In a consensual democracy, Kwasi Wiredu proposes us to imagine the kind of societies in which the freedom of its citizens is not thinly upheld by the state’s organizing principle, but by a deeply communalized logic that ultimately frames our capacities for individual reason and action.
A few days ago, one of Africa’s greatest minds of political philosophy passed away. The body of work that the Ghanaian philosopher, Kwasi Wiredu, leaves behind is expansive and urgent. In fact, over—at least—four decades ago, Wiredu had been concerned with that concept of decoloniality now publicly in fashion. Wiredu’s own recognition was that it had become essential to think more carefully about the ways many of our most important ideas concerning political life—indeed, about the nature of human existence in general—have come, unjustifiably, to be dominated by ideals that are specific to the historical experiences of merely a handful of countries in Western Europe and North America.
What, however, distinguished Wiredu from many of the other African scholars who have long considered such issues, was that his advocacy of the decolonizing endeavour did not rely on a parochial romanticization of a historically unspecified African past. Rather, his was the promise of a universalizing project—an attempt to open our minds to the possibility of finding in the philosophical traditions of the Yoruba or of the Akan, for example, truths that told us something not only about these groups but, also, about ‘Eskimos, Americans, Chinese, or whoever.’
A SINCERE RECKONING?
If recent popular news is to be believed, we are in a momentous period of soul-searching. Realizations about the depths to which structured injustices have corroded all parts of human understanding are, we are told, leading to a historically significant appreciation of our need to ‘decolonize’.
However, if we follow seriously the path that those such as Wiredu illuminate for us, then it has become increasingly unclear that a proper understanding of decolonization is being meaningfully held by many of us. In particular, by those who now declare the existence of ‘decolonized’ spaces simply with a superficial smattering of administrative adjustments, or with the inclusion of a handful of now-acceptable texts on university reading lists. Certainly, if this is what it means to be influenced by the historical perspectives of many continuously disregarded parts of the world, then our embrace seems a superficial one.
What could it look like if we wished to be sincere—if we sought a fuller understanding of the world not by redeeming or reordering domination, but instead through a genuine elevation of those intellectual perspectives and spaces that historical domination has persistently diminished? Our widespread acknowledgement would be, first, required that such places are not sites of mere material and ‘data’ extraction, but rather dynamic locations of intellectual substance that ought to shape our conceptual understandings of the world and impact the ways we order ourselves within it.
WIREDU’S CONSENSUAL IDEAL
About the political structures that attempt to organize our daily lives, Wiredu has left another instructive example—consensual democracy. What Wiredu calls ‘democracy by consensus’ is a form of participatory and deliberative democracy. He locates a historical example in the eighteenth-to-nineteenth-century history of the Ashanti political empire, the most well-known of the ancient Akan societies, and now located largely in modern-day Ghana. Under such democracy by consensus, voting is nothing more than end-process mechanics that signifies that a decision, agreed to by the whole community, has been reached. This level of communal decision-making depends on layered forms of substantive communication between every adult citizen within each area of political or public interest, such that no adult member of society should be capable of being practically or morally divorced from the political decisions of the day.
In a consensual democracy, ‘politics’ is everybody’s participatory responsibility, and Wiredu’s ideas force us to imagine the kind of societies in which diligent senses of careful responsibility could be realized. One in which the freedom of its citizens is not thinly upheld by the state’s organizing principle, but by a deeply communalized logic that ultimately frames our capacities for individual reason and action.
What Wiredu proposes is, in essence, a radical reconfiguration of our present political ordering—the total deconstruction of political parties and majoritarian voting systems as we know them. And further, an understanding of freedom that requires that even in the areas where we may appear to be at ‘liberty’ to do as we please, we be cognizant and respectful of the interests of others.
THE FAILURE OF MODERN REPRESENTATION
Wiredu’s consensual democracy also reveals the moral hazards inherent in the multi-party systems of many modern societies. For one thing, as Wiredu notes, majoritarianism confuses the acquiescence of the many for the voluntary consent of all. This includes on those matters where even the opinion of the voting majority does not accord with that of the party they have, nevertheless, voted into decision-making power.
For a careful communication between governments and their people, majoritarianism supplants a periodic, highly staked, arm-wringing. It assumes that the ideological allegiances between political parties and pockets of the citizenry denotes meaningful understanding between members of the citizenry itself. If that were not enough, the system turns public life into a game of manipulative power and finance, in which changes to the governing party are barely consequential—for who seems to win and who loses stays much the same.
There is another thing—under the representative variant of majoritarianism, now widely shipped out and adopted by numerous societies—including across the African continent—the political system gives the appearance of shifting active responsibility for political decision-making from each adult citizen, onto their governments. Such systems provide the comfortable illusion that the responsibility for governmental decisions— including those of supposedly ‘foreign’ affairs that impact the countries, homes, and moral interests of other human beings—is with governments and their officials, rather than with their domestic populations.
Maybe this is not an inherent effect of representation—perhaps the displacement of responsibility only happens after long periods of representation’s misuse. Perhaps it only happens when devices such as voting, including voting by referenda—which ought only to be basic, nearly superficial mechanisms for managing large populations—become instead the primary and, often, the only means by which citizens are purposefully engaged with their choices of government. Whatever the case, the resulting harm reaches wide, and far.
If the disconnection between a society and the political decision-making of its government does nothing more than to morally deform many parts of the domestic population, they suffer no less than those who must actively bear the consequences of decisions rarely justified by the considered interests of all but a powerful few.
The insufficiently reflective reactions to the horrifying consequences of the invasions into Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate an additional thing—the structural persistence of the worldview that there should be a meaningful distinction between, on one hand, those societies whose intellectual understanding of the world, of the ways it should and could be, is too ‘unenlightened’, and, on the other—those whose material advantage has tended to be mistaken for a heightened moral and intellectual sense.
THE QUEST FOR A MEANINGFUL DECOLONIZATION
It should not surprise us that there are indigenous forms of democracy, whose historical heritages, moral components, and practical configurations do not trace to Athens, Sparta, or to Rome. But few are taught otherwise, so Africa’s indigenous democracies will come as a surprise to many. But it is this ignorance that is, at least, partially to blame for the violence that characterizes much of the modern world, and explains many of its contemporary engagements.
To reject the idea of a geographically located intellectual dominance is a necessary thing—but it is only a minimal one. To put something else in its place requires an opposite, positive effort. To actively learn, structure, and establish understandings of universal value from those very places that have so often been purposefully placed, and discounted, at the side-lines of modern intellectual history would be an example of this effort. It is the example that held the ultimate promise for Wiredu, and continues to do so for many other scholars of African political thought—that the ancient, modern, and contemporary histories of these violently wrought, and subsequently demeaned spaces, should make sustained, valuable contribution to our collective moral understandings of the world.
In democracy’s case, such scholars have at least this much to say: true democratic responsibility is never in actuality shifted, and the moral obligations that are necessarily entangled with the privilege of political choice belong, always, to every single member of the living adult population. Scholars like Wiredu suggest, also, that the nature of freedom cannot be narrowly confined to individualized bases of supposedly ‘rationalist’ understanding.
Fundamentally, historically marginalized geographies make clear that the ramifications of sincere reckonings with their moral ideas and intellectual histories are not merely a re-ordering of those existing systems of knowledge, of economic, political, and of legalized ‘order’ that structure the world as we have come to accept it. Rather, such reckonings demand the thorough, and thoroughly discomfiting dismantling of these systems. They demand that nobody is left at ease by decolonization’s procedure—that only through multi-centred, diversely ordered processes of intellectual recreation should we be alerted to decolonization’s true sign⎈
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