Sometimes when I see an acacia tree, if the location is just right, I am transported back to my first home. For a moment, despite the heat and the dust, I see another scene, a rocky hillside brown with heather and a different kind of tree, a Scots Pine. My two homes, the highlands of Scotland, where I grew up, and the place where I now live, the dusty acacia plains of northern Kenya, are very different; one is cold and wet the other hot and dry. Yet there are similarities that go far beyond the obvious differences.
The Scottish highlands are a beautiful but harsh land. Comprising most of the north and western part of Scotland, an area bigger than some European countries (Holland and Belgium are both smaller), the land is made of mountains and glens, lochs and moors. It is deeply incised by sea lochs along its jagged coastline and includes a mass of island, large and small, spreading out from the mainland coast into the Atlantic Ocean. Despite the wild beauty, it has never been an easy place to make a life. Long winters and short, cold and wet summers combine with poor soil to make eking out a livelihood hard work. People who live off this land do so today much as they have always done, with hardy livestock and by growing seasonal crops when the weather allows.
During colonisation, the British took the best of the pastoralist lands of central and northern Kenya and placed the rest under lockdown – akin to martial law – to restrain the “heathen savages” in the Northern Frontier District. Much the same had happened in the highlands of Scotland centuries before.
The fundamentals of surviving a harsh environment in land on the margins of productivity are similar in the Scottish highlands and in the semi-arid areas of northern Kenya. To live in either place requires a tough kind of people who place a high value on community – because working together is essential to surviving the hard times. Both places have been largely ignored by successive governments and often left to the mercy of those that would take anything of value for themselves. This has resulted in a lingering sense of injustice that has, over the years, been the instigator of violence and a deep-seated resentment.
During colonisation, the British took the best of the pastoralist lands of central and northern Kenya and placed the rest under lockdown – akin to martial law – to restrain the “heathen savages” in the Northern Frontier District. Much the same had happened in the highlands of Scotland centuries before. Horrified by the persistent resistance to British rule by highland clans, the highlanders were subjected to one draconian measure after another, all aimed at reducing the power of the clan system and eradicating their culture, language and social cohesion. The culmination of this was the Highland Clearances of the late 18th century.
Then, as now, most of Scotland was owned by relatively few individuals, this being particularly true of the highlands. The Highland Clearances were a widespread action by landowners to move the people off their lands to make way for sheep. Land that had been worked and grazed by the local people was to be cleared of their homes, crop fields and livestock and given over exclusively to sheep farming, managed on a large scale. Landowners believed that there would be great profits to be made from sheep farming and were happy to enrich themselves at the expense of the local population, who were made homeless and destitute as a result. The landowners were supported by the British establishment, which was glad to be finally rid of a people who had so doggedly refused to be subjugated. There are those who see the Highland Clearances as little more than an exercise in ethnic cleansing.
Even now the highlands of Scotland are one of the least developed parts of Europe and have the lowest life expectancy in the region. The land is still carved up into huge estates owned by a few individuals and, until recently, little had been done to address past injustices or to acknowledge present ones. In this, as in the harsh beauty of the landscape, or the tough friendless of the people, I see many similarities between the Scottish highlands and the rangelands of the northern half of Kenya.
My father-in-law (a Laikipia Maasai) will tell you that, in the run up to independence, the Maasai believed that as soon as the country was handed back to Kenyans, they would get their Laikipia land back. All the land that had been taken over by colonialsts, and made into farms and ranches, would be theirs again to graze their livestock. However, when the time came, Jomo Kenyatta said “hakuna cha bure; lazima watu wafanye kazi” (there is nothing for free; you must work for it). My father-in-law says that when, after independence, they tried to take their cattle onto the ranches they were chased off by men on horses. Abruptly their optimism about independence came to an end. For them nothing had really changed, except that now, instead of being told that they could not graze on their land by a colonial government, they were hearing it from a Kenyan government.
If the story of the highlands tells us anything, it is that time will not, on its own, make feelings of injustice go away; if 300 years is not enough time in Scotland, we can’t expect little more than 50 years to do the trick in Kenya.
