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Keith Hart

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INTERVIEW WITH KEITH HART
PREEMINENT ECONOMIC ANTHROPOLOGIST OF OUR TIMES



1. Tell us about your family background and the journey that led to your becoming a renowned anthropologist, human economist and scholar of Africa and her Diaspora.

Keith Hart: My father's grandfather, James, came to Manchester from Belfast and married a local woman. He bought a pub in a rundown area of the inner city. They had seven children of whom my grandfather, David, was the oldest. They all had a private education and David chose to be an artisan covering furniture. He married Harriet Harrop whose family had moved away from being tied farm laborers not long before. They had four children, two boys and two girls; my father, Stanley, was the oldest. The family was downwardly mobile between the wars because David was too sick to work regularly. They lived in Old Trafford next to the first industrial estate in the world and still the largest in Europe, Trafford Park. Dad left school for a job there at 14. In the next seven years he earned a degree equivalent in electrical engineering at night school and joined the General Post Office telephones in the manual grades. He stayed there for two decades before being promoted to the executive grades, rising rapidly to a senior position before retirement. His two sisters also joined the middle class, but his brother remained a postman.

Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, today
Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester


My mother, Alice, came from a middle-class family. Her father was a mill engineer who became the sanitary engineer for our larger district. Her mother died in her 40s. Alice went to a grammar school and worked as personal assistant to a senior executive in Manchester's central post office.

They married and Mum gave up work to have me and shortly afterwards my sister. They moved to a small terraced house in Old Trafford opposite my father's mother and two unmarried sisters. Dad would not let Mum work for wages. For most of my childhood we were poor, living in a heavily-bombed low-class neighborhood. Soon after Dad was promoted, we moved to a middle-class suburb.

Manchester Grammar School
Manchester Grammar School


I was the first boy to win a place at Manchester Grammar School from our district. I joined the classics side (Latin and Ancient Greek). From there I won a scholarship to St. John's College, Cambridge where I switched to social anthropology. My teacher was Jack Goody. I spent over two years in Ghana researching for a doctorate, mainly in an Accra slum called Nima.

St John's College
St John's College, Cambridge


Afterwards, I combined teaching anthropology in Britain and North America with a side career as a development consultant, working for the World Bank, USAID etc and writing for The Economist.

Nima Slums, Ghana
Nima Town, Ghana


I married Nicky Tahany as a graduate student and we had a daughter, Louise. At 32 I won a tenured position at Yale University, where for a time I chaired the Women's Studies program. But my marriage did not survive the separation and I began 15 years of mental breakdowns, resigned from Yale and eventually returned to Cambridge as an assistant lecturer. I stayed there for 15 years, becoming Director of the African Studies Centre in the 90s. I spent two years leave in Jamaica and met in London the West Indian writer and revolutionary, C.L.R. James, whom I consider to be a mentor. The world turned in the years 1989-94 and I turned with it.

C.L.R James
C.L.R James was a Trinidadian historian, journalist and Marxist.
His works are influential in various theoretical, social, and historiographical contexts.
His work is a staple of Marxism, and he figures as a pioneering and influential voice in postcolonial literature.
A tireless political activist, James is the author of the 1937 work World Revolution
outlining the history of the Communist International, which stirred debate in
Trotskyist circles, and in 1938 he wrote on the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins.


I left Cambridge for a life in Paris with Sophie and my second daughter, Constance. I set up a second home in Durban, South Africa. Released from mental illness, I became a globetrotter and writer. I co-directed the Human Economy Program in Pretoria University, 2011-18 and was Centennial Professor of Economic Anthropology at the London School of Economics, 2013-16. I have worked in 24 countries and published some 15 books. Given my family history, I deny the existence of a strong separation between upper working and lower middle classes, seeing rather constant movement between them, up and down.

Keith and daughters
Keith and his daughters
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2. The concept of the informal economy is attributed to you. It is now an established field of Development Studies. You came to this idea through your dramatic and dangerous immersion in Ghana's street economy.

Ghanaian Flag
Ghana Flag


Keith Hart: A world revolution occurred after the disasters of 1914-45. Its vehicles were developmental states in the industrial West, Soviet bloc and newly independent former colonies. The policy was to reduce economic inequality, restrict capital flows, increase public services, raise the incomes of working families and develop international cooperation (despite Cold War rivalry). Its motto was modernization -- poor countries could become like the rich who would support the process. The result was the biggest boom in world economy before or since. But by 1970 it had become clear that modernization wasn't working.

I stayed in Ghana 1965-68 studying Northern migrants in Nima and elsewhere. It was a lawless place and I stuck out as someone with obvious external ties. Before long, I decided to cross the line to their side of the law and took up receiving stolen goods, money lending and the drugs trade. It seemed that the local economy was being made and remade from day to day. I was impressed by the migrants' enterprise and inevitable failure in all but a few cases. I collected information for 70 individuals and wrote some up for my PhD as individual life stories.

Keith plays Oware in Nima, Ghana
Keith plays Oware in Nima, Ghana


My first job was in a development group at the University of East Anglia. I knew plenty about the street economy, but little about the new states and international development. In the next decade I worked as a consultant in the Cayman Islands, Papua New Guinea, Hong Kong and on West African agriculture. I couldn't write a book based on my doctoral research.

Cayman Island Flag
Cayman Island Flag
Papua New Guinea Flag
Papua New Guinea Flag


The West felt uneasy at a point when the US began to lose in Vietnam; and the other side emphasized development failure with books on underdevelopment, dependency and the world system mainly from Latin America. The development industry focused on the gap between the rapidly expanding populations of Third World cities and the small number of 'real jobs' there. This gap was named unemployment'. The fear of civic unrest, even of revolution was palpable.

Hong Kong
Hong Kong Flag


West African Countries
West African Countries


In 1971 I wrote a paper for a Sussex conference on unemployment in Africa: Informal income opportunities and urban employment in Ghana. I argued that the people I knew in Nima were working, not unemployed, even if their work was erratic and poorly paid. Public bureaucracy did not reach down to their level, but most aspired to combine formal and informal employment. The paper was well received by many participants. Next year a team led by the conference organizers wrote a report on Kenya for the International Labor Office. Its main point was that the 'informal sector' could mitigate poverty and unemployment there. I was not mentioned.

