BRITISH journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge have published an important book: The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State

These acclaimed journalists retrace the evolution of the modern state and conclude that, essentially, it has gone through three revolutions.

The first was characterised by the emergence of the nation-states of Europe, cemented by the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, following the end of the Thirty Years’ War.

Three years later, in 1651, Thomas Hobbes, a leading English philosopher of the time, released a seminal book, Leviathan, expounding on the fundamental necessity of the state — to prevent the war of every one against every one.

The nation-state of the 17th century was essentially an autocratic entity, led by kings who believed that they knew better and therefore tolerated no dissent from their subjects.

The second revolution took place in the 19th century when leading thinkers openly challenged the right of the state to dictate to individuals.

Another British thinker, John Stuart Mill, stood out in his advocacy for individual freedom. His book On Liberty is emblematic of the liberal state.

The third revolution gave birth to the welfare state of the 20th century, which still exists in some parts of Western Europe. 

Micklethwait and Wooldridge identify Beatrice Webb, the Fabian socialist, as “the godmother of the welfare state”.

The Fourth Revolution is so titled since its authors argue that the next big shift in the world is towards state efficiency, by allowing technology to perform most of the functions that are traditionally associated with human beings.

It is striking that this important discourse includes Africa only as a footnote. Former president Nelson Mandela appears rather patronisingly like a tiny spark in a vast labyrinth of darkness. 

Looking back on the history of the state, or looking forward to emerging trends, Africa is nowhere.

Leading thinkers who are known to have influenced the evolution of the state are not African. And the countries in which the first traces of a modern state emerged are also not African.

The problem with history is that it can never be rewound. It is impossible for us Africans to produce a towering thinker who can go dialogue with Thomas Hobbes.

It also does not help to cry over spilt milk. What has passed is past.

The interesting thing about Asian countries is that they do compete openly for continental leadership, contrary to the pretentiousness of African collectivism. Yet, from a global standpoint, Asian countries are viewed as a collective of trendsetters.

The challenge is for the living to build a praiseworthy legacy for generations to come. This is precisely why our age continues to shower Hobbes, Mill and Webb with praise.

The most worrying thing, though, is that when future trends are projected, Africa still does not appear.

A country like South Africa is mentioned only as an indicator of regress. This is what the authors of The Fourth Revolution say about us: “Jacob Zuma … has used his office to accumulate a huge personal fortune, including spending R200-million ($20-million) of public money on a house.”

Some might suggest that the two British journalists simply abhor anything non-European. That could be true. But they don’t avoid acknowledging Asia as a serious contender in the realm of ideas.

Even as Micklethwait and Wooldridge try hard to make a case for Nordic countries as “the place where the future happened first”, Asia stands stubbornly tall as a possible alternative.

The Fourth Revolution is forced to admit “the West has since been the only show in town when it comes to inventing political ideas. Now it faces a rival – a different way of doing things that most Westerners associate with mighty China”.

The interesting thing about Asian countries is that they do compete openly for continental leadership, contrary to the pretentiousness of African collectivism. Yet, from a global standpoint, Asian countries are viewed as a collective of trendsetters.

It does not matter how deeply Westerners dislike Asians, facts compel them to admit that Asia is a serious rival to the West.

Staunchly Western as they evidently are, Micklethwait and Wooldridge do admit that Western leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Henry Kissinger immensely admired Lee Kaun Yew, the father of modern Singapore.

This is due to the profundity of Lee’s ideas on a range of questions, and for his leadership in the bigger Asian alternative project.

Former president Thabo Mbeki once declared the 21st century “the African century”. But where is the evidence that this is not an African pipe dream?

We Africans are good at making big pronouncements, and hopeless when it comes to action. While we go banging drums about some nebulous African renaissance, the Asians are busy taking over the world.

Africans are also good at complaining about colonialism. While we moan about it, the Asians rebuild their countries.

If we desire truly to have some space in global discourse — to move from footnotes to the centre of the weighty of matters of state-building — we must stop talking, and begin to act.

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