The absurdity of primitive accumulation By Douglas Anele

According to some estimates, Nigeria has made over $500 billion from crude oil sales since the mineral was first discovered at Oloibiri in 1958. However, considering the parlous state of the country today as documented in the last 10years by relevant agencies of the United Nations with respect to Human Development Index (HDI), it is crystal clear that a significant proportion of that money has been mismanaged by military dictators and agbata ekee politicians. Indeed, the alarming level of unemployment, destitution, hunger, feeling of alienation and hopelessness being experienced by Nigerians – that is, existential poverty in all its ramifications – indicate beyond any scintilla of doubt that members of the ruling elite entrusted with the power to manage our resources have failed abysmally – and they are getting away with it.

Sharp decline in the quality of governance began with the entrenchment of military dictatorship from 1970, and the situation has grown worse ever since. Presently, public office holders at the topmost echelons of authority are competing with one another to determine who would accumulate more wealth in the shortest possible time to the detriment of ordinary Nigerians.The cumulative effects of chronic mismanagement at all levels of governance are evident in all aspects of our national life, to the extent that at the moment many states cannot pay their workers for up to ten months, not to talk of the heavy debt burdens piled up by governors. Meanwhile, political godfathers, elected public officials, their family members and acolytes are enjoying sybaritic lifestyles made possible through primitive accumulation.

But what is primitive accumulation, an expression I have used in this column several times without defining it? The term ‘primitive accumulation’ is derived from the combination of two words, namely ‘primitive’ and ‘accumulation,’ which gives an insight into what the phenomenon under consideration is all about. According to Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, the word ‘primitive’ means, among other things, “ancient, antiquated, old fashioned, [and] crude.” On the other hand, ‘accumulation’ is the noun form of the verb ‘accumulate,’ whose connotations include “to heap or pile up, to amass: to increase greatly: to go on increasing.”

From the foregoing, “primitive accumulation” is the obsessive-compulsive acquisition of money and other material possessions far beyond what is needed for dignified human existence. In other words, it is an almost irresistible desire to acquire things one does not really need to live well. Now, human needs can be arranged under two broad levels or categories. At the material level, every human being requires food, decent shelter, clothing, access to health care, and a dignified means of earning a living as an adult. At the psycho-spiritual level, each person requires love, care, respect, a feeling of belongingness, and a set of structured beliefs or philosophy to serve as existential compass for navigating the extremely challenging journey of life. It is easy to discern that both the material level and the psycho-spiritual level are intimately connected, although a large number of Nigerians tend to overestimate the importance of the first category and naively think that mere satisfaction of material needs automatically guarantees satisfaction of psychic needs.

Certainly, a person’s philosophy of life, whether consciously articulated or absorbed unconsciously or subconsciously as part of the socialisation process in a given society, largely determines the person’s attitude towards material possessions and, by implication, how he or she goes about trying to acquire them. Therefore, to say that someone is engaged in primitive accumulation is to affirm that the person so described has a crude and antiquated disposition towards life, towards material things. An acquisitive or greedy person is dominated by strong desire to accumulate money and things not because he really needs them for healthy productive living but because he derives a sordid kind of satisfaction in merely stockpiling them. The psychological foundation of primitive accumulation is an obsessive-compulsive craving for tangible things, which leads to what the American sociologist, Thorstein Veblen, called “conspicuous consumption.”

Sometimes, it could be the long term effect of chronic poverty and deprivation in early childhood; in other cases it might just be the result of changing values in the society characterised by supplanting of intellectual and moral merit by showy self-indulgent materialism. Whatever might be the cause, primitive accumulation, excessive craving to acquire more and more without considering actual need, is a symptom of psycho-spiritual disequilibrium that provides fertile soil for the kind of corruption which has been crippling Nigeria for decades.

Largely Nigeria, like other countries of the world, is an acquisitive society, a society in which to acquire, to own and to make a profit have been elevated to the status of sacred and inalienable right of the individual. This explains why Nigerian politicians and top civil servants see their elevated positions as opportunity to accumulate money and property beyond the dictates of reason. Unlike before when good name, honesty and integrity were highly regarded and parents insisted on knowing the source of their children’s possessions, nowadays people hardly bother about such things.

The operating Machiavellian principle now is: “Where and how I amassed my wealth is nobody’s business; as long as I have made it my right to enjoy what I have is absolute.” In fact, public officials who concluded their terms of office without acquiring mansions, exotic cars, fat bank accounts and so on are ridiculed by relatives and friends as fools for serving the community with honesty and sincerity of purpose. Even, the new-fangled swanky Pentecostal churches have elevated acquisitiveness and craving for primitive accumulation to the level of a categorical imperative.

In many churches, money-intoxicated egomaniac pastors and general overseers preach the bizarre doctrine that God is no longer the God of the poor but of the rich, that wealth is a definitive sign of God’s blessing and favour. The absurd glorification of material possessions in places of worship aggravates the problem of corruption in Nigeria by providing warped spiritual gloss and justification for what is truly a symptom of spiritual malnutrition. Hence, avaricious politicians and crooked businesspersons regularly pay huge tithes, a contemporary form of indulgences paid to the Catholic Church in the medieval period, to pastors as appreciation for the latter’s spiritual intercession on their behalf.

But is it reasonable to steal public funds to satisfy one’s craving for primitive accumulation? Can money, mansions and “all the good things money can buy” guarantee real joy and happiness? It is disappointing that despite overwhelming evidence that, once the basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, good health and dignified employment are met the necessity for material possessions goes down considerably, people still make the deadly mistake of thinking that happiness and inner joy is directly proportional to the quantity of things one has. That is certainly not the case.

I am convinced that acquisitiveness beyond the point necessary for dignified existence leads to neurosis, anxiety, unhappiness, and to all the physical ailments associated with bulimic accumulation. Unknown to those accumulating primitively at public expense, their irrational behaviour is analogous to that of a hungry man who, because of greed and anxiety, atehuge quantities of food at a time after stealing a large basin of rice prepared for members of the community, which was entrusted in his care. Of course, he cannot escape the negative gastronomic consequences of his bulimic behaviour.

The alarming degree of financial rascality and recklessness by public office holders in Nigeria is partly the result of poor upbringing, lack of adequate understanding of what public service is al all about, and a distorted world outlook. Most times, Nigerians measure themselves, and are measured by others, based on their material possessions – or lack of it. This is an error borne out of a wrong conception of what it means to be human.

To be continued

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