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The ant, the spider, or the bee?


The ant, the spider, or the bee?

By Aesop


The debate between political parties in Tigrai was enlightening. The major opposition parties fall into two categories. Some of them sought political ideology from Tigrai’s historical and cultural past. Others looked for a suitable political ideology from abroad. The TPLF stood out in this regard. TPLF’s political ideology is a product of imported ideology reconciled to Tigrai’s reality on the ground. TPLF adopted the developmental state model of East Asia. But these regimes were somewhat authoritarian. So, TPLF rejected the authoritarian element in developmental states and adopted democracy to the Tigrean reality. TPLF understood that Tigreans can only be governed democratically, hence the rationale for this election.

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In the Novum Organon (1620), the father of the scientific method, Francis Bacon (1561-1626), provided an interesting analogy to demonstrate the best approach to conducting scientific research. Bacon wrote:

Those who have been engaged in the sciences divide into experimenters and theorists. The experimenters, like ants, merely collect and use particular facts; the theorists, like spiders, make webs out of themselves. But the bee takes a middle course: it gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and the field, but uses its own powers to transform and absorb this material (Bacon, 1620/2017, p. 33). 

For Bacon, scientists should not solely rely on the external environment to discover the truth. Nor should they depend on their intellectual reasoning alone. Instead, scientists should make an effort to think about the things they observe in the environment. Bacon outlined the traits of a true scientist in the following manner:

·       He doesn’t rely solely or chiefly on the powers of the mind like a theorist= spider.

·       He doesn’t take the material that he gathers from natural history and physical experiments and store it up in his memory just as he finds it-like an experimenter=ant. Instead,

·       He stores the material in his intellect, altered and brought under control (Bacon, 1620/2017, p. 33).

Now, the opposition political parties in Tigrai are, as mentioned above, of two types. Some of them rely on the cultural and historical achievements of Tigrai. But they do not explain how these assets could be transformed into concrete policies. Tigrai had a great civilization at some point in time. Tigreans also selected elders in democratic assemblies. These are inspiring achievements we all should strive to resurrect or even exceed. But a great history or a great culture does not answer how Tigreans can become advanced again. In other words, these assets won’t address how Tigrai can establish a capitalist (advanced) system in the 21st Century.

It is currently difficult to extract concrete policies applicable to the 21st Century from Tigrai’s historical and cultural assets for two reasons. (1) Tigrean intellectuals have not formulated theories from past historical or cultural developments. (2) Tigrean intellectuals have not derived concrete lessons on how they could apply their historical or cultural assets in the modern world. Hence, the solution as of now, i.e. until Tigreans address (1) and (2), is to draw lessons from others.

Some opposition parties have attempted to adopt a political ideology from abroad. But selecting a political ideology has two caveats. (1) It is important to understand the historical justification for that ideology. (2) It is important to identify the context where that ideology is working. The relative deprivation of the 19th Century European working class under capitalism sparked a strong resistance. Some intellectuals sought to replace capitalism with a better system that emancipated the working class. Over time, these intellectuals were divided into two camps.

The Marxist camp advocated for a swift revolution. The communists wanted to destroy the bourgeoisie class and establish a proletariat dictatorship. The social democracy camp, on the other hand, acknowledged Marx’s thesis but preferred a gradual evolution. Reschke et. al. (2013) summarized the genesis of social democracy as follows:

·       Early on, the young labour movement recognized, based on Marx and Engles and their own life experience, how decisively economic relations shaped society.

·       The above movement took up the democratic legacy of the 1848 revolution.

·       Social want under early capitalism, on one hand, and the authoritarian state, on the other hand, opposed a just social order. From the beginning social democracy was distinguished by its linking of the social question and the question of democracy (2013, p. 29).

At the outset, social democrats were essentially labor movements established to attain two goals. First, they sought to challenge the economic disenfranchisement of the working class under “early capitalism”. Second, they wanted to replace the authoritarian state (often, monarchies) with democratic regimes. The first cause makes them socialists and the second makes them democrats-hence, the term: social democrats. Today, the communist camp has collapsed. Since no one is trying to establish communism in Tigrai, there is no need to talk about it further. But we do have social democrats in Tigrai. 

Social democrats were never interested in volcanic revolutions from the get-go. They only needed to reform the bourgeoisie (whom they dubbed ‘democratic’) by pressuring them to adopt policies conducive to the working class. Like communists, social democrats arose during the early phase of capitalism. Is Tigrai in the early phase of capitalism? No!

