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What the West can learn from Africa: Interview with French Economist Serge Latouche (Zenit)

What the West can learn from Africa: Interview with French Economist Serge Latouche



VENICE, Italy, OCT. 5, 2000 ( Despite its poverty and violence, Africa works — and in ways that would baffle most Westerners.

That seems to be the view of French economist Serge Latouche, who has expressed his distrust of Western economic science as the principal instrument for knowing the world.

He developed his ideas in his 1998 book “L’autre Afrique” (“The Other Africa”), and today he confirmed his thesis at an international congress on “The Debated Globe,” being held in Venice through Sunday. The congress was organized by the “Fondamenta” cultural institution.

Latouche took advantage of the occasion to talk about Africa — deemed the “hopeless continent” by one Western magazine this year — in unconventional terms.

The professor of economics at the University of Paris-Sud-Sceaux sees Africa as a parable of the failure of the West’s idea of a rational, technical society. In the following interview, he analyzes the play between globalization and culture.

–Q: According to official figures from the World Bank, Africa is dying. Do you have this impression?

–Latouche: When I go to Africa I am amazed by a reality that is incomprehensible in the light of Western logic: I meet happy people; well-dressed, well-fed children, popular neighborhoods where the people live with dignity, despite the poverty and austerity of the surroundings.

The tragedies we hear about — epidemics, genocide — are very real. But 800 million people are able to survive thanks to their capacity for self-organization. This is due to the wealth of social ties, the famous African solidarity, which allows people who do not have an official job, to produce for one another outside the logic of the market, and to find the necessary goods and services to live and not just survive.

–Q: So the Africans go back to the culture that existed prior to Western colonization?

–Latouche: Culture, in the anthropological sense of the term, understood as that which gives meaning to life, is essential. It completely overlooks the economy tied to objective data, namely, that which can be calculated, such as production and consumption.

When a youth leaves his village in Africa, because he can no longer survive there, and arrives in slum neighborhoods of the metropolis, he immediately tries to form part of a clan, to have the most extensive relations possible. Thus he finds a certain mutuality, a life insurance, unemployment insurance.

It is the clans that create sport societies, as well as theater and prayer groups. They are the ones who calculate the dowry of a girl who is to marry, and organize funerals for those who die. In a word, they take charge of all the aspects of social life.

Like South America, Africa has extraordinary creativity, which is expressed, among other things, with incredible prophetic flowering: in fact, a union of prophets was created recently! This creativity, which sometimes makes us laugh, is also a form of do-it-yourself work in a situation in which traditional cults no longer function — how can one believe in animism in the era of Internet?

Therefore, we are faced with a coherent complex, made at an imaginary level, to which are joined solidarity networks and technical and economic do-it-yourself works.

–Q: In face of globalization, which flattens everything and makes it uniform, must we withdraw in defense of our identities?

–Latouche: The Africans have had no choice: At most they would have preferred to live like us, but given the condition in which they find themselves, they take recourse to self-organization, whose foundation is the “cultural setting” to which they belong.

Our situation is very different: We have invented the “megamachine” [technical-economic system]; uprootedness and the destruction of traditional culture are a consummate fact. Those who are excluded among us do not have the possibility of organizing themselves like the Africans do. What can be done? We must negotiate on three different fronts: survival, dissidence and resistance. If we do not negotiate with the world just as it is at present, we shall not survive. Therefore, we must come to specific agreements.

However, it does not mean that one must be in ideological agreement with the delirium of the system in which we live, which is already a form of mental resistance to the brainwashing that is the result of the globalization of the market.

I am convinced that we are on a meteorite that is traveling at a crazy speed, without a driver, without breaks, and now runs the risk of not even having fuel. We must abandon it, before it crashes into the wall.

The alternatives are dissidence, the creation of local exchange networks, like “the time bank” [a system by which people offer time in exchange for others’ time: for example, a dressmaker gives two hours in exchange for two hours from a mason] and associations


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