As an economic historian, I was struck by several details of the movie Black Panther. The country Wakanda—which is as much a protagonist as the main characters—is presented as a place that does not trade externally with the rest of the world, nor do its citizens seem to use currency in their daily lives. In fact, scenes in Wakanda show busy marketplaces, small food stalls, and outdoor husbandry, which all suggest an economy built around subsistence farming, traditional craftsmanship, and small-scale production.
Black Panther's Wakanda opposes global Capitalism's doctrine
This economic strategy ostentatiously flouts the message prescribed to developing countries in Africa as well as parts of Latin America and Asia. Those nations, many of which have suffered colonization and conquest at the hands of European powers, are told over and over that the only way to prosper is to restructure their economies according to the principles of free trade, competitive currency rates, private property, etc.
In other words, they ought to embrace the agenda of global capitalism as they would a savior of higher reason and true redemption. Never mind the fact that the commanding countries themselves (which export those policies through institutions like the IMF and the World Bank) had no qualms about resorting to protectionist and interventionist measures in the past.
This ideological program—promoted through political, economic, and military means in a combination of carrot and stick—can be understood as the grand catalyst for a series of large developments. Many small nations, rather than seeking to diversify their economies to achieve autonomy and sovereignty, now heavily depend on the export of a few cash crops or natural minerals. Consequently, they expose themselves to the shocks of global demands and the capital market, while suffering damage done to their environment and traditional way of life.
Did anyone see a single bank façade or billboard in any of the Wakanda scenes?
As part of this process, vulnerable groups in these parts of the world are being driven into low-skill, soul-killing jobs in order to keep certain consumer goods artificially cheap in advanced countries. The savings are supposed to offset the loss of jobs and the deterioration of living standards that result from the very same pursuit of “competitiveness” in the global North.
However, the biggest winner of all is a class of multinational corporations, which have become so successful that they can commit atrocities and abuses abroad with impunity, as well as bribe politicians and rewrite laws at home, with devastating consequences for the environment, justice, and democracy everywhere.
Other than highlighting those structural patterns, the human stories of those who happen to fall on the wrong side of globalization must be told by the people experiencing the tumultuous events themselves. The fact that they are trapped in a hand-to-mouth existence, too exhausted to deliberate the rights and wrongs of politics or to discover the beauty of poetry, has too often been accepted by policymakers and governments as the inevitable price to pay for a ride on this unstoppable train called progress.
I, on the other hand, happen to be someone in a position of privilege, in the sense of being insulated from the daily struggle of material survival. Yet despite ostensibly benefitting from the current scheme, I still want to make life difficult for the proponents who—by pointing to people like me because I am female, non-white, and an immigrant—argue for a more “balanced and positive” big picture.
The constructive fantasy of Wakanda
While watching Black Panther, my heart was moved in waves of both delight and sadness by the stunning depiction of Wakanda as a country rich in language, history, and tradition. Zizek has criticized this representation because it obscures the actual loss of cultural and ethnic roots for African slaves, a group whose historical experience looms large in the movie’s overarching political discourse.
Yet I think this fantasy of Wakanda is constructive because it reminds us just how beautiful it is to belong to such a place—one that instills identity, authenticity, and meaning in us—and how this experience is constantly being corroded by economic modernization.
All over the world, from London to San Francisco, from Beijing to Bangkok, the middle class to which I belong, the so-called lucky beneficiaries, are converging into a single mode of lifestyle. Our relative material wellbeing rests on the ability to master the education and technical expertise required for white-collar jobs, which pay for the purchase of the goods and services marketed back to us by the same corporate employers, all amidst ever sky-rocketing housing, education, and healthcare costs.
The glittering yet generic metropolis, made for the cosmopolitan, upwardly-mobile professional, is less a center of meaningful exchange and abundant social welfare than it is a hub for facilitating the transport of labor, resources, and money for enhanced productivity. David Harvey has said that capitalism enacts time and space compression. Indeed, time and space have been brutally flattened to be made homogenous and prosaic: every minute in the day is potential time to think about work, every place to be visited is branded by the same message of commercial transaction and private property.
Wakanda as shown in Black Panther paints an alternative vision, but this vision is not complete.
I have studied Roman and Greek antiquity, and nothing pains me more than seeing gorgeous historical buildings in city centers covered in advertisements, serving as the headquarters of banks, or turned into retail space for luxury brands. To walk in such a “nice” area—already far from the denuded forests, polluted rivers, scarred hills; depressing warrens, factories, and slums—only viscerally accentuates the hollowness of neoliberalism in visual language. Through ubiquitous advertising, commercial enclosure, and real estate development, the space and architecture that surround us constantly affirm the underlying idea driving this entire system: we are but a bunch of disaggregated individuals in competition with one another for scarce resources. Long gone are the days when we were defined by inspiring stories, cherished lineages, and shared responsibilities, all themes encapsulated in the buildings and sculptures that graced ancient Roman and Greek cities.