Poor Ghanaian Workers in 1970s.jpg
Poor Ghanaian Workers in 1970s


I didn't like the idea of a separate sector of economic activity, but several people wrote that "Keith Hart invented the informal sector". I published my article in 1973, then converted to Marxism and left the informal economy alone for 15 years, returning to it when the Cold War ended. By then it had become a well-demarcated field in academic and development bureaucracy. My 1973 paper was often cited as its origin, even though the idea's mixed origins led to some confusion. Since then, I have written many papers on the subject, posted on academia.edu, a recent one being, How the informal economy took over the world (2015) thanks to neoliberal reductions in state power and lawless capital flows worldwide. The largest of these, foreign exchange (FX), now has a daily turnover of $6 trillion. Try controlling that.

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3. In layman's terms please explain your approach to money as an anthropologist.

Keith Hart: I am a professional anthropologist, but my methods are much wider in scope. I like to say that I study the economy in all the ways that orthodox economists don't. For example, since my Ghana fieldwork, I have reverted to my classics MO of reading books, preferably old ones, and writing about them rather than use ethnography as my main approach. I am an intellectual historian with many practical side lines (like betting, journalism, statistics and development consultancy). I was asked at a 2007 Oxford conference why I am an economic anthropologist. I replied "Because I want to save my family from the financial holocaust that is breaking now."

Keith and young Louise
Keith and young Louise


I wrote my first article on money as a public lecture in 1986, Heads or tails? Two sides of the coin. These were respectively the political (top down) and economic (bottom up) management of money - or states and markets. Both neoliberal policy and tech finance have tried to ban politics from markets and technology. For me this is a disaster in the making. I call it 'The Greater Depression' and it is happening now. The lecture claimed that anthropologists needed to pay more attention to our moment in world history which is bound to influence the questions and answers we come up with. We also need to be familiar with the history of money as studied by economists. If anthropologists want to study law, can they ignore the history of western jurisprudence? (We used to study it, but no longer).

Sophie & Constance
Sophie & Constance


I was commissioned by a publisher to write a student textbook called Anthropology and the Modern Economy. Everything in it should be available to students in libraries. When I finished a draft, I saw that there was nothing of my own experience there. Yet I knew a lot about money as a gambler, journalist, businessman, administrator etc. I abandoned the book. The next one was The Memory Bank: Money in an Unequal World (2000); it had plenty about me since I argued that "money is always personal and impersonal".

Money-in-an-unequal-world.jpg



Since moving to Paris in the late 90s I have published 120 books, chapters, articles and posts on money and economy alone. I will return to the topic of money at the interview's end.
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4. You and Anna Grimshaw founded a small press, Prickly Pear Pamphlets in 1993 to circulate...
"new and radical ideas to as wide an audience as possible and to reinvent anthropology as a means of engaging with society".
How does this differ from traditional anthropology?

Keith Hart: My Jamaican sojourn in the late 80s helped me to make 'cubist' sense of the unholy quadrilateral formed by the Atlantic slave trade: Britain (Europe), West Africa, the US and now the Caribbean. I felt compelled to meet C.L.R. James, a Trinidadian writer and revolutionary, and wrote him the only fan letter of my life. Anna Grimshaw replied for him. She was from Manchester, had a PhD in social anthropology from Cambridge and now supported CLR as his secretary/companion in Brixton, London. She and I soon agreed to co-edit what became American Civilization (1993) by him. I got to know CLR personally, but he died two years later. Anna saw her main task as to get out as much as possible of CLR's unpublished material. She moved to Cambridge and in 1993 we launched Prickly Pear Pamphlets.

Crisis of the


In the 18th century, anthropology was a tool of democratic revolution, in the 19th the handmaiden of racist European empire. The First World War generated an antidote to imperialist anthropology, the drive to join people where they live in order to find out what they do, think and want, focusing on the peoples of colonial empires (with obvious political compromises). Although in the 1960s and 70s the anti-colonial revolution temporarily launched a more engaged anthropology inspired by historical Marxism and development studies, social anthropology in the last century was mainly descriptive in a narrowly local way.

Alantic slave trade map
Alantic slave trade map


In the 1960s, 70s and for much of the 80s, I was unable to connect my local studies with the movement of world history. But meeting CLR and Anna, after the stimulus of my Caribbean sojourn, pushed me into a more politically engaged mature outlook. One event stood out. I was watching the student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square with CLR and he said, "The Chinese government will put down this uprising easily, but the Russians will find it hard to keep Eastern Europe after this". That was April 1989 and the Berlin Wall came down six months later. The next five years saw the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of China and India as global powers, one-world capitalism, lawless money flows, the internet going public and the World Wide Web. I am an intellectual of transition and I could connect with this historical movement as I never could before. I still feel that way.

Tiananmen tank man
The Tiananmen Square Student Protests and Massacre


Anna and I, with some volunteer helpers, produced ten pamphlets in three years with a couple added later
( https://thememorybank.co.uk/prickly-pear- pamphlets/).
Our lead essay was Anthropology and the crisis of the intellectuals, a trenchant critique of what academic anthropology had become by then. Our pamphleteers included a Goldsmiths undergraduate student, a Cherokee political activist, two young African writers, an American philosopher, an anthropological film-maker, a historian of science and two famous anthropologists. Marshall Sahlins renamed the pamphlet series Prickly Paradigm Press after we passed it onto him and he distributed them through the University of Chicago Press.

Fall of berlin Wall
Fall of berlin Wall, November 9, 1989


The difference we were pointing to concerning anthropology was its depoliticization during and after colonial empire. By engagement with society, we meant political engagement -- dismantling the barriers that academics had erected between themselves and the public. As the Director of Cambridge University's African Studies Centre, I also managed the house book series for Cambridge University Press. I learned from both branches (formal and informal) in the first decade of the digital revolution. This period also saw the rise of the contemporary corporate university.

