In the aftermath of the last US presidential election, I have been trying to re-understand America, a country that I have adopted as my own. Shocked and humbled by the outcome of the election, and as a lifelong student of the human condition, I’ve been trying to better comprehend the economic and cultural anxieties of the white working class, a group that assumed a mythical factor in pre- and post-election political prognostications and in new discussions about the vagaries of globalized neo-liberalism. Being a Nigerian, however, my frame of reference and comparison remains Nigerian workers, who, like their more venerated white American counterparts, have, in their own country, had to respond and adjust their lives to globalization.
I have enjoyed reading treatises on the growing discontent within the diminishing American industrial working class against the forces of neo-liberal globalization. Tomes such as Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, and Andrew Levison’s The White Working Class Today have proved invaluable as referential materials for understanding the long-simmering economic and political anxieties that purportedly bubbled to the surface in the elections.
The majority of these new working class narratives take an expository approach, supplying a folk history of working class identity formation in America and Europe. Other pre- and post-election commentaries have critiqued the outsized deterministic role assigned to white working class aspirations and fears in the outcome of the elections. Notably, a study conducted by Professor Eric Kaufmann of the University of London debunked the theory that a revolt against neo-liberal globalization by economically disenfranchised white workers propelled Donald Trump to the US presidency and that its trans-Atlantic expression produced Brexit.
Yet studies and commentaries that privilege the narrative of white working class backlash against the ravages and disproportionate benefits of neo-liberal globalization continue to hold significant sway over how the election’s outcome is interpreted; over analysis of the apparent anger of some white voters; and—crucially for the purpose of this essay—over how the rewards and damages of globalization are assessed. Members of the white American working class, undifferentiated and ennobled, emerge in these commentaries as peculiar victims of a globalization that is robbing them to pay workers and capitalists elsewhere. It is this group of studies and commentaries that serves as a foil for my analysis; for their claim is simultaneously steeped in navel-gazing and the cultural economy of American exceptionalism.
Lionizing the White Working Class, Racializing Victimhood
Despite increasingly available evidence pointing to multiple economic and non-economic factors playing a role in the so-called white working class anti-globalization revolt of November 2016, the victimhood of white workers in the orbit of neo-liberal globalization has remained inscribed paradigmatically in new iterations of familiar critiques of globalization.
Some of these new “histories from below” overly lionize the white working class and excuse the blatant and subtle xenophobic scapegoating in which some of its members engage. Some of the analyses, moreover, miss the intersection of race, class, and nationality among Western working populations and how these sensibilities conduce to different reactions to economic displacement.
Much as I agree that evolving global and domestic economic dynamics have left many people behind, I harbor two enduring, unresolved quibbles with the current discourse of white working class animus. First, this rejuvenated discourse of white proletarian backlash against globalization tends to be cast in implacably isolationist frames that ignore victims of and rebels against globalization in the non-Western world, especially in Africa.
Second, there is an unspoken suggestion in these discussions that when white “First World” workers are victimized by globalization and its associated capitalist practices, they are helpless victims, but that when African workers are similarly displaced by these same forces, they are lazy, expendable, unimaginative, and weak players in the global economy who have brought calamity upon themselves through a lack of resilience and adaptive capacity. African victims of globalization are framed in social Darwinist terms as globalization’s inevitable losers, but their counterparts in America and other parts of the Western world are valorized as resilient victims whose increasingly outsourced economic roles are necessary for energizing the economies of their countries.
American Exceptionalism And African Neo-liberal Victimhood
Much of the narrative of American working class victimhood in the orbit of globalization is rooted in American exceptionalism: the idea that the American working class in the industrial belt of the country has been peculiarly victimized by globalization. This claim, in turn, rests on the notion that the American working class is the sole loser of globalization, and that everyone else—including citizens of countries that function in the current global economic configuration as cheap labor reserves—has reaped a windfall from free trade. This is another facet of American exceptionalism, the exceptionalism of victimhood. In this narrative, there is little sympathy for, or solidarity with, the victims of globalization in the decimated industrial centers of Ilupeju, Kaduna, and Kano, in Nigeria. There is very little self-reflexivity, and much navel-gazing.
I conduct much of my academic research in Nigeria. Almost every year, I travel between June and August to Northern Nigeria, where I see the ruins of industrial complexes and textile factories that once employed hundreds of thousands of low-skill workers. In the last 15 years, free trade globalization in the form of a flood of cheap Asian manufactured goods has caused the factories to close, truncating the livelihoods and dignities of many working families. Several of my own relatives who used to work in the textile factories of Kaduna and Kano were victims of this massive economic displacement. Some of them have died of hardship, shame, and heartbreak. Because Kaduna was once the textile hub of West Africa, the globalization-induced collapse of the Northern Nigerian textile industry has reverberated throughout Nigeria and the continental sub-region, generating secondary and tertiary economic adversities.