The land issue in Laikipia was further complicated by the Kenyatta’s government when it resettled Kikuyus there, some of whom were displaced from other areas. The lands they were settled on were mostly lands that were given up at independence and sold back to the government. Many of these plots are the small- to medium-sized farms of the people who make up Laikipia’s Kikuyu population today.
However, according to the Laikipia Unity and Land Initiative, there are approximately 230,000 acres of land that still largely remain unsettled by their 85,000 owners. This land has since been squatted on by small-scale farmers or makes up much of what is today’s open pasture land. Over the years since independence, much of the best land in Laikipia found its way into the hands of politicians and their supporters. Some was retained, some sold on. Many plots in Laikipia have been accumulated in recent years to form the large agricultural farms whose white plastic tunnels now fill vast acres. Kenyan companies own some of these businesses but many belong to foreign businesses or large multinationals.
Despite all the changes that come with time, historical injustices tend to fester and breach trust in modern societies long after they were perpetrated. They should not be ignored. However, we cannot just wipe out hundreds of years of history, or all the people who have lived through them, and reset things to some point in the past. For a start, which point in the past would you chose? The problem with land rights based on historical occupation is that, if you go back far enough, you can always find someone who was there before you.
The laws of the land
Modern Laikipia has a wide range of land uses and a diversity of people. There are small plots producing a few vegetables for sale and large farms that are part of international businesses; there is traditional pastoralism and modern cattle ranches, ranches dedicated to tourism, privately-owned conservation areas and multi-use group ranches owned by communities. The inhabitants are Kenyan, European, American and Asian. The Kenyans you meet will tell you they are Kikuyu, Meru, Maasai, Turkana, Samburu, Pokot, Somali and White (is that a Kenyan tribe now too?). Just as the background to the land issues in Laikipia are complex, so are the backgrounds and livelihoods of its population.
Land ownership today, in places like Laikipia or the Scottish highlands, however, it might have started out, is now based on laws agreed upon by the people’s representatives of the country. They have not been forced upon us by outsiders. In Kenya, even if the laws originated in colonial times, they have been continued by Kenyans. Whether we agree with them or not they are now Kenyan laws, passed or adopted by Kenyan legislators. The dream of grabbing land owned by white ranchers, or anyone else, in Laikpia or elsewhere, is not restitution. It is an act against the laws of this country and, therefore, against the collective will of the people that the laws are meant to represent. It is not a question of whether land issues exist or whether they should be resolved. Rather, it is a question of how that is to be done.
Accepting that most current land holdings in Laikipia are legally owned doesn’t mean that a few people owning huge tracts of land is in the best interests of society. Especially when inequality is shown time and again to have a greater negative impact than poverty. It doesn’t mean we should simply ignore problems we have inherited from past governments, colonial or post-colonial. We must tackle them, but we should do so from within today’s legal framework, including, if necessary, using the systems in place to change laws that are not in the best interest of the society they are intended to serve.
The scars of past injustices have left a mark on highland society that can be felt even now, so many years later. In part this is because to this day the majority of the highlands is still owned by relatively few individuals. While in other parts of the United Kingdom and Europe large aristocratic lands have been broken up, and those that live on the land have come, in different ways, to be not just vassals or tenants but owners, this did not happen in Scotland.
Research by Andy Wightman (a prominent land reform campaigner and author of Who Owns Scotland) has shown that half of Scotland is still owned by no more than 500 people. Some of the large estates have passed from one generation to another, and others have been sold on, but they remain intact. Which, according to academic and land reformer Jim Hunter, equates to “the most concentrated pattern of land ownership in the developed world”. The highlands have been for many years a rich man’s playground. Often the owners are absentee landlords with little interest in the welfare of their tenants, just turning up for a week or two each year to shoot some wildlife and then leave again.
With control over how the county budget is allocated, and with the ability to establish local and international partnerships that benefit their constituents, devolved counties could make community land ownership a realistic option.
If the story of the highlands tells us anything, it is that time will not, on its own, make feelings of injustice go away; if 300 years is not enough time in Scotland, we can’t expect little more than 50 years to do the trick in Kenya. The only thing that will make feelings of injustice go away is to deal with them.