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5. In Self in the World you make the heart-warming claim that anthropologists can learn much from the great anti-colonial leaders and thinkers of Africa and Asia -- your mentor, C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon, Mohandas Gandhi and others.

Keith Hart: I have no doubt that the anti-colonial revolution against European empires in the three decades 1945-79 was the most important political event of the last century. Peoples coerced into a world society made by and for Europeans now asserted their right to make an independent connection with a new world. Two world wars were its catalyst. Its political leaders were often intellectuals. They had to imagine society after racist empire and persuade largely peasant populations to fight for it, a process requiring colonized people to educate themselves individually into being more effective participants in the struggle, while drawing on their own motives and circumstances.

Frantz Fannon
Frantz Fanon was a French West Indian psychiatrist and
political philosopher from the French colony of Martinique. His works have become
influential in the fields of post-colonial studies, critical theory and Marxism.
His notable literary works are: Black Skins, White Masks & The Wretched of the Earth


The greatest of these, with most to teach us as we prepare to fight for a better world, was Mohandas K. Gandhi. But I have learned a lot from a trio of Pan-African leaders, all from the New World: W.E.B. Du Bois, an American, and two from the Caribbean, C.L.R. James and Frantz Fanon. In the first half of the last century, Pan-Africanism was the largest and most diverse political movement on earth with the common aim of Africans regaining control of their land.

Mohandas ghandi
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was an Indian lawyer, anti-colonial
nationalist and political ethicist who employed nonviolent resistance to lead
the successful campaign for India's independence from British rule,
and to later inspire movements for civil rights and freedom across the world.


These leaders wanted the advantages of Western civilization, but on their own terms without racial exclusion. Their Pan-African success in winning independence after 1945 soon gave way to nationalism in a post-war global order predicated on nation-states, not empires or international movements. Even though world society has not banished racism and unequal development since then, I believe strongly that the anti-colonial intellectuals offer us the best historical examples if we want to educate ourselves to think about making a new world.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois
W.E.B. Du Bois was an American sociologist, socialist, historian and Pan-Africanist
civil rights activist. He was one of the founders of the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909

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6. I'm a Nigerian educated in Britain. I returned to Nigeria over 30 years ago but still have family in the UK. Like you I am fascinated by the relationship between movement and identity in the transition from national to world society.

Keith Hart: 'Identity' is a difficult concept. First, I regret that identity politics has replaced citizenship as an ideology of belonging in the last half- century. Identity means being the same - as others in gender, race,nationality or religion - or oneself as a person over time. I was taught that we often think we know someone by a visible marker (such as a 'big nose') and make do with that. But we should wait to see how she treats us and respond accordingly. I am unsure how movement and sameness are related. What I do know is that we need stability in order to move - airports and railway stations have to stay where they are if we want to get from A to B.

One theme that lends unity to my life is movement, not just in time and space, but socially and culturally. I believe that it is the universal antidote to unequal societies that flourish when subordinates are fixed in the ground by their masters. If I don't like where I am, I complain; and if that doesn't work, I move on. I have worked in 24 countries for between two months and two decades or more. This means that I must have methods for being received elsewhere. For academics and writers that means having a published reputation.

Keith at Ikes bookshop
Keith Hart was the Centennial Professor, Economic Anthropology at London School
Co-Founder of the Human Economy Program at the University of Pretoria, South Africa


I soon recognized that I had embarked on entering the liberal professions by passing examinations. But what if I didn't pass them? I might be forced into a job like my Dad's, a low-paid wage employee of a large company where he was stuck without promotion for two decades. That possibility frightened me, as it still does; and I began to think about how to make money without working. At 12 I took up betting on the horses and I have been betting ever since, today in global financial markets.

Keith at Ikes bookshop
St John's College is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge


I paid for part of my higher education that way and, when moving internationally, I kept a gambling fund in case I lost my job. I was also paid irregularly for writing and consultancy, built up capital by buying and selling houses, had my own publishing business and always aimed for 'pluriactivity'. I eventually came up with a pseudo-Maoist slogan: "Walk on two legs (bureaucracy and the market); it's better than standing on one leg and falling over".

But in your book you explore the idea of movement in another way, don't you?



Self in the world cover


Keith Hart: Yes. Self in the World also employs the idea of movement differently. My central theme concerns how we can make the small and large extremes of human existence work together for each of us: Self/world, individual/society, life/ideas, local/global, personal/impersonal, real/virtual. These pairs have to interact and that means movement. I argue that money schools us in bridging these existential pairs - opening up universal society while closing down the particulars of everyday life. Apart from money, I get turned on most by music and numbers; both move continuously between extremes of emotion, calculation and belonging. Despite this, many of us often find the more remote of these pairs a coercive threat to our intimate lives.


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7. Earlier this year, Joanna Lewis chaired the launch of Self in the World in the Department of International Development at the LSE. I was fascinated by the title of a book you wrote together: Why Angola Matters.

Is it a contested issue? Why does Angola matter?



Dr Joanna Lewis
Dr Joanna Lewis
Associate Professor, Department of International History,
London School of Economics (LSE)


Keith Hart: When I was asked to run African Studies at Cambridge in the 90s, I said I was not interested in Africa as an object of study by outsiders, but rather as players in a shared Atlantic history made by slavery, colonialism and apartheid.

Why Angola Matters


I hired Africans whenever possible (including my successor, the Ghanaian Ato Quayson) and investigated the history of Africans at Cambridge which around 1800 was the main center of the international abolition movement. This was the time of the Rwandan genocide, majority rule in South Africa and other crises that opened windows on the historical relationship that interested me.

Ato Quayson
Ato Quayson is a Ghanaian literary critic and Professor of
English at Stanford University. He was formerly a Professor of English at New
York University (NYU), and before that was University Professor of English and
inaugural Director of the Centre for Diaspora Studies at the University of Toronto.
His writings on African literature, postcolonial studies, disability studies,
urban studies and in literary theory have been widely published. He is a Fellow of the
Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences (2006) and the Royal Society of Canada (2013),
and in 2019 was elected Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy.
He is President of the African Studies Association.


