objective – is also a benchmark for concrete narratives of subjective attachment. A good example is divorce. There, argument often focuses on money as a proxy for personal pain. Its power lies in this synthesis of impersonal abstraction and personal meaning, objectification and subjectivity, analytical reason and synthetic narrative. Money is like religion, channelling our desire to link our deepest thoughts and feelings to the object world that we share with everyone.

Money’s key feature is its fluent movement between life’s social extremes, large and small. If you have some, you can buy almost anything with it. Money shows us society’s abstract potential to be universal. At the same time, it closes off particular transactions, anchoring them in local time and space. Money schools us daily in moving between society’s widest and narrowest regions.

Thinking through money generates money. It turns the world into a few money men who exploit workers, consumers and small owners. Anyone can ‘make’ money, but most people are its victims. People with little money still count it as a measure. Money men understand that its potential is less tangible. Let us label the sides ‘makers of money’ and ‘takers of money’. Since we can only know the past, why would anyone accept a promise whose future is unknowable? But we do, because we have to – faith is the glue sticking past and future together in the present. All the transactions we wish to calculate are made through money. It seems to be more stable, even though we know it isn’t.

Conventional money flatters our sense of self-determination. It is a kind of personal freedom. With some money, we exert power over the world. Yet there is comfort in money being out of our control. Let me offer slavery as a parallel. There is a parallel with slavery because we are slaves to those who issue money. Further, a slave is not free but may take comfort in being unfree because this state of things – being a slave, choiceless – helps to clarify things that would otherwise be wide open. As an exogenous force of necessity, money clarifies judgment and action.

OGW: Explain our beliefs about and attitudes towards national monopoly currency

People feel that national monopoly currency must be inevitable. Though no-one would freely choose it, people are reluctant to take up alternatives like community currencies. No-one would choose the currency we have, but we make a lifetime of adjustment to it. Giving it up would make that effort – a lifetime of adjustment to the currency we already have – pointless, so we stick with what we know. We want to be free, but choose the illusion of freedom without responsibility. We prefer not to make our own money. And if we never have enough, it’s because ‘they’ keep it scarce. Persuading people to take the leap to do-it-yourself money involves confronting their deepest beliefs.

OGW: How is money linked to democracy?

KH: Money is linked to democracy because its impersonality dissolves differences between people. Thinking of money as a durable ground to stand on may anchor identity in collective memory. It also helps us to generate the personal credit linking individuals to society. Money is an ocean that widens our horizons. The pressure to exert local control persists, however. Money’s social value lies not in separating local and global spheres, but in moving between them. It reflects humanity as a whole while anchoring us in the everyday. All markets are world markets, but money is compatible with all levels of society.

Money mediates the two pairs that define national capitalism – state and market, home and world. We develop ourselves through them. We can join past, present and future; fact and fiction; local and global. We should not perch on one pole, but learn to combine both ends in society. Exchange of meanings through language and of goods and services through money are now converging on the internet. The digital revolution could advance the human conversation about a better world. Money is the strategic way to learn how to be more fully human.

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