Devolution and partnerships
Scottish devolution has been the impetus for people in the highlands to start addressing past injustices, and to deal with the current inequitable land distribution. Since the mid-1990s there has been a movement in the Scottish highlands for communities to buy out large landowners. Driven initially by communities where the landowner’s extreme neglect and mismanagement put the livelihood of the whole community at risk, it became a beacon of hope as a way to address this deeply rooted problem.
In 1997 a referendum on devolution gave Scotland its own government. While still part of the United Kingdom, the Scottish government has taken over responsibility for the day-to-day running of Scotland, including, among other things, the economy, education, transport, health, taxation and justice. With devolution came an extensive review of Scottish land laws and an acknowledgement of the land issues facing many Scots.
The Highlands and Islands Council led the initial push to provide government support for community buy-outs. Councils in Scotland are local authorities run by elected councillors and are responsible for providing a range of public services. Councillors can have a strong influence on their local area as they have a large say in how public resources are managed. The Highlands and Islands Council set up a land unit to provide technical advice and financial support to communities that wanted to embark on community land ownership. Technical and legal advice was important, but money was the biggest problem for communities wanting to buy out landowners. The Assynt community, which completed its buy-out in 1993, received a relatively modest donation from the Highlands and Islands Council of £10,000. The rest of the £300,000 came mostly from private donations. By 2002, when the Gigha community bought out their island for £4 million, they had a Scottish Land Fund grant of £3.5 million (£1 million of which had to be repaid within two years) and a £0.5 million grant from Highlands and Islands Enterprise (the economic development agency for the area). For several years the Scottish Land Fund was supported charitably by the National Lottery Fund but in 2012 the Scottish government established a fund offering government finance as well.
Without providing support for land management, education and funding for development, community buy-outs would do little to improve the lives of pastoralists.
The Scottish Land Fund states that its objectives are “to support communities to become more resilient and sustainable through the ownership and management of land, buildings and associated assets”. The Fund has a budget of £10 million a year to do this and provides extensive support to help communities build the capacity they need to deal with their many challenges.
The Scottish example shows us different ways in which a community can own land. Communities have taken ownership of land as trusts, limited companies or partnerships. The definition of community has also varied; in some cases the community is established as being only tenants of the land, in others it has been all the people living in the area. Some buy-outs have been undertaken in conjunction with the local government, or organisations such as conservation or wildlife bodies. In one case, a community purchased a 22,228-hectare hunting estate in partnership with a businessman who purchased the high value assets – a castle and salmon fishing rights.
In most cases, support from outside the community has been vitally important in making the purchase happen. This is a way in which the government, other organisations, or even individuals, can help to restore balance to societies affected by past and present land injustice. It is also important to state that these are not forced land sales. When a community wishes to undertake a buy-out, it informs the government and, if the proposal complies with the regulations (2003 Land Reform (Scotland) Act), the government will inform the landowner and a prohibition is put on the sale or disposal of the land. Effectively, this means that if the landowner wishes to sell or dispose of the land, the community has the right to buy it. The price is established by the government at market value.
The Northern Rangeland Trust (NRT) offers a framework where communities on public land can start to get involved with managing the land that they live on. This has been so effective in many cases that people tend to forget that neither NRT nor the community actually own the land.
The results of such community land purchases in Kenya could look a lot like current group ranch ownership. Many of these group ranches have partnered with individuals or businesses to develop tourism on the ranch and, in the case of a community buy-out, could help to provide some of the funding. Devolved county governments could also set up initiatives to support communities similar to those initiated by the Highland Council. With control over how the county budget is allocated, and with the ability to establish local and international partnerships that benefit their constituents, devolved counties could make community land ownership a realistic option.
Land reform and management
The Northern Rangeland Trust (NRT) offers a framework where communities on public land can start to get involved with managing the land that they live on. This has been so effective in many cases that people tend to forget that neither NRT nor the community actually own the land. The legal status of the land has not changed; it is still public land held in trust by the county and, as such, still at the mercy of political ambition, corruption or simply the tragedy of the commons.
