The G20 Summit that took place last week was memorable for a number of reasons: the riots in Hamburg, German Chancellor Merkel’s viral eye-roll at Russia’s President Putin, Ivanka Trump’s controversial sit-in for her father or perhaps French President Macron’s open, blatant racism.
Responding to a reporter’s question about the possibility of a Marshall Plan for Africa, Macron insisted that Africa’s problems were “much deeper.”
Unlike postwar Europe, he said, “le defi de l’Afrique est civilisationnel”, where injecting billions of Euros will do little to ease a demographic transition with countries that “still have 7 to 8 children per woman.”
“You will stabilize nothing,” he added.
Whereas colonialist rhetoric like this would be expected of his notoriously xenophobic former opponent Marine Le Pen, the fact that they came from a neo-“liberal” centrist is all the more disturbing.
But it ultimately points to an inherited mentality towards Africa that appears time and again within the Western political fabric.
THE PERSISTENCE OF COLONIAL DIPLOMACY
Yet we shouldn’t see Marcon’s comments as an anomaly, but more so a predictable step in the history of European colonialism and capital expansion.
By resurrecting such an archaic term, Macron has made it all the more obvious that Europe has yet to shift away from its imperial tendencies.
The emergence of the term ‘civilization’ can be traced directly back to Europe’s encounters with Africa.
The time the word came into being almost exactly coincides with the ‘mission civilisatrice’ (civilizing mission) rhetoric used to justify conquest abroad.
The idea that humanity is categorized into neat, linear stages (uncivilized – semi-civilized – civilized) positioned Europe at the top of this ladder.
Entities such as China, Japan and the Ottoman Empire were afforded semi-civilized status, and were recognized by the colonial powers but only to the extent that their capital could be siphoned.
Africa, however, was placed at the outskirts of this system of exclusion.
IMAGINING AFRICA: THE HEART OF DARKNESS
This mentality was pervasive in European society, and later became intrinsic to their own self-identification.
In 1899, Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness, in which a young voyager is shocked by images of exploitation in Africa.
He contrasts London and the Congo as “places of darkness” – the former being plagued with “civilizational” maladies, and the latter by the lack of “civilization.”
Conrad was among the first to reflect on the human condition under industrialization, but was trapped within the racist framework of his time; his novella denies Africans their humanity and uses their ‘savagery’ to bring out the worst in European culture.
“There you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly and the men were …. No they were not inhuman. Well, you know that was the worst of it — this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped and spun and made horrid faces, but what thrilled you, was just the thought of their humanity — like yours — the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly.”
And yet according to this worldview, Europe was under a moral obligation to export its own notion of “civilization” to the rest of the world, and through this, legitimized, rationalized and legalized colonial policy, during which Africa would be drained, plundered and desecrated.
The aftermath of the First World War institutionalized these practices even further, under the auspices of the League of Nations.
Article 22 of its Covenant established the Mandate System that employed the moralistic language and policy of the civilizing mission.
As Japan and the Ottoman Empire came to realize during the 19th century, the only path into the club was economic, political and legal reform in the image of European society – a cultural erasure of sorts.
After decolonization, new forms of maintaining imperial rule flourished, particularly in the parasitic shapes of development agencies, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
This neo-colonialism, as it is often referred, adopted new tools of exploitation including bilateral investment treaties, public-private partnerships, military intervention and free-market economies – all of which Macron suggested were solutions to Africa’s malaise.
‘ALTERNATIVE FACTS’, YOU TOO, MONSIEUR MACRON?
Macron’s remarks point to the resilience of imperialist thought and the effort to restructure capital both in the West and abroad.
But even when taken literally, Macron’s claim that Africa’s women have 7 or 8 children hindering its development is also factually inaccurate when it comes to every single African state.
And this isn’t another simple inaccuracy, it’s a full-blown racialized effort in stereotyping and perpetuating an image already firmly established within the colonial imaginary.
Because Europe wasn’t the neat picture with “its borders and its stability” that Macron tried to paint either.
Its Southeast theater was ravaged by vicious proxy wars, fueled by the US’ Truman Doctrine and anticommunist intervention leading up to the Cold War.
By repainting postwar Europe as a stable and ‘civilized’ political space, Macron is engaging the most deplorable kind of historical revisionism.
This supposedly prosperous Europe is directly contrasted by the ‘dark’ continent’s image of chaos, violence, radicalism and perpetual underdevelopment.
Macron diagnoses Africa’s developmental problems as stemming not from economic maladies, but from “civilizational” afflictions. This is to say that “saving” Africa is beyond the reach of Europe’s vast monetary resources.
This is juxtaposed to postwar Europe’s problems, which even after the bloodiest war in human history, were still only ever economic and never truly “civilizational.”
His comments reflect not a statement of facts, but an intention to recreate a bygone era.