The might of might – (2)

“If you do not use your head you will have to use your legs.” African proverb

We previously discussed several frames or possible future scenarios for sub-Saharan Africa, of which the last was ‘Africa Dark’.

In this scenario, a persistence of failed leadership or a disengaged ‘head’ inexorably results in jolting social upheaval that compels those affected to let their feet determine their fate.  The obvious utility of legs comes to the fore in a brutal fashion – during ensuing running battles in the streets between alienated youth and law enforcement personnel in nations that are overwhelmed by the seemingly relentless disruption.

The dystopia that is ‘Africa Dark’ is populated with weak, dysfunctional governments, internally and externally displaced persons, climate-change refugees, feral militia, terrorist franchises and warlords galore.

To avoid this grim scenario, Africa nations must become adaptive and innovative on both longer timescales and shorter ones. In current, fashionable consultancy-speak (acknowledgement to Deloitte Insights) we must learn to zoom-out/zoom-in.  That is, across these two time-horizons, a nation must zoom-out and ask: what kind of nation do we need to be in ten to twenty years from now to be successful or competitive? It must also zoom-in and ask, what are the most pressing initiatives we should pursue in the next six to twelve months that most greatly accelerate the nation’s movement toward longer-term destinations?

This is by no means easy to do. In a sense, it compares to performing Double Dutch jump-rope instead of single-rope skipping. In the former, two people turn in opposite directions a couple of long ropes respectively held in each hand while another person or more jumps the rope. Nimble feet, deft-timing and care are required of the jumper in the middle.

A philosopher of history, Oswald Spengler, celebrated the notion of care and called it the ‘outlook into the farthest far of the past and future’. He accordingly inferred the ‘foreseeing State’ had care at its core. Such a State is both responsive and anticipatory in engaging the world.  While in a sense we can never live in the future, we are always anticipating it; and, as a result, continually hedging our bets regarding any number of future potential outcomes. It is therefore quite sensible to allow yourself some slack or ‘room for manouevre’. This gives you the opportunity to change your plans when required.

 

In an environment where TUNA is becoming the rule rather than an exception, a more agile, evidence-based approach to policymaking would permit sub-Saharan African nations additional room for manouevre as the circumstances or available data changes. I suggest the role-model should be Xavi Hernandez – the great Barcelona FC and Spain midfielder who credited his success on the pitch to this widely-quoted playing philosophy:

“Think quickly. That is what I do. Look for spaces. All day. Always looking. Space, space, space.”

No surprise that Xavi was called the passing king. He achieved a staggering 100 percent successful completion of passes more than once in matches at the highest level, and regularly exceeded 100 completed passes in a game. Think of every deftly-executed pass as a successful prediction of the future. No other futurologist comes close to his statistics.

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Continuing this sporting theme, Yogi Berra, the legendary American baseball player, famously remarked: “The future isn’t what it used to be”.  Was it ever? We agree the future is a moving goal post. The difference now is that the goal post is mounted on roller-skates.

Well, incredible as it sounds, the very concept of the future itself appears to have been invented; and there is a historical figure who, in all seriousness, is actually credited with this invention.

This person was Joachim de Fiore, a 12th century monk, Italian mystic, theologian, biblical commentator, philosopher of history, and founder of the monastic order of San Giovanni in Fiore. He constructed a philosophy of history, in which history progresses in three eras of increasing spirituality: the ages of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Previous generations, up until this point had a decidedly different take on the future. For them, it would have been a struggle to grasp the notion that the impersonal future would be dissimilar to the past. As Professor Rick Searle of Delaware Valley College explained:

“It wasn’t as if a person living then would lack the understanding that their own personal tomorrow would be different from today – that their children would age and have children of their own, and that the old would die – it was that there was little notion that the world itself was changing.”  And to this end, “History for the medievals, far from being the story of human advancement, was instead the tale of societal decay”.

Professor Searle argues Joachim de Fiore philosophically and theologically undercut this medieval idea of the future as mere decadence before a final ending well ahead of actual events on the ground. These developments were measurable improvements in human living standards, technological capacity and scientific understanding.

Joachim accordingly constructed a theory of history based on the Christian Trinity: the Age of the Father – from Adam to the birth of Christ; the Age of the Son – from Christ until The Age of the Spirit. Others had broken history into historical ages before; however, what made Joachim original was his idea that:

‘… Scripture taught a record of man’s gradual spiritual developments, leading to a perfected future age which was the fulfillment of prophetic hope.’ 

‘… one to be ushered in with a New Age of guidance by the Holy Spirit acting through a new order of meditative men who truly contemplated God.’

“What is distinct and new about this was that history was spiritualized; it became the story of humankind’s gradual improvement and moving toward a state of perfection that was achievable in the material world (not in some purely spiritual paradise). And we would arrive at this destination if only we could accept the counsel of the virtuous and wise.”  In our own day the counsel of political and financial elites, I suspect. Needless to say, it was a powerful story. The future always is.

Professor Searle asserts the Georg Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx both turned this progressive Joachimite version of history into whole systems of philosophy and political economy. The Europeans would sadly justify their imperial conquest of Africa and subjugation of Asia on the grounds that they were bringing the progressive forces of history to “barbaric” or “primitive” peoples.’ The road to hell…

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The great German polymath, Gottfried Leibniz – perhaps taking his lead from Joachim de Fiore five centuries later, implored:

“As for the future, we must not be quietists and stand ridiculously with arms folded, awaiting that which God will do…But we must act in accordance with what we presume to be the will of God, insofar as we judge it, trying with all our might to contribute to the general good and especially to the embellishment and perfection of that which affects us…”

Spengler, again, was subsequently much exercised about the relationship between the contemporary westerner and the future, and declared:

“The Classical spirit {of antiquity}, with its oracles and its omens, wants only to know the future; but the westerner would shape it.”

In this context, shaping the future could be more practically interpreted as influencing the future competitive environment to your advantage. Spengler seems to have had no qualms in kicking Classical man while he was down, and further alleged:

“Classical man only saw himself and his fortunes as statistically present with himself, and did not ask ‘whence or whither’.”

Spengler’s Classical man was faulted for not asking the essential questions: from where? and to what place?

Yet, when tacking the issue of the future, it is often too easy to lose sight of the most important consideration: the future belongs to those who have staying power. One must, as much as can be helped, hang around for the future to happen. There is no happening when you are not there to experience it. So, humankind can get as giddy as we wish with our most outlandish, dream-distending visions of the future, but it counts for naught if our world collapses prematurely in a heap of frazzled, climate-change compounded ruin.

Sub-Saharan Africa in particular should take this lesson to heart: governments must identify existential threats quickly, and initiate course-correction before their nations slide over the cliff edge.

So, while most can talk a good game about the future, what actually matters is the ability to play the long game and collectively see out the completion of ‘stretched-in-time’ tasks or projects. Mary Everest Boole – wife of the great nineteen-century mathematician and logician George Boole – perhaps said it best in her famous 1901 letter ‘Indian Thought and Western Science in the Nineteenth Century’.  She quoted the following advice of a medical friend, Dr. Wiltshire:

“The way to do good work is to live to be old; if you have genius, keep it fresh till you have also experience.”

Mary Boole added, “This applies, I think, to nations as well as to individuals”.

She made this reference in the context of a fledging Anglo-Indian scientific and philosophical relationship at the time. Sound advice that also applies to sub-Saharan Africa.  The region must ultimately aspire to living ever older and wiser in order to continue giving the world its genius – freshly served, of course.

It would seem the true might of the ‘might of might’ is longevity and endurance.

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