Which brings us to another important point. Land reform in Kenya must be accompanied by support for land management. The ranch invasions in Laikipia are at least in part due to the severe and widespread degradation of the vast rangelands of northern Kenya. The public lands of northern Kenya dwarf the private ranches in Laikipia, and though parts of Laikipia have been for generations an important dry season resource, they are by no means the only ones. Other dry season resources have been so over-grazed that every year now looks like a drought year. Without providing support for land management, education and funding for development, community buy-outs would do little to improve the lives of pastoralists.
It is often said that before colonisation, or the arrival of neo-colonial aid and conservation bodies, pastoralists and other indigenous people were excellent custodians of the land. What is generally forgotten is that in those days there were far fewer people and the effect they had on the environment, for good or bad, was a lot less significant. With the massive increase in population in Kenya, especially in the north, as well as the effects of climate change, traditional practices can no longer be counted on to be beneficial or harmless. Established group ranches are witnessing this first-hand. What, at the time of formation, was a vast land is now overcrowded, without enough resources to support the ever-increasing community. New management methods for land and livestock are essential.
We do not lack the knowledge or the skills to tackle the issues left by past, or even current, land injustices. Neither do we lack the knowledge or skills to check the destruction of the rangelands that so many people rely on. We even know how to bring them back to past glories and to develop a livestock industry that can be so much more profitable and productive than our present one. We can make these things happen. We can change our own practices and improve our land, we can work together as communities to deal with grazing issues and we can put pressure on our political representatives to help us address land injustices and inequality.
There is no reason why we should not set up a Kenyan Land Fund to help communities buy out large ranches in Laikipia, or elsewhere, when they come on the market, or enable communities in other parts of Kenya to take ownership of the land they live on. There are environmental bodies ready to help with sustainable land use and others to support improved crop and livestock production. All we are lacking is the political will and commitment. The elephant in the land reform room is corruption in politics itself, but every five years we get a chance to do something about that too.
Community Land Scotland – http://www.communitylandscotland.org.uk/
Right to Buy Land under the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 – http://www.gov.scot/Topics/farmingrural/Rural/rural-land/right-to-buy
The Morality Debate and the Spirit of Capitalism
Public discourse on morality and individual virtue has long been emphasised. But as JORG WIEGRATZ argues, they only tell part of the story of human beings and human society. Indeed, capitalism and its current variant neoliberalism is a moral order that defines the standards of interaction within a neoliberal society.
“It is not from the benevolence (kindness) of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” – Adam Smith: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations
There is a common position in public debates in many contemporary societies – be it in Uganda, Kenya, Germany, the UK or the US – that we live in an age of moral decline and moral crisis. Typically, this is a more or less direct commentary on the global system that shapes all of these societies: capitalism. Well-known public commentators and analysts in these countries, such as Will Hutton in the case of Britain, will declare that current capitalism is morally bankrupt. Hutton writes: “’Modern capitalism’ has arrived at a moral dead end, interested largely in feathering the nests of its leaders while imposing enormous costs on the rest of society and accepting no reciprocal obligations.”
Others refer to capitalism as just plain immoral and evil; or assert that figures such as fraudulent bankers or hard core, ever-profit-maximising speculators, business owners and managers (who lay off thousands of workers, or close entire factories to move to countries with cheaper labour) have lost their moral compass. This is an argument that one comes across regularly when the latest scandals emerge around systemic, high-level, harm-producing fraud and corruption or when heartless profit-making schemes are exposed, with those paying the price for these schemes being the most vulnerable people, including patients, pensioners, children, poor communities or an unsuspecting public.
