Daniel Riveong has written his sixth post in our Emerging Fellows program. He examines globalization through African and Islamic approaches to social values and economic thought. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
While globalization recalibrates the relationship between the West and the Rest, our discussions of socio-economic systems are too often dominated by Western sources. More specifically, our choices seem to be either neoliberal capitalism or socialism. This both marginalizes the full diversity of human thought and also deprives us of new ways of imagining socio-economic systems. We should look towards other traditions and consider what we can learn from African and Islamic approach to social values and economic thought, as a way expand our options on building new socio-economic systems and also helping us revisit Western thought.
African social-economic concepts are deeply rooted in communalism, such as in ujaama (familyhood), ubuntu (“I am because we are”), masakhane (“let us build together”), and others. Tanzania’s first president promoted ujaama is an African approach to socio-economics. Ujaama draws upon the idea of an extended family. The individual is deemphasized in favor of communal land ownership, communal labor, and village self-sufficiency. The primary difference from socialism and capitalism is that ujaama, as an economic plan, sought to regenerate the socio-economic systems of communal African villages.
While the ujamaa socio-economic plan ultimately failed, the idea of a more communal system of governance and economics continues in Africa, as represented by Desmond Tutu’s promotion of ubuntu and Tony Elumelu’s Afri-Capitalism. These African concepts emphasize reciprocity over selfishness, collaboration over competition, and reconciliation over punishment. While these concepts arise from the African context, they share similarities with the ideas of conscious capitalism and inclusive capitalism.
In contrast to African guiding socio-economic philosophies, Islamic thought has long sought specific guidelines over wealth and trade. Islamic jurisprudence on economics, called muamalat, encourages trade and wealth. Yet in Islam wealth and trade comes with its limits: profits must be earned responsibility and spending must have a social benefit. There are guidelines on how wealth can be earned, how much profit can be attained, and how it is to be used.
Islamic economic guidelines state that profits must come from being productive, fair, and socially responsible. For this reason, making money from money is prohibited; thus, charging interest, selling uncertainties, and gambling is off-limits. The absolute prohibition on interest was common in the Christian tradition as well, until debates in the 15th century helped to differentiate between interest and usury.
Eleventh-century Islamic scholar Al-Ghazali prohibited excessive profits, warning against attaining more than 10% profit margins or more than 5% for essential goods. (In comparison, in 2016 companies like Apple achieved margins of 21% and John & Johnson 23%.) Echoing today’s socially responsible investing movement (SRI), Shariah-compliant funds have long prohibited investing in socially harmful companies, such as in tobacco, defense industry, etc.
While there is much to learn from rethinking socio-economic systems within the context of communitarian values (such as in ujamaa) or social responsibilities (as outlined in muamalat), such thinking does also exist in the West. We should revisit these similarities in traditions and reinterpret older Western concepts such as “liberté, égalité, fraternité” (what does brotherhood mean today?) and the Roman law of res communis (how can we rethink the Roman concept of the commons?). We should treat these times of uncertainty about capitalism and neoliberalism as an opportunity to revisit the moral basics. Even Adam Smith, the figurehead of capitalism, warned against selfishness and ignoring the poor. What would he say about where we are today?
© Daniel Riveong 2018