I organized a conference on the military's killing of the critic, Ken Saro Wiwa, in the Niger Delta. I brought individuals like the CEO of Shell oil and Ogoni activists, while former Head of State Jack Gowon chaired a session. As usual I invited businessmen, diplomats, journalists and other members of the public to join the academics.

Saro Wiwa
Ken Saro-Wiwa was a Nigerian writer, television producer, and environmental
activist. Ken Saro-Wiwa was a member of the Ogoni people, an ethnic minority in
Nigeria whose homeland, Ogoniland, in the Niger Delta, which has been targeted
for crude oil extraction since the 1950s and which has suffered extreme
environmental damage from decades of indiscriminate petroleum waste dumping.
At the peak of his non-violent campaign, he was tried by a special military tribunal
for allegedly masterminding the gruesome murder of Ogoni chiefs at a pro-
government meeting, and hanged in 1995 by the military dictatorship of General
Sani Abacha. His execution provoked international outrage and resulted in
Nigeria's suspension from the Commonwealth of Nations for over three Years.


One day an Italian researcher told me, "They are killing my doctor friends in Angola; what are you going to do about it?" In three decades of civil war between the MPLA government and Savimbi's UNITA, a million Angolans had been killed and many more injured. Little was known about this in the English-speaking world. I organized a conference attended by both sides in the war who had not appeared in public together for some years and were now fighting again. Joanna was a Cambridge history PhD student and we worked closely together.

Why Angola Matters
General Yakubu 'Jack' Gowon (born 19 October 1934)
Head of State of Nigeria (1954-1975)


The conference was incredibly lively and we jointly edited a book of the transcript. Why Angola mattered then was greatly contested, not just by the combatants. Angolan refugees in Britain were classified as 'economic migrants' by our government and denied refugee status. They made sure they were heard.

One big issue was the use of land mines supplied by European companies. The Mines Advisory Group was very vocal at the conference. I had one of their gruesome posters in my office. An undergraduate student, Richard Moyes, was fascinated by this. After graduating he went to Cambodia to protect children who thought land mines were toys. Later he formed an NGO to mobilize action against illegal weapons.

UNITA-MPLA.jpg


In 2010 he drew up a sketch to get nuclear weapons banned by the United Nations. They would work around the nuclear powers, not with them. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons (ICAN) was formed. In 2017. 122 out of 193 UN member states accepted in principle a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. ICAN received the Nobel Peace Prize

ICAN receiving Nobel Prize.jpg

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8. I believe you heard from Ibrahim Babangida, then President of Nigeria, when you were Director of the Africa Studies Centre at Cambridge

Keith Hart: President Babangida offered African Studies £1.5 million in the name of his wife to fund a research fellowship to study African women. It seemed obvious to me that the fellowship offer could be tainted and might compromise the university. I was alone in taking this view. My management committee thought it too good to turn down. Feminists told me I would be a marked man if I refused.

Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida GCFR
Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida GCFR
Military President of Nigeria (1985-1993)


Nigerian students accused me of double standards. "The whole of Cambridge was built on dirty money", they said. "What's wrong with black people's dirty money?" A visiting Yoruba professor rescued me. "Ask him why this award is coming to Cambridge", he said. An equal grant should be given to a Nigerian university". I made that point to the President's people; and it was the last I heard of it.


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9. Your memoir foregrounds 'globalization'. But you prefer to call it the 'new human universal'. Why?

Keith Hart: I start from the idea that ours is a "Magellan moment", as when the Portuguese navigator sailed round the world a few years after Columbus crossed the Atlantic. At much the same time, Bartolomé de las Casas exposed the racial inequality of Spain's American empire in the name of human unity. The second half of the last century saw the world emerge as a single interactive social network. We saw the earth from the outside, created a single framework of time for the whole planet, linked people everywhere to the 'world market' and built universal communications to express universal ideas. We too are painfully aware of the inequality accompanying this move towards human unity.

An illustration of Globalization


'Globalization' has occurred several times before, whenever a region's people found greater freedom of movement in the world. The last time before ours was the 3-4 decades before the First World War when 50 million Europeans moved to temperate zones of new settlement (37 million to the US) and 50 million Indians and Chinese ('coolies') moved mainly to tropical areas. In Hegel's terms, recent history has been organized by the dialectic of state vs. market. In the 1970s this pair became blurred (e.g. market socialism, state capitalism) and was named 'postmodernism' (for Hegel 'negative dialectic'). This gave way to a new positive idea which, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, was globalization, one-world capitalism or a world unified by the American Empire's market fundamentalism and the free flow of capital everywhere.

USA Flag
USA



Tell us about America, such a strange animal. I have never got my mind around it.

Keith Hart: American global hegemony rests on world market share, weapons and bases, the world currency, intellectual property and Big Tech. The US invented and still dominates the internet, supplying much of its hardware, software, content and giant firms. The US's main exports are movies, music and software, all reproduced at little cost. Hence their interest in expanding the intellectual property regime. The American Empire rests on mercantilism, militarism, financial monopoly, private property in ideas and the digital revolution. The 'free market' is an implausible fig leaf for this. In the last decade we have seen market fundamentalism split globally and within the US itself between neoliberal globalization and xenophobic autocracy, between moving into the world and staying at home.

Hollywood
Hollywood Los Angeles, California


At various times in the last half-millennium when the West took over the world, their hegemony was expressed as an idealized human universal. At first this was Catholicism, then White racism and finally bourgeois economics. The 'new human universal' I speak of is not an idea, but 8 billion people crying out for a global social order based on common human interests. Against this stand durable social divisions, especially nationalism and racism, fueled by runaway economic inequality. Most of us, certainly young people, know that humanity's most pressing problems are global in scope, not least poverty, ignorance and the need for social justice. The two great principles driving our civilization are democracy and science. People must be equal to be free and they must know what is real in the world to achieve it.

Silicon Valley
Silicon Valley
Southern San Francisco Bay, California



People must be equal to be free. I fully agree but there are social forces opposed to this idea, Keith.

Keith Hart: Yes, regrettably these forces seem to be getting stronger. And the strength of their opposition is a measure of the West's decline. But if we fail to make a world society for all humanity in this century, there will not be a 22nd. My book addresses individual readers who may sometimes feel like a puny self, lost in a vast unknowable universe. Belonging to the world as a whole seems to be impossibly remote. I hope to show that we can learn how to make the connection, to place ourselves in history, each in our own way.


