Webinar: Decentralized currencies and socio-political instabilities in contemporary and pre-colonial Africa
For the past several years the countries that have shown the most "interest" in "bitcoin", evidenced through proportional google search trends, were Nigeria and South Africa, in part because of the sudden devaluations and escalating inflation of their national currencies, the Naira and Rand. The recent phenomenon of cryptocurrencies is unusually popular in countries affected by scarcities of foreign currency and instabilities in exchange rates. At the national level in Nigeria, there is a dual channel for the spread of cryptocurrencies, on the one hand through local but large brokerage operations and collective Ponzi-schemes and on the other through intimate networks of kin who direct and pool investments - both have been considered as traps and self-interested gospels. The literature on African economic anthropology has scrutinised the rapidly rising use of corporate sponsored digital and mobile money transfer systems and has revitalized an older tradition in economic anthropology on the payment media of financial transactions. Despite the renewed attention in the anthropology of money to multiple mediums of exchange, scholars have not addressed how new forms of cryptocurrencies actually relate to the long-term African past because they have been attached to a short-term time-scale which repeats bitcoins own narrative of technological breakthrough. My presentation involves placing the surge of cryptocurrencies and its receptive adaptation within the historical political economy of decentralized and multiple currencies in West African history. Cryptocurrencies, as with for example the cowries of the Atlantic slave trade or the gold of the Trans-Saharan trade, can only be understood through the selectively enriching and broadly abrasive global political economies of exploitation in relation to African interdependencies with Asian and European commodity and money markets. Historically, West and South Africa have been peripheralized as the zone of production or unloading of different global currencies such as gold, glass beads, and cowries. Whether the recent innovations in financial technologies that have found peculiar niches in everyday urban African contexts will allow the so-called “unbanked” to carve out financial sovereignty for themselves and skip over existing global and neo-colonial banking systems and the surveillance-based corporate monopolies of money transfer systems, is an open question.
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