By Joe Costello, who worked in U.S. politics and energy for decades and is author of the forthcoming, “On the Origin of Politics: By Means of Technological and Human Selection.” Originally published at Alternet
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” —Milan Kundera
“They’re going to postpone the election,” Ken Saro Wiwa Jr. said, walking into our office.
“What?” I exclaimed. I had spent the previous nine months in Nigeria working on the presidential election and was dumbfounded. In that time, I had been deluged by manufactured and untrue stories, but not from Ken. On the contrary, we had a number of intriguing conversations on Nigeria, the U.S., technology, and the future. So with Ken just arriving from Aso Rock, the Nigerian presidential complex, he could not be doubted. But it wasn’t any less surprising. Having spent many years working elections, this postponement was a first.
This was the memory that popped into my head when I heard in October that Ken had died at the age of 47. Ken was one of many Nigerians who taught me about Nigeria and its people—their intelligence, potential, struggles, problems, and wonderful sense of humor. I soon realized in no capacity could I give more than I received. Nigeria gave me a much clearer picture of our two nations’ great and alarming political similarities, and a sharper understanding of the role technology played bringing both countries to corresponding political environments.
In talking with many Nigerians, I would hold my hands a foot apart and say one hand was Nigeria and the other was the U.S. Then while slowly moving them together I’d say, “Politically, we’re coming together.” The Nigerians would look at me quizzically, smile disbelievingly and laugh. “No, it’s true!” I’d insist. While certainly there are differences—resource use the most acute—in other ways, the similarities are striking.
This great resource gulf would blind most Americans to Nigerian congruities. America’s daily resource availability and use dwarfs that of Nigeria’s. The easiest example of this is energy. With 170 million people, a little more than half the population of the United States, Nigeria’s grid generates 4,000 megawatts of electricity; the U.S. generates 1 million megawatts. If Nigeria consumed electricity at the same per capita rate as the U.S., it would need 500,000 megawatts of electricity.
The same story is true for oil. Nigeria consumes only a quarter million barrels of oil a day (mbd), while the U.S. consumes 20 mbd. If Nigeria consumed oil at the same rate as the U.S., it would use 10 mbd. This resource equation goes across all categories and simply represents the difference between a pre-industrial society, Nigeria, and the most industrialized society, the United States.
Massive natural resource use, made available through the harnessing of fossil fuels, defines industrialization and created modernity. It is difficult, if not close to impossible, for the industrialized to look at the pre-industrial world with any sort of objectivity. In fact, just the opposite, the industrial subjectively perceives the pre-industrial with a great deal of pity, scorn and disdain. This is not a new phenomenon of north and south or white and black. From inception, the industrial deplored the agrarian culture that birthed it. Today, one word encompasses the subjective disdain the industrial perceives of the pre-industrial: poverty.
Looking beyond industrial prejudice, striking similarities quickly come into focus. Both Nigeria and the U.S. are former colonies of the old British empire. Both threw off their colonial yokes and established agrarian republics. The U.S. republic founded two centuries ago, went from an agrarian-merchant republic to the most extensively industrialized society on the planet. Nigeria established an agrarian-merchant republic only half a century ago and has since fitfully attempted to industrialize.
As founded, the pre-industrial U.S. republic was a decentralized system, with most government actions taking place at the local and county level. However, as the country industrialized, more and more government decisions and power concentrated in Washington, a direct result of the adoption of industrial technologies. In response, the agrarian governmental system became increasingly incapable of evolving its democratic processes. This politics of technology has never been adequately understood or even acknowledged. Nonetheless, it was the steam engine, cotton gin, railroads, steel mills, etc., and most importantly, the great innovation of social association, the industrial corporation, that over two centuries transformed a highly decentralized political/government infrastructure into an intensely centralized one.
As industrial technology proliferated, local political associations built around local economies and governments gradually degraded and disappeared, replaced by ever more centralized structures built through industrial technologies. De Tocqueville’s independent participatory citizen became both economically dependent and politically marginalized. Today, our “politics” is limited to voting once every two or four years, with overwhelming focus on only one office: the presidency.
With a different technological and political evolution, Nigeria has ended up in the same place. Though Nigeria instituted a republican system, it had few of the European political traditions of the newly independent America and an ethic diversity dwarfing what was the predominate enfranchised Anglo-population of the early American republic. Instead of the foundational local governments of the early American republic, Nigeria’s local political traditions were left out of its institutional framework; in reality, the established colonial structure became the basis for government power.
In many ways, the Nigerian republic was stillborn. The military, the greatest institution of colonial rule, soon grabbed power, ruling for much of Nigeria’s relatively brief independence. Military rule, though facilitated by industrial weaponry, limited further industrial development and political evolution. Nigeria’s government infrastructure, using the limited industrial technology implemented, remains massively centralized. Today, Nigeria finds itself in a similar political situation as the United States. The citizenry has little political role except voting every few years and the presidency is overwhelmingly perceived as the exclusive political power.
Industrial technology played a defining and unacknowledged political role in both countries. In the U.S., the political foundation was hollowed out and disenfranchised through technological evolution. In Nigeria, the bottom was never officially enfranchised, while limited industrial technological implementation was used to create a tenuous centralized authority. Today, both countries’ centralized presidential focused politics look remarkably similar.
In both countries, recent presidential elections were won by a perceived “big-man.” The campaigns were largely television affairs, cable TV playing a much greater role in Donald Trump’s victory than tweets. The main issue for both victors was an economy not working for the majority because of rampant political corruption. Both claimed the election system was rigged against them, and amazingly both, despite winning, still cast allegations. The most alarming similarity was the lack of trust by both populations in almost all institutions, leading to a corresponding inability to separate fact from massive quantities of peddled fiction.
The discussions I had with Ken were around these topics. We had similar questions despite our divergent backgrounds, most striking being our differences of birth. I was born in the center of the world’s greatest oil consuming culture, while Ken was from Nigeria’s Ogoniland, which had the misfortune of sitting on one of the planet’s greatest oil fields. In Illinois and Ogoniland, the liquid fuel of industrialization, oil, defined life. For Illinois, oil consumption created more than a cornucopia, it fostered an orgy of waste defined as wealth. At the other end of the pipeline, oil production for the Ogoni meant the destruction of lives, community and environment on a massive scale.
Having defined human life for the last couple of centuries, the industrial world now rapidly changes, pushed by an unsustainable squandering of resources and a new generation of technology. The quantum-biological era of technology is fast upon us, best exemplified by the growth of the internet in both countries. Just as the politics of industrial technology remains little understood, this new generation of technology increasingly defines life, creating its own politics. Ken and I both agreed this technological evolution would facilitate a different path for Nigeria than the industrial path taken by the United States. For the U.S. it means great changes to the established order, with many changes necessary from a resource/environmental perspective.
The great question is what will politics look like, specifically politics fostering democracy? Or will this new technology simply be used to develop even greater centralized power? The massive implementation of industrial technology ravaged U.S. democratic culture and republican institutions, while Nigeria’s limited industry disenfranchised local culture, creating a politics of stagnation. It was obvious both countries needed to remember their pasts, in which many political decisions were made locally, and vitality and stability could be found in diversity. What is a politics of technology that defines humanity on this increasingly small and existentially stressed planet?
At one point I suggested to Ken that Nigeria had an advantage in all this. Using this new generation of technology, such as the microprocessor and solar photo voltaic, Nigeria could network and revitalize locality, creating a vibrant national order. Nigeria might leapfrog the industrialized U.S. by not having the heavy lift of moving entrenched industrial power, practices and culture. He looked at me, nodded, smiled and broke into a wonderful large laugh. Ken will be remembered.