Often, the terms “greed” or “selfishness” are dropped somewhere in these analyses as well, which implies that the money-minded actors concerned are immoral greedsters. Other words one regularly finds in such texts are “shocking”, “disgusting”, “devil”, “soul-less”, “cold-hearted”, “inhumane”, “indifferent”, and the like, signalling a sort of (expressed) moral unease and outrage about the critiqued actors and practices. In society usually certain economic activities, certain ways of earning a living, of making money by some groups, get categorised as immoral by some other group. And when a society experiences the rise or becoming more publicly visible of certain – say, new, more innovative, blatant, or radical – forms of money-oriented activities or ways of thinking, you will soon find one commentator pulling the analytical card that has “immoral”, or “moral decline” written on it. Representatives of the state (and the political system more broadly), the church, or unions from time to time run this line in one form or another. Of course, when your analysis asserts that morals are at rock bottom, or have been crowded out, then the diagnosis is to inject “more morality”.
Let me then present some examples of this conventional type of reasoning in public debates from the African continent, more specifically South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Nigeria: “Is it that the moral fibre of our society is irrevocably broken…?”; “[Political leaders have] largely lost their moral compass”; “Our freedom of expression had started eroding our moral fabric”; “Poor parenting and moral decay in society are to blame for runaway corruption”; “[There is now] capitalism without a soul … capitalism has lost its moral shine”; “Nigeria is gradually moving into the future with greater number of its youths turning into drugs addicts and becoming morally bankrupt”; “Only immoral leaders would put politics ahead of Nigeria’s fiscal future”; “The loss of moral values threatens our common existence”; “Government will introduce an examinable subject in schools to teach students and pupils ethics in order to rebuild the country’s degenerating moral values and make the citizens appreciate honesty.”; “Rampant criminal activities… have been blamed on lapse in moral values.” And so on and so forth. Our world is full of such statements from public officials, church leaders, artists, scholars and other professional analysts.
Notably, the youth, or groups such as “drug users”, are regularly depicted as having lost their morals. So are categories of people who just go after money, who are just in it for the money, as they say. This debate is, for instance, existent in discussions about young women dating rich and powerful old men or looking for private sponsors/sugar daddies (“transactional sex”; or about the sex-for-university-marks or sex-for-a-job phenomena, be it in Kenya, Uganda, or Nigeria.
This debate came to the fore in Kenya recently when two women, Sharon Otieno and Monica Kimani, were killed mid last year, allegedly because of having sexual affairs with older men. Al Jazeera later ran an extensive special programme headlined: “Why are Africa’s ‘sugar’ relationships in the spotlight?”, and sub-headlined: “Murder in Kenya fuels conversation about partnerships where money and gifts are traded for sex and companionship.” And, the BBC published a long investigative piece about the phenomenon of sugar-baby-daddy/sponsor/blesser, titled “Sex and the Sugar Daddy’” around the same time. Did at least one of the commentators (in traditional or social media) run the moral decline/immorality argument in this particular case too to discuss the behaviour of the women, and the issue of money and sexual relationships?
Lots of observers and analysts seem to agree then that there is a spreading of immorality – especially in the world of business – and a sort of moral regression across modern society, and that this is the issue that needs sorting. In other words, morals are a good thing (and we need as much of them as possible), and something is attacking these morals, making them diminish. Picture a kind of downward spiral, an eroding kind of trend, a society (or particular groups such as “the youth”, or “bankers”) losing their moral values – something gets thinner by the day, something is in decline. The enemy here is immorality, not morality, or say, a specific type of morality. How easy and clear for an analysis – which one can run year in, year out – without even much need for empirical data to support the claims.
Lots of observers and analysts seem to agree that there is a spreading of immorality – especially in the world of business – and a sort of moral regression across modern society, and that this is the issue that needs sorting. In other words, morals are a good thing (and we need as much of them as possible), and something is attacking these morals, making them diminish.
But is this line of argument perhaps not as useful as it seems, as both diagnosis and prescription? Notably, whatever country you look at, very few commentators or scholars, let alone politicians, ever offer an analysis of capitalism and capitalist society as a moral order itself, as a moral system and moral economy with a moral grammar and all sorts of moral-economic milieus and cultures – across economic sectors, professions, locations. And, very few analysts would argue that what so many observers describe and interpret as a case of moral decline, crisis and bankruptcy, is actually a case or phenomenon of moral change in society, and what observers diagnose as a problem of immorality (or absence of morality) is actually a problem of morality, i.e. a problem of particular socially dominant and powerful moral cultures, moral milieus and moral economies in a capitalist society, of the type of moral views, justifications and priorities, of the type of moral actors that this particular social order – and capitalist polity and political economy – tends to bring about.