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10. You quote the novelist, Vladimir Nabokov:

"There is, it would seem, in the scale of the world a kind of delicate meeting place of imagination and knowledge, a point, arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones that is intrinsically artistic."

Your version of this is "scale down the world and scale up the self so that they can meet meaningfully". Please unpack it for us.

Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (10 April 1899 - 2 July 1977)
Russian-American novelist, poet, translator, and entomologist

Keith Hart: This is not just about individuals and society, but the time and space coordinates we find ourselves in- bridging the big and little things that make up our lives. Ritual and prayer once connected people to a world personified as God. Works of fiction-plays, novels, movies-now perform a similar role. The world or history is reduced in scale to a stage, paperback or screen, allowing individuals to enter it subjectively without supervision.


William Shakespeare & Socrates
L - R
William Shakespeare
(26 April 1564 - 23 April 1616)
Socrates , (born c. 470 bce, Athens [Greece] - died 399 bce, Athens)


Sophocles and Shakespeare are pre-eminent social thinkers because their plays bridge the personal and impersonal dimensions of spectators' existence. The digital revolution in communications has collapsed this opposition. But Western societies are still trapped in the world they made long ago.

I can best develop this point by moving to your next question.


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11. Shine a light on what you call "the corporate drive for world domination".

Keith Hart: Our societies are the offspring of what I call 'national capitalism', the drive to control markets and money in the interest of citizens through central bureaucracies. From around 1800, the 'bourgeois revolution' enabled capitalists to displace the traditional rulers, a military landlord aristocracy. But by mid-century, cities swollen by industrial factory workers and criminal gangs were ungovernable. Political revolutions of the 1860s and early 70s in the US, Britain, Russia, Germany, Italy, Japan and France were based on a new alliance between the old adversaries forging a new institutional synthesis of the nation-state and industrial capitalism. Governments and businesses sponsored a bureaucratic revolution from which mass production and consumption grew. This new social order only became general after the First World War and globally as a result of the anti-colonial revolution.

Neoliberal globalization undermined the strong version of national capitalism that prevailed after 1945. By 2000, the nation-state's corporate detractors could argue that national governments had become corrupt and ineffective; national laws were irrelevant and unenforceable; and national citizens were now lazy and disaffected. What other powers exist in our world apart from the American Empire? The second force is the move towards regional trade federations. The European Union is the largest of these. Transnational corporations, however, pose the main threat to nation states.

Abstract entities like governments and corporations, as well as individuals, can now hold private property. States and corporations have acquired the property rights of individuals. Private property in this form does not shore up liberal democracy. It favors totalitarian bureaucracy and always has. Personal identity is forced into categories devised by impersonal institutions. We are understandably confused by this, especially since the corporations' rise to public power rests on collapsing the difference between real and artificial persons in economic law. This constitutes an obstacle to the practice of democracy and to thinking about it. Sadly, many intellectuals obscure the distinction between living persons and social abstractions.

The digital revolution has led to the economic preponderance of information services whose reproduction and transmission is nearly costless. If I steal your cow, its loss is material, since only one of us can benefit from its milk. But if I copy a CD or DVD, I am denying no-one access to it. Yet corporate lobbyists depend on this misleading analogy to influence courts and legislators to treat duplication of their property as 'theft' or even 'piracy'. The term 'information feudalism' is apt for all this

The internet has raised the significance of intangible commodities. Labor increasingly takes the form of individual subjectivity. This shift has been captured by big money. The fight is on to save the commons of human society, culture and ecology from the encroachments of corporate private property. This is not just about conserving the earth's natural resources or public services left to the mercies of privatized agencies. The large corporations now assert their exclusive ownership of what was shared free culture. Across the board, separate battles are being fought over music, movies, literature, software, GMOs, pharmaceuticals, the internet and the universities, with little awareness of the common cause they share.

Thomas Jefferson saw three main threats to democracy: governing elites, organized religion and commercial monopolies. He called the last 'pseudo- aristocrats' and 'monarchists', since they prefer to deal with autocrats behind closed doors rather than assemblies. He wanted freedom from monopoly in the Bill of Rights, but failed. Corporations then sought the constitutional rights of individual citizens. After the Civil War the railroads tried again. The Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed former slaves equal protection under the laws. The railroads used this to sue local authorities when regulations singled them out for creating "different classes of persons". The corporations finally won in the 1886 Supreme Court judgement on Santa Clara County vs. the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Santa Clara VS South Pacific.jpg
Santa Clara County VS Southern Pacific Railroad Company,
118 U.S. 394, is a corporate law case of the United States Supreme Court
concerning taxation of railroad properties


The world's three largest corporations today are Chinese banks. Finance dominates the top 150 transnational corporations. The top hundred non- financial corporations are over half (56) European. The United States (23), Japan (10) and China (5) follow. Australia, Brazil, Canada, Israel, Korea and Malaysia have one each. The largest corporations are bigger than all but the top eight countries and corporations outnumber countries by 2 to 1 in economic size. The corporations' drive for independence would have them the only citizens in world society.

Their proposed Transatlantic community, which narrowly failed to win acceptance, would have allowed any corporation to sue a government that increased its costs by legislation, claiming damages for lost income for up to 30 years. For public consumption, 'shareholder value' is no longer the rationale for corporate behavior. 'Corporate social responsibility' based on morality, not politics and law, is taking its place. National capitalism, they whisper, is decadent and must be replaced. After structural adjustment policies dismantled restrictions on capital flows in the 1980s, the corporations turned to investment abroad. They now don't want nation states to make their own laws, just to police common laws coordinated by international organizations.

economic forum Davos
The World Economic Forum is an international non-governmental
and lobbying organisation based in Cologny, canton of Geneva, Switzerland.
It was founded on 24 January 1971 by German engineer and economist Klaus Schwab
The WEF is mostly known for its annual meeting at the end of January in Davos,
a mountain resort in the eastern Alps region of Switzerland


Companies control the marketing of their brand, outsource production, logistics and much else. Why have state laws, when the world needs moral law? 'Corporate social responsibility' informs internal management practice. It also negotiates relations between firms and society. Many current keywords saw light first in in-house corporate discussions. This corporate drive for world domination has its annual ritual at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Celebrities pay homage there.