Tigrai has an agrarian economy. It is currently struggling to furnish agriculture as a springboard to embark on a capitalist system. The early stages of capitalism have yet to manifest in Tigrai. Tigrai lacks a bourgeoisie (democratic or otherwise) class capable of dictating terms to the government (authoritarian or otherwise). Tigrai lacks a critical mass of a labor class which can challenge a bourgeoisie that has yet to come. If there is going to be a social-democratic movement in Tigrai; it is going to manifest sometime in the future, i.e. after Tigrai transitions from an agrarian to a capitalist political economy. Social democrats will matter only after the bourgeoisie and the working class emerge in Tigrai. This makes social democratic parties of the future, not of the present.

I think the TPLF has correctly identified where Tigrai stands today. Tigrai is an agricultural economy. I also think the TPLF has correctly identified where Tigrai should go. Tigrai must establish a capitalist economy. I also think the TPLF has identified how Tigrai’s modus operandi. Capitalism emerges from the womb of advanced agriculture. Frail agriculture will not evolve into capitalism.

Beyond focusing on agriculture, the developmental state must also direct (not monopolize or regulate) the economy. It must: (1) control sectors local businessmen cannot handle. (2) Employ fiscal and monitory instruments to stabilize shocks and pass out carrots/sticks. (3) Weed out people (officials and businessmen) who profit (legally through participation, or illegally through bribery) by competing for a business license (import, land, etc.) rather than adding value (rent-seeking behavior). Other countries have established a robust capitalist system by following the developmental state path (Woo-Cumings, 1999). What makes TPLF more authentic is its focus on democracy. The Tigrean unity cannot be preserved without establishing polyarchy (i.e. multiparty democratic government).

Political economy was not the only issue raised during the election debates. The parties also debated on how sovereign Tigrai should be. The parties offered a spectrum ranging for status quo (federalism) and confederation to complete sovereignty. The idea of confederation is an interesting idea opposition parties presented. It deserves serious consideration for the current constitution fails to permit regions to pursue their own diplomatic, financial, trade, investment, or security needs. But the confederation option fades in front of the party pushing for independence.  

The oldest party (TPLF) opted for federalism while the youngest (TIP) stood for independence. TIP argues Ethiopia is an empire holding down ethnicities having conflicting interests. It portrays Ethiopia as a champagne cork destined to explode. Unfortunately, the youngest party did not have a concrete program on how to build capitalism in Tigrai after independence. This question is critical because all Tigreans want peace and prosperity- before and after independence. A complete political party is one that espouses a clear political, economic, and social ideology.

Independence is an appealing cause for many Tigreans suffering under the turbulent situation in Ethiopia. They detest the hostility coming from other parts of the country. But the post-independence political program is one element that distinguishes one political party from another. As of now, there is only one-party advocating independence for Tigrai. But imagine this: what if more than one party advocated for independence? What if there was another TIPa? How would people distinguish it from TIP? Eventually, people will need to look at the political programs of each party (TIP and TIPa) before giving a vote.

If TIP wins without providing a complete political program, it will inevitably splinter into different factions. if it is strong enough, TIP might remain united until it secures independence. But, after independence, TIP will inevitably disintegrate because it lacks a post-independence political program. Even if Tigreans were to opt for independence, they are going to need a stable party that will lead them in the post-independence era. Due to this, the TIP is not ready to lead Tigrai at this period. As the youngest political party in Tigrai, TIP needs to craft a political program and build consensus among its members. Its leaders have the potential to offer a clear idea of how they wish to build capitalism in Tigrai after independence. But that can only happen in the future (after the election), not now.

In sum, I think the most important question is the identify who will build a peaceful and prosperous Tigrai. This boils down to one question: who can build capitalism in Tigrai? The opposition parties have offered alternative paths to achieving peaceful and prosperous Tigrai. Some of them have solely relied on Tigrai’s cultural and historical assets-like spiders. Others have imported a political ideology they deemed relevant for Tigrai-like ants. But TPLF is the only party that has properly understood Tigrai’s internal predicament, derived useful lessons from others, and offered an authentic solution for Tigrai- like a bee. But identifying the correct path does not suffice. Tigreans expect the TPLF not to preach its program but implement them. Failing to discover the right policy may be wrong. But failing to implement the right policy is also wrong. TPLF was a bee (in a Baconian sense) as far as discovering the right path to capitalism for Tigrai goes. Now, if it wins, TPLF must seriously behave like a “bee” in transforming Tigrai.  


Bacon, Francis. 2016/2017. The New Organon: On the true Directions Concerning the Interpretation of Nature. Johnathan Bernett. Accessed September 6, 2020.

Reschke, Michael, Christian Krell, and Jochen Dahm. 2013. "History of Social Democracy: AKademie Soziale Demokratie." Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. September. Accessed September 6, 2020.

Woo-Cumings, Meredith. 1999. The Developmental State. London: University of Cornell Press.


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