That said, to get a different analysis and debate concerning morals in today’s society, to move beyond the moral decline thesis and other conventional takes on the matter, three analytical insights or analytical starting points are crucial: capitalism is a moral order; the so-called bad/immoral actors are moral actors too; what is happening in front of our eyes can be treated analytically as cases of moral change, not moral decline or moral bankruptcy.
Capitalism is a moral order
One of the reasons for the popularity of the moral-decline/immorality argument is a particular understanding of morals that is apparently widespread in public discourse. According to this line of reasoning, morals are about being pro-social i.e. being good to other human beings; supporting others to flourish; being altruistic, caring, helpful, honest, selfless; foregoing one’s self-interest; not acting on the basis of self-interest; and so on. If one starts with such a notion of morals, then, of course, one might think that fraudsters or the super-rich are immoral or that our world is in moral decline – look at all the fraud, corruption, deception, violence, inequality, egotism, and narcissism in human affairs. And if you look through these analytical lenses at the history of humanity – i.e. at the actual practices of human beings and the explicit or implicit logics underpinning them – then you might indeed declare a large chunk of what humans do, of human history, as simply “immoral”, i.e. as immoral practice of immoral actors, as immoral decisions, immoral rulers, immoral government, immoral societies and so on.
Human history then in many (not all) aspects looks like a story of moral decline, moral crisis, moral bankruptcy, going on for centuries. Humans inflicting misery and suffering on others, destroying families, villages, cities and countries; using, exploiting and humiliating each other – and destroying the environment and extinguishing species – because of this decline or absence of morals. In other words, all these practices – and respective repercussions for the well-being of others affected by them – exist because of other factors than (i.e. everything but) our morals. They exist not because of the presence of (particular) morals, i.e. not because of the dominance of specific morals over others in society. If you are a morality analyst that adopts this conventional angle – morals are about being pro-social – you can ignore that big chunk of our human history, because all this immoral or amoral stuff has nothing to do with our morals, and our moral order and moral culture more broadly, and the political, economic, social and psychological factors and conditions that bring these about. To study human morals, it is sufficient then to focus on fair trade, altruism, charity, solidarity, and the like, i.e. the pro-social practices; that is where the music plays.
However, you might take a different, more open, flexible understanding of morals that allows you to, analytically speaking, see morals and moral culture de facto everywhere where humans relate and interact with each other and thus matters of their well-being – and related matters of (in)justice, (un-)fairness, (in-)decency, (in-)authenticity etc. – come into play, are affected, are at stake, or are negotiated. This take would allow researching, seeing, discussing and critiquing the moral underpinning of the entire spectrum of social practices from good” to “bad”. It would see (as some movies and TV series do) the prime sites of fraud, corruption, boardroom sell-outs, violence, humiliation, oppression, and exploitation as moral sites as well, as sites where moral codes, views and priorities operate too just as in the boardroom of the altruists (though arguably different sort of morals). How is that possible, you wonder, to find morals where they are supposedly absent, where people operate who have lost, as we heard, their moral compasses? It really depends on the definition and take on morals one applies.
But note: when I talk of moral order I don’t necessarily mean a “good” (just, humane, fair, socially progressive) order. Instead, moral order or moral culture here refers, amongst others, to an order that has a wide range of existent – dominant and non-dominant, complementing, conflicting and competing – moral norms, interpretations, views, beliefs, claims, demands, tensions, contradictions, discourses, imaginations, and so on regarding matters of good/bad, right/wrong, acceptable/unacceptable, legitimate/illegitimate, and so on in social relations and practices, including in the economy. And, in this sense, capitalism, and its different variants from colonial to neoliberal capitalism, is (and has always been) a moral order, culture, system too; with a wide range of moral milieus and moral economies, with a wide mix of notions of right/wrong, good/bad, acceptable/unacceptable, praiseworthy/blameworthy, with various patterns and distributions of benefit and harm, of flourishing and suffering