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12. Let's talk some more about the digital revolution.

You compare the digital revolution with the invention of agriculture as a force in human history. Like you I am very excited about this revolution.

What role does it play in your vision of bringing self and world closer together?

Keith Hart: The invention of agriculture had two phases: small-scale domestication of plants and animals developed for several millennia and then a Bronze Age 'urban revolution' based on agriculture occurred 5,000 years ago which I discuss below in the context of African development. I compare the agricultural and digital revolutions for several reasons. They are both hugely significant in human history and our times may be understood, not as a break with the past but as adding machines to the institutions of agrarian civilization. We are literally at the beginning of this second revolution, so that our age resembles when agriculture was invented 10,000 years ago.

In that case, rather than considering ourselves as pillars of modernity, we should compare ourselves with the first digging stick operators scratching around unprofitably in the dirt, primitive pioneers with no clue where their stumbling efforts will end up - as Chinese and European civilization, for example. I once asked myself what interest future generations will have in us. The answer of course is for the digital revolution. Their main interest will be in how and why we closed down possibilities that they no longer have, as we stumble blindly into a future we cannot imagine.

It is only two centuries since we entered the age of machine revolution. In that time the world's population has grown from 1 billion to 8 billion; the proportion living in cities rose from under 3% to a half; and energy production has been doubling every 25 years. The societies that have been negotiating this hectic transition from the village to the city as our normal habitat are still significantly shaped by agrarian civilization. Our institutions echo the priorities of the small urban elites who designed society long ago with the aim of controlling a passive rural labor force. These include territorial states, landed property, racism, warfare, embattled cities, impersonal money, long-distance trade, an emphasis on work, world religion and the nuclear family.

National capitalism, a reactionary alliance of big money, traditional enforcers and bureaucrats, is the main reason why we have made so little progress beyond this social pattern. If you doubt me, consider what happened to the largest concentrations of money in history until then -- the taxes paid to centralized industrial states after the Second World War. The money was spent on subsidizing food and armaments, the priorities of the bully throughout the ages and on sedatives to dull the pain. If you are still not convinced, take a look at world society today.

The digital revolution will end when distance communications can replicate all features of face-to-face conversation (currently no human energy exchange). We need to take more seriously the scientific modernism of quantum mechanics (Planck) than social science did in the last century. You can't measure position and movement at the same time and every time you observe something, you change it. Before now the masses could only receive bits of information, not produce them. Suddenly, everyone who goes online is a broadcaster to the world. We already know how that encourages bad behavior, but not what to do about it.

Max Planck (1858-1947)
Max Planck was a German theoretical physicist who
discovered the quantum of action, now known as Planck's constant, h, in 1900.
This work laid the foundation for quantum theory, which won him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918.


You say that the digital revolution poses unresolved problems at all levels of society, from our rulers downwards.

Keith Hart: We can now live anywhere and work somewhere else, but how to sustain close personal relations under those circumstances? If agriculture promotes stability and modern transport promotes movement, the internet already shows we can change the terms of their interaction.

Pandemic
Covid- 19 Pandemic


The 2021 pandemic amplified this lesson - the internet's power to reconfigure stability and movement during the lockdowns that made normal life, work and transport impossible. Of course, our governments and bosses are wondering how they can force us back into their centralized cages. Is it surprising that humanity is hurtling into natural catastrophe, world war and economic collapse with no agreed guidelines, only those offered by a Swedish teenager?


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13. You launch a passionate critique of modern education in your book: the compartmentalization of knowledge, the fallacy of promoting the knowledge banked at school as good enough for life.

What educational model do you recommend as a replacement?

Keith Hart: Education for life should be an ongoing conversation with anyone we care to take seriously. Both sides in formal education, teachers and students, can and should contribute to a dialogue. In my book, I share with readers my own life of learning, including some techniques of storage, retrieval and performance that I have picked up along the way. Key to all this is how we use and develop our sources of memory, both internal and external. I also share some observations about our world.

I draw on lifelong experience inside the academy and outside it. I teach in order to learn. I also gained experience from writing for The Economist, financial speculation, times as a publisher and development consultant, plus criminal enterprise in an African slum. I discovered the internet when I was 50 and have since become a successful network entrepreneur, founding and running the Open Anthropology Cooperative with 22,000 members worldwide. I learn more about the world economy from risking my money in the markets than from reading. Above all, I have learned that money as communication offers a bridge for connecting life extremes.

The worst aspect of our societies is training children to believe that they are in a race with others of their own age. The second is to rely on knowledge banked at school as human capital for life. "Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel" (Socrates). But the flame is self-generated and can never be supplied from outside. Education is the context of learning, not its source. If we are to act on our beliefs, we have to experience them as our own. Being told what to think is the opposite of what a real education should be.

There is a revolution in knowledge gestating now, but most academics are oblivious to it, choosing rather to cling to the relics of the last one (modernism). Organized knowledge may be particular (humanities) or universal (science). 'Modern' education tells us we should deal with the present by dividing it into small bits and becoming a specialist in our bit. This is why our disciplines can't talk to each other. We have lost the Victorians" ability to study nature and society together. The natural scientists know nothing of human complexity and the social scientists mimic their methods, but don't know how the world really works.

The next revolution will breakdown these divisions by being interdisciplinary, launching human sciences that study nature, society and culture together. The digital revolution has opened up many new possibilities, but it has been hijacked by Big Tech which only teaches us how not to make society. I do not expect lifelong learning to replace formal education soon. But we must agitate for more informal self-learning. As students we learn more from talking to our peers after midnight than we do from classes. Rousseau, in Emile: On Education (1762), was sure that kids develop themselves in playground free time and learn more than in the classroom.