Of course, I know the specific solution offered by the system to my kind of person—you know, the ungrateful, whiny ones. I am supposed to chase after some alternative, underground, and upcoming neighborhood…one that is cheap enough for artists and students but not yet lucrative enough for developers and investors. In such a hidden oasis, I shall find the authenticity and stimulation I crave, so I can recharge and renew myself… and then be ready to comply with the ever greater demands of conformity and self-discipline at the workplace .
It is possible to play this game of thriving on exceptions and the fringes, e.g., attaching myself to NGOs, university departments, fair-trade enterprises, and such. But there is a part of me that is as stubborn as Achilles. Just why should I have to yield? Why should I be constantly on the run, only for gentrification and co-optation to be hovering around the corner? After all, capital has already taken the heart of the city: a space meant for community-building, collective wellbeing, and civic participation, just as the agoras and forums did in Rome and Greece. Did anyone see a single bank façade or billboard in any of the Wakanda scenes?
Lessons of ancient Greece
All this musing sets the stage for the core debate in the movie and an opportunity to consider the lessons of ancient Greece: how should a community interact with the outside world, especially knowing about the existence of the predatory and corrosive forces it will encounter?
The movie revolves around a conundrum between two equally unhappy choices: there is complete seclusion and isolation on the one hand, or interference and corruption on the other. The first path, adopted in Wakanda by default, risks inward-looking parochialism/nativism (which is only a few steps away from hyper-nationalism) and failure to care for the larger world. In the opposite orientation, as advocated by the main antagonist Erik Killmonger, the country runs the risk of turning violent and aggressive externally, and suffering corrosion and demise internally. Is there a better way? Of course…if you ask someone whose head is stuck in the past.
For a new perspective, we can turn to ancient Greece, a civilization made up of small local communities that were tenaciously autonomous, sovereign, and to various degrees, democratic. Until a law requiring both parents to be locals was passed in 451 BCE, Athenian democracy, the star of the Greek world, accepted immigrants into its citizen body. Even after this law, Athens stood out because of the economic opportunities and social rights that were afforded to the metics (resident aliens) and even to slaves. In fact, a grumpy conservative complained that citizens and slaves were hard to distinguish in everyday life (The Constitution of the Athenians 1.1).
Throughout this whole time, Athens never ceded its sovereignty and its unique identity, nor lost control of its economy, and indeed consciously cultivated openness and tolerance in outlook and social life, as befitting a democracy. The rosy picture of Athens, however, must be taken with a large grain of salt. Despite some wonderful rhetoric of equality and some actual social progressiveness and ambiguity in exclusion, Athens got caught up in long, nasty wars and acted as an imperial power despite proclaiming radical egalitarianism for its citizens.
The lesson that ancient Greece teaches us is not more nation or more capital, nor better nation and capital.
Interestingly, before the city-state—a governing system that relied on fixed territory and inherited membership—became dominant, an older and more fluid social organization defined ancient Greece in the Archaic and Early Iron Ages (EIA). Back then, group belonging was more dynamic and overlapping (especially among the aristocrats), owing to various cross-communal engagement and practices: the games, marriage, brotherhood, festivals, symposia, guest-friendship (xenia), gift-exchange, etc.
These interactions produced interpersonal, enduring, and volitional bonds, motivated neither by capital or state function. Correspondingly, Archaic and EIA societies entertained memberships that intersected at the local, regional, and international levels without hard barriers and exclusions. A person could belong to a local town, a regional league, and an international network all at once, with their attendant rights and responsibilities.
The obvious problem is that this versatile identity was enjoyed only by elites. The solution is simple, though: make participation in local, regional, and international politics and life widely available. Athenian democracy popularized some components of this aristocratic program for native-born male citizens. Today, we need to make these platforms available to all people as the means through which borders open up, territorial exclusions dissolve, and identities unfold and evolve. For let us be clear about the purpose of human exchange: it is not the pursuit of financial interest or diplomatic advantage (though both would be nice to have as byproducts); it can only be our genuine need for the other and our genuine conviction that their flourishing in turn benefits us.
Yet contemporary mainstream politics has limited our imagination.Those on the far right want more nationalism: build walls, deport immigrants, and combat enemies. Neoliberals want more market integration, the kind that wipes out local distinction, autarky, and social ties. Sandwiched in between are the liberals, who believe in good capital (by regulation) and good nation-building (peaceful, humanitarian, and multi-cultural).
An egalitarian society
But the lesson from ancient Greece is not more nation or more capital, nor better nation and capital. The solution is actually to roll back these entities altogether, so that horizontal, egalitarian, and mutually beneficial (economic) exchange at the grass-roots level can blossom.
When the corresponding infrastructure grows into federated civil societies, and scales up to transregional alliances with the sort of resources and power currently wielded by multinational CEOs and unaccountable bureaucrats, the groundwork may be ready for the rise of a true global democratic order.
The country Wakanda as shown in Black Panther paints an alternative vision, but this vision is not complete. Like the characters in the movie, we must also decide how to engage with the world and treat the other. Do we look inward or outward? And are we ready to create a new kind of economic and political reality? This is the debate we need to have, and it must feature diverse voices, including those that challenge prevailing paradigms.