African globalization victimhood is variegated. It is not only African industrial workers that have been adversely affected by the new, globalized economy of free trade. Cheap Asian rice and cheap American grains and meats, whose production is heavily subsidized in the American heartland, have made agriculture unrewarding for many African farmers and herders. As far back as 2002, the BBC published a feature article which pointedly asked whether, in Africa, one could speak of globalization or marginalization. The question implied the answer. In 2008, a paper published by the Center for Research on Globalization signaled its argument with the self-explanatory title of “Destroying African Agriculture.” Globalization has also had a devastating impact on local fishing industries in coastal regions of Africa.
And yet, when the plight of the working class is discussed in relation to globalization, there is little mention of these Other victims of neo-liberalism, those victims located in the Global South and, especially, in Africa. Instead, the discussion is cast in the binary of American losers and Third World winners. Everyone outside the American industrial heartland, including my displaced working class cousin in Kaduna, is portrayed as a beneficiary of globalization, as a zero-sum profiteer from the destruction of the American industrial working class.
Citizens in the countries of the Global South are posited as undifferentiated, monolithic members of an evil cabal ripping off American workers and benefitting from their dispossession. Whether they are in Mexico, India, China, or Nigeria, these citizens are categorized uniformly as the beneficiaries of outsourcing, as “those who are taking our jobs.” There is hardly any effort to differentiate the outsourcing hubs of India and the outsourced factories of China and Mexico from the countries of Africa, where globalization has arguably done the most damage and bestowed the fewest benefits and opportunities.
To add to the parlous state of the African globalization ledger, poor infrastructure and the paucity of skilled manpower have prevented the relocation of technology and factory jobs to African countries, exposing them to globalization’s worst impact and robbing them of its benefits. This reality of de-industrialization without the offset of technology outsourcing is the crux of the African encounter with neo-liberal globalization.
And yet, there is little recognition of this African, non-white victimhood in the accusatory lamentations of the American white working class about others benefitting at its expense. There is no distinction between African countries, which have not “stolen” American jobs and have had multiple industries destroyed by the same forces of free trade globalization that decimated the American rust belt, and countries hosting offshore factories that satiate the demand for cheap consumer goods by the American middle class.
The narrative of white working class victimhood is animated by an adversarial interpretation of a neo-liberal free trade ideology that has left a trail of victims across the world but especially in Africa, where institutional and structural cushions do not exist to mitigate globalization’s damages.
Because of its foundation in insularity, unreflective American working class victimhood fails to inspire empathy among many of us with roots in poorer regions such as Africa. Instead, in the rekindled narrative of American working class instrumentality and victimhood we hear echoes of American arrogance and white American entitlement. We also hear the familiar failure to recognize the legitimacy of other people’s victimhood.
Instructive African Responses to Globalization
The other puzzle pertains to the expectational universe of the American working class. Whatever one thinks of the ongoing restructuring of the global economy away from unskilled to skilled and automated labor, it is something to which everyone from Alaska to Arusha struggles to respond and adapt. Such responses differ, however, because of the expectations that undergird them.
Globalization is neither an inevitable process nor an inescapable event; but, for good or ill, the world is being profoundly reordered in the image of neo-liberalism. This aggressive process of economic homogenization must be engaged culturally and economically. To the extent that neo-liberalism-aided labor and capital flows and the accelerated automation of industrial processes have led to the displacement of workers in some countries and their reconstitution in others, African workers seem to have done a better job of adapting to this reality than their Western counterparts.
In particular, it appears that while Western workers have longed for a return to the dignified, reliable working class configurations of the past, workers in Africa and other parts of the Global South have harboured a more modest expectation: to avoid being consumed by neo-liberalism. These differential expectations and aspirations are instructive guides to the differential responses to globalization in Africa and America.
In the wake of the textile factory closures in Kaduna in the early 2000s, and seeing my relatives lose their jobs, I remember thinking about whether their lack of a college education or specialized skills had already rendered them vulnerable to the instabilities of an increasingly interconnected global economy. I considered whether their failure to keep pace with the educational and vocational requirements of a new economy, rather than globalization itself, was the main causal factor in their sudden loss of livelihood and their difficult search for alternative economic pathways.
Most African people, including the displaced former workers of the Kaduna textile industry, do not like the direction of the knowledge-based, post-industrial economy but they have adapted to it in order to survive. A refusal to adapt and an angry desire to return to an elusive industrial economy of the past may open the door to politicians who promise to “bring back our manufacturing jobs” or even to “take back our country.” But the fundamental dynamics of globalization remain and call for thoughtful engagement rather than impulsive, rejectionist, and xenophobic anger. This uneasy convergence of white workers’ resentful insistence on undoing globalization and an unrealistic and counterproductive political promise of cultural restoration seems to have crystallized a peculiarly Western working class response to globalization.
In Africa, a more realistic agenda against globalization seems to have unfolded. This agenda is grounded in resentment and disappointment to be sure, but it also reckons with the urgent imperative of survival, a pragmatic existential urgency that white workers in America have not had to confront. This raw existential anxiety has produced a more robust adaptive capacity in African workers, I would argue, than their more privileged Western counterparts have exhibited in the face of a transforming global workplace.
After the Kaduna textile factories shuttered, many workers perished from destitution, unable to overcome the sudden loss of their livelihoods, the unannounced disruption of their personal economies. But many others adapted fairly well. Younger workers, including a cousin of mine who now works on construction sites as a surveyor, enrolled in higher educational institutions. Many of them have now transitioned to new professions. Many older former workers ploughed their meager savings into informal business ventures or obtained loans from family to fund new entrepreneurial endeavors. Others purchased Asian-made motorcycles, which came to Nigeria, ironically, through the circuits of free trade globalization, and became riders of motorcycle taxis. Many motorcycle taxi riders in Kaduna began their lives as workers in the city’s textile factories.
Some of these former textile workers have regressed economically, losing the stability of a steady paycheck. But others have moved on to more rewarding economic paths. It is a mixed post-industrial picture, but one that suggests the possibility for a pragmatic alternative to the seemingly futile yearning in the West for the recovery of an old, diminishing industrial order—an alternative to the polarizing narrative of “Western proletarian losers” and “Third World gainers”.
The former textile workers of Kaduna did not capitulate to the forces of globalization. Nor did they make peace with its devastating aftermath. But lacking the privileges and social cushions of their Western proletarian counterparts, and facing starvation, they subordinated their anger and frustration to the imperative of adaptive survival. They channeled their frustrations into new ventures rather than into a narrative of scapegoating and racialized victimhood.
The Implications of the Western Anti-Globalization Discourse
A neat binary is implied in the prevailing paradigm of white working class resentment: Africans displaced by globalization are collateral victims of the inexorable global march of the market. Curiously, the same logic is hardly extended to their counterparts in the West, where working class malcontents in the global economy are valorized as heroic holdouts of the industrial foundations of their countries’ economies.
When one sets aside the organizing idiom of American and Western exceptionalism, one sees a more complex reality in which Africans and other people in the global South, often posited as zero-sum winners of globalization, emerge not as helpless victims or profiteers but as creatively ingenious and adaptive victims.
The broader implications of an insular, Western anti-globalization discourse are serious. The burgeoning narrative risks reproducing—and reifying—the very rhetoric of globalization it purports to challenge: the dangerous notion that economic processes occurring on a global scale should only be evaluated by their impacts on Euro-American actors. It replicates an old colonial and neo-colonial paradigm that sees Africa and Africans as incidental, inconsequential components of and contributors to the global economy, and thus as expendable victims of its fallouts. Ignoring African victims amounts to missing the very roots of the globalization problem: the mounting geographical mobility of capital, which, increasingly, makes it difficult for workers everywhere to assert themselves or shape the culture of mass production.
It is not that African workers are directly impacted by a narrow anti-globalization narrative that evolved and resonates only in the West. Nor should they care about the incestuous, self-comforting discourse of globalization’s victims in America. The problem is that when the opposition to neo-liberalism is fragmented, globalization wins and continues to victimize Africans and others.
For the African working classes, this is a particularly defining moment. As the West experiences a wave of de-globalization, the current economic and political realignments, whatever their trajectory and ultimate destination, raise the prospect of further African economic marginalization. Globalization has ravaged Africa but its victims on the continent are not part of the ongoing de-globalization and reclamation efforts. They are excluded from the conversation about globalization’s victimhood—a double tragedy.
This raises the question of how Africans should read and respond to the current Eurocentric expressions of de-globalization. The current trend, once again, throws the economic fate of Africa up in the air, African economies having already been globalized out of existence or into new, unfamiliar, and injurious interconnections. What happens, then, to the multiple adaptations to globalization that are underway or have already occurred across Africa?
This article was first published on The Republic.
Moses Ochonu is the Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of History at Vanderbilt University and the author of, most recently, Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of Africa@OHIO or the African Studies Program of Ohio University.