The digital revolution allows us to share the intimate details of our everyday lives with strangers online. It makes social relations at distance potentially more personal. But we are also subject to forces that we don't know - from the insides of our computers and laws made by others to economic depressions, natural catastrophes, revolutions and wars. My Zulu friend Lindiwe knows her own life better than anyone, but she can't answer questions that affect her yet lie beyond her experience. Why is there no work in the mines anymore? Why are schools a disaster for our children? Why has a Black government increased poverty and inequality? This is a huge issue for political education. But it has to start by extending what she already knows into areas that lie beyond her own experience.

Now we can all become producers and consumers of information and culture. Reading books in school carries the weight of an unequal tradition. I tell my students to read what comes easiest to them. Our own reading history determines what we can make sense of. Reading is always personal, whereas insisting on a common syllabus suits teachers more than students. Education should foster students" selective judgment. Reliance on formally approved sources produces minds lacking judgment.

I would ask any reader to see their self as a person with subjectivity who shares the world of objects with all humanity. The two must be mutually consistent. Religion once did that and perhaps we need new religions compatible with scientific laws. Subjectivity in our educational institutions is reduced to producing the right answers. This denies students access to the meaning of life and human history. Universities are committed to bureaucratizing capitalism and break up knowledge into uncommunicating narrow compartments. As a result, governments are paralyzed by challenges like global warming. Nothing in our politics and education has given us the means of thinking constructively about our shared problem. Ours are dangerous times, but we can be better prepared. Tell yourself that you are the most important agent of your own education, whatever others may say.


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14. Let me quote you:

"The period 1800 - 2100 is a drama in three acts (the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries) of which the last has just begun. The main issue this century will be the political and economic consequences of Africa's population explosion".

Keith Hart: The growth of Africa's cities in the last century should have led to cumulative exchange, as farmers supply food to city-dwellers and buy the latter's manufactures and services. But this requires a measure of protection from the big beasts in the world market that is now forbidden by neoliberal globalization. The rise of cities has spawned weak and venal states, dependent on foreign powers and content to leave the rural and urban masses to their own devices. Any strategy for African development must build on the urban revolution of the last century. Let me explain further: The rise of cities in the 20th century did not support a progressive political economy but they did provide the framework for much bigger population growth in the 21st century. With appropriate policies, this could support genuine progress. But it won't if African governments depend on minerals, agriculture and manufactures and do not understand the new urban services economy.

National governments first relied on revenues from agricultural exports, then on dubious loans, finally on the financial monopoly that came from supervising their country's relations with global capitalism. But foreign capital discovered that it could dispense with local state intermediaries and concentrated on collecting debts from them instead. Hopes for African democracy were then replaced by dictatorship, whether civil or military.

Map of Africa
Map of Africa


And Africa's population explosion?

Keith Hart: There have been three great shifts in the composition of the world's population since 1800. The first was Europe's growth between the 1830s and 1930s with industrial capitalism as its motor - better food, sanitation and living conditions made possible by steam engines and then electrification. The second was Asia's after 1945, for similar reasons; but Asia already had the largest share of world population. Europe had 25% of the world's population in 1900 (36% including lands of temperate zone settlement). Africa had only 7.5 per cent then, but twice its share of the world's land. 'The scramble for Africa' was an unequal contest. Its global population share doubled from 1900 until now. The UN projects that Africa will have 25% of the world's people in 2050 and 40% in 2100; Asia's share will then be 42% (60% now). All the rest will have 18% between them (25% now). Europe's share will be 6% in 2100, less that Africa's in 1900.

This third epochal change in the regional balance of humanity is much larger than the other two. Its motor is Africa's annual population growth rate of 2.5%, while population is shrinking everywhere else. Bursts of population growth occur when birth rates stay high while death rates fall owing to material improvements. When children's survival becomes surer, people invest their energies in fewer of them and birth rates fall. Africa's death rates have fallen too, but continuing precarity of births has not yet persuaded African women that they should have fewer children


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15. What might Africa's human economy look like in the future?

Keith Hart: The key to Africa's economic growth is the production of its new urban populations. So far, African countries have relied on exporting raw materials. Minerals have a promising future owing to scarce supplies and escalating demand; but the world market for food and other agricultural products is skewed by Western dumping. Conventionally, African governments have embraced manufacturing as an alternative, but here they face intense competition from Asia. The world market for services, especially digital, is booming and greater opportunities may exist there.

Services were once performed personally on the spot; but today they increasingly link producers and consumers at distance. The fastest-growing sector of world trade is culture: entertainment, education, sports, media, software and information services. The future of the human economy lies in the infinite scope for us to do intangible things for each other - like singing songs or telling stories. The largest global television audiences are for sporting events like the World Cup or the Olympic Games. The terrain here is not as rigidly mapped out. Africans are well-placed to compete because global audiences already like their music, plastic arts and movies. The largest music company, Universal, is betting on Afro-beat. American popular culture is still that country's most successful export. African popular culture could occupy that status for Africans too. Africa's median age is under 20; the culture industries would give young people something to do they might like. Look at what Rap has done for some young African Americans or, for that matter, high life (forged in Brazil, Cuba and New Orleans during the 1950s) for Africa's independence generation.

So you believe that Africa's future is bright?

Keith Hart: Africa must escape soon from varieties of Old Regime that owe much to the legacy of slavery, colonialism and apartheid; but these alone should not be made responsible for conditions today. Africa now leads the world in mobile money networks, notably Kenya's M-pesa, after missing out on the steam and electricity phases of the machine revolution. Africans have taken to digital economy with great energy and imagination while benefiting from small, powerful and cheap personal machines (mobile smart phones). Learning from earlier commercial revolutions, while using contemporary technology, could open up fresh solutions to Africa's challenges regarding development.

Its future economic growth lies in the cultural production of its cities, not rural extraction or the reactionary hope of reproducing western capitalism's industrial phase. This will require a broad-based social revolution or several of them. Contributing elements could include the energy of youth and women; the religious revival; exploding modern arts; the digital revolution; and a returning African global Diaspora since 1945. African revolutions will be shaped by the continent's own history. But the history of liberal revolutions in the Americas, Europe and East Asia provide important lessons too.


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16. How can Africa take economic and political advantage of its rising preponderance in the world? Why do you consider that greater integration of African trade would be one key to an answer.

Keith Hart: Africa's revolution in the coming century will be based on its booming share of the world's population. This coming revolution could leapfrog many obstacles in the continent's path, but not if African societies still wear the national straitjackets they have inherited in a world society conceived of as the United Nations.

The Asian manufacturing exporters already recognize that Africa will soon be the fastest-growing market in the world; not so the West which wallows in nostalgia for its past glories. Africans might stand up for themselves more effectively under these conditions. One aim of my book is to suggest strategies that could help them to do so. Clearly, trade and finance are not organized, in Africa or the world at large with encouraging popular movements in mind. As well as mass popular support, successful revolutions need allies with significant wealth and power. Africans must develop their own transnational associations to combat the huge coalitions that would deny them self-development.

So far proposals for integration of trade and finance have taken place at the level of the African Union. But this has meant relying on the very political class that has as failed Africans since independence. Civil society movements are normally excluded from such deliberations. Africa has a labyrinth of regional associations that do little to strengthen their members" bargaining power in world markets. Classical liberalism offers an answer-the widest possible area of free trade and movement, with minimal regulation by the authorities. The strategy is inescapable and historically well-tested: the boundaries of free commerce and of political intervention should be pushed beyond the limits of existing sovereignties.

Why focus on the conditions of international trade? Shipping has reduced transport costs for material objects as radically as the digital revolution has for information. A car made in Shanghai costs roughly $5,000 to make and ship to Dar-es-Salaam. It costs another $4000 to transport overland to Kampala, 1,500 kilometers away. Police and soldiers nominally employed by the state extract tribute at every point, while holding up all travelers, however poor.

The first stage is to build up expanded areas of free trade at the regional level, with harmonized tariffs, less political interference in trade, intrusive rules and harassment of people and goods in transit. The second stage is to expand and protect regional home markets from global predators. Strengthened African trade federations, representing the fastest-growing world market demand, could lobby for assembly and similar plants to be relocated within their boundaries, allowing Chinese corporations to take advantage of Africa's cheaper labor at first. China once occupied a similar slot in Western consciousness to Africa today. In the 1930s, it was crippled by warlord violence, its peasant mired in terrible poverty. Less than a century later it challenges to be the global superpower.

This shift from West to East does not guarantee that Africa will soon cast off the stigma of racial inferiority; but North Atlantic dominance is perceptibly shifting; and change is easier to envisage now. Humanity is entering a new era of social possibility. Africans" drive for emancipation from internal and externally imposed inequality affects us all. Revolution in Africa would be a world revolution.


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17. Money, money, money! Why is "money how we learn to be more fully human"?

Keith Hart: If language divides us, so too does money; but money, unlike language, has the power to unify the world. It already has - what else does the world market run on? I claim that money is always personal and impersonal. That makes it an ideal instrument for bringing the two together. Just using it every day schools us in integrating our double nature.

Money - the main device in capitalist societies for making social relations objective - is also a benchmark for concrete narratives of subjective attachment. A good example is divorce. There, argument often focuses on money as a proxy for personal pain. Its power lies in this synthesis of impersonal abstraction and personal meaning, objectification and subjectivity, analytical reason and synthetic narrative. Money is like religion, channeling our desire to link our deepest thoughts and feelings to the object world that we share with everyone.

Money's key feature is its fluent movement between life"s social extremes, large and small. If you have some, you can buy almost anything with it. Money shows us society's abstract potential to be universal. At the same time, it closes off particular transactions, anchoring them in local time and space. Money schools us daily in moving between society's widest and narrowest regions.

Thinking through money generates money. It turns the world into a few money men who exploit workers, consumers and small owners. Anyone can 'make' money, but most people are its victims. People with little money still count it as a measure. Money men understand that its potential is less tangible. Let us label the sides 'makers' and 'takers' of money. Since we can only know the past, why would anyone accept a promise whose future is unknowable? But we do, because we have to - faith is the glue sticking past and future together in the present. All the transactions we wish to calculate are made through money. It seems to be more stable, even though we know it isn't.

Money in a Human Economy


Conventional money flatters our sense of self-determination. It is a kind of personal freedom. With some money, we exert power over the world. Yet there is comfort in money being out of our control. Let me offer slavery as a parallel. There is a parallel with slavery because we are slaves to those who issue money. Further, a slave is not free but may take comfort in being unfree because lacking a choice helps to define things that would otherwise be wide open. As an exogenous force of necessity, money clarifies judgment and action.

Explain our beliefs and attitudes concerning national monopoly currency

People feel that national monopoly currency must be inevitable. Although no-one would freely choose it, we are reluctant to take up alternatives like community currencies. No-one would choose the currency we have, but we make a lifetime of adjustment to it. Giving it up would make that effort pointless, so we stick with what we know. We want to be free, but choose the illusion of freedom without responsibility. We prefer not to make our own money. And if we never have enough, it's because 'they' keep it scarce. Persuading people to take the leap to do-it-yourself money involves confronting their deepest beliefs.

How is money linked to democracy?

Keith Hart: Money is linked to democracy because its impersonality dissolves differences between people. Thinking of money as a durable ground to stand on may anchor identity in collective memory. It also helps us to generate the personal credit linking individuals to society. Money is an ocean that widens our horizons. The pressure to exert local control persists, however. Money's social value lies not in separating local and global spheres, but in moving between them. It reflects humanity as a whole while anchoring us in the everyday. All markets are world markets, but money is compatible with all levels of society.

Money mediates the two pairs that define national capitalism - state and market, home and world. We develop ourselves through them. We can join past, present and future; fact and fiction; local and global. We should not perch on one pole, but learn to combine both ends in society. Exchange of meanings through language and of goods and services through money are now converging on the internet. The digital revolution could advance the human conversation about a better world. Money is the strategic way to learn how to be more fully human.


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Read more of Keith Hart on Africa in the 21st Century here

Proposal, Africa 2100: A History of the Future

Deconstructing self in the World: Connecting extremes



Watch interview trailer on YouTube





Olatoun Gabi-Williams
Interview host, Olatoun Gabi-Williams
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