Piketty and the middle classes

Nancy Birdsall

Nancy Birdsall

‘Pikettymania’. That’s how Nancy Birdsall discredited the global interest in Thomas Piketty’s book ‘Capital in the twenty-first Century’, a book that was published last year and has reached ‘airportstatus’, if one looks at the number of copies that can be found in international airports selling ‘hot books’ for air travellers. Thomas Piketty is French. Nancy Birdsall American. Thomas Piketty created global interest in the huge inequality of the current economic system in the world, and the growing inequality of assets. Nancy Birdsall does not seem to like that. She is President of the Washington-based think tank Center for Global Development, an influential position. She gave one of the keynote lectures at the recent Conference of the European Association for Development Institutes in Bonn, that I attended as well. The conference focused on ‘the middle classes’ and Nancy Birdsall made a plea for better defining ‘middle classes’ (which is useful), and for no longer looking at mean income levels but at median levels (and also suggested a tool to link the two; and that is another useful suggestion). However, she packaged her useful proposals in a naive and ‘depoliticized’, and also very positive ‘developmental’ assessment of the world’s middle classes. Yes, they can be a ‘progressive’ force. Sometimes, and depending on context and history. But in other cases ‘fortress middle classes’, and/or those losing their priviliges or feeling insecure by ‘pressure from below’ can be mobilised to form the social core of fascism.

Thomas Piketty at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (photo: Sue Gardner)

Thomas Piketty  in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (photo: Sue Gardner)

Reactionary counter-debate
In a period when at last there is global attention for both the ultra rich (Piketty’s attention for the top 1%) and the ultra poor (‘inclusive development’ in the negotiations for a new global contract for the post 2015 period after the millennium development goals) this focus on the middle classes, I am afraid, should be mistrusted as a reactionary political counter-debate. By focusing on the median and the middle classes, the extremes on both sides are framed out of sight. We should not let that happen just when they have been rediscovered!

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Africa in Moscow

blog-ton-moscow-abstractsThe Institute for African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the ‘Scientific Council for the Problems of Economic, Social, Political and Cultural Development of African Countries’ organized their 13th International conference of Africanists in Moscow, at the end of May. I was curious to know what would happen during a conference of Africanists in Russia, who would be there and what would be their research subjects. I knew that they had once been an associate member of AEGIS (African Studies Centres in Europe), but that was before I joined the AEGIS Board in 2010. And I knew that Russia, as the R country in BRICs, tries to redefine its place in the newly emerging global dispensation. So what did I see and hear?

A whole new world of Africanists
I heard a lot of Russian, to start with. I went to panels where the only contributors were Russian scholars, who were in shock when they discovered that there were non-Russian speakers in the audience. I was lucky that in those panels there was always some translation and sometimes it was good that I speak enough French and German to be part of a chaotic multi-lingual communication process. But I heard some angry American participants who complained that they could not follow much of what happened in many of the panel sessions which they attended.
Another interesting observation was that I hardly knew anyone. I have been to AEGIS, EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and CODESRIA (Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa) conferences and there are always quite a lot of people whom I know from earlier meetings. This time there was only one familiar person (Ian Taylor), and a few names I knew (from of group of about 600 people). It seems there is a whole world of Africanists that is isolated from the conference circuits I normally visit. And the other way around: from the AEGIS Centres in Europe quite a few people from Central Europe participated (I met Polish and Hungarian colleagues) but very few if any from the ‘old and established’ Centres of African Studies in Western Europe. More than 170 participants from Africa attended the conference, and the organizers had attracted papers from scholars representing 26 African countries. Interestingly, North Africa is definitely part of what Russians define as Africa.

The Institute for African Studies in Moscow.

The Institute for African Studies in Moscow.

Nothing on climate change – what a relief!
I have looked at the titles of all 253 Russian papers in the programme to find out what Russian Africanists are interested in and how they phrase their research interests. The majority of the contributions had an emphasis on political affairs and international relations. There were quite a number of papers with a linguistic focus or dealing with cultural issues like ethnic identity, gender roles and education. Relatively few papers dealt with economics or business issues (and as far as I could see there were no participants with a business background, despite the fact that Gazprombank (GPB Global Resources) and Lukoil were the main sponsors of the conference). And hardly any papers dealt with health, water, the environment (nothing on climate change, what a relief!) or agricultural issues, or with civil society or the role of Africa’s private sector.

The BRICs and Africa
The International Relations papers partly concentrated on historical issues: Russian travelers and explorers in the 18th and 19th Century, the Imperial Russian fleet’s activities along the African shores in 1904/05, the impact of the Russian revolution on Ethiopia, the impact of the Bandung Conference in 1955 on Africa. More contemporary issues were e.g. Russia’s participation in UN Peacekeeping activities. Many papers dealt with the BRICS and Africa, sometimes as a group, often as ‘Brazil in Africa’, ‘China in Africa’, ’or Indians in the Horn’, but there was also attention for other countries: Turkey, Japan, the USA (and Africom) and a lot on the EU-AU or EU-African states relationships, or on British or French foreign policies and Africa. Other interesting papers were e.g. about Indonesia and Africa (by a Hungarian scholar!), or South Korea and Africa (by a Kazakh scholar). Quite a lot is happening in the sphere of ‘Africa and the World’, one of the current focus areas of the African Studies Centre in Leiden.

Migration issues
But there was also a lot of Russian interest in migration issues, with attention for certain African diaspora groups elsewhere in the world (e.g., Somalis in the USA, or ‘African babysitters’ in France) or specific African-Russian migration issues: the jobs Moroccan students got (or not) after they have studied in Russia; Russian wives in Ethiopia and Tanzania; Afro-Russians and their esthetic and social preferences; Russian-speakers in Africa; and how Russians could practice their Orthodox Christianity in Islamic countries in Africa. The keynote speech by Irina Abramova (“the New Role of Africa in the 21st Century World Economy”) also highlighted demographic issues in Africa, and the ‘demographic dividend’ Africa is supposed to harvest in the next few decades.

The Library of the Institute for African Studies in Moscow.

The Library of the Institute for African Studies in Moscow.

Studying former coups
Many papers on political affairs dealt with the Arab Spring and its aftermath. Terrorism and its threats for peace and security also received considerable attention, as well as radical Islam, and there was a remarkable interest in Libya and Sudan. Many political papers had a historical orientation: studying former coups (and Russian involvement in some), or political change and revolutions in an African country. But there were also many papers on legal and political issues dealing with democracy and human rights, often on a scale of Africa as a whole, but sometimes focusing on particular countries and experiences.

‘Russian investors: please come to South Sudan!’
The funniest session I attended was on African Cinema, with a very interesting paper about the history of the Tashkent Film Festival and its impact on Africa, and a vehemently Russian-nationalistic plea against American domination in the (African) film industry. In Russian of course (with whispered translation next to me). And when question time came, the speaker had disappeared. Then suddenly someone appeared who was supposed to give a talk on Russian documentary filming in Africa during the Soviet era, but who was two hours late.
The most remarkable thing I experienced was the speech by a high-ranking official of the Republic of South Sudan during the opening ceremony. Yes, we made a mess of it, he said, but unlike many other African countries we solved it in 40 days! So, he went on, Russian investors: please come to South Sudan; we have proof now that we can solve all your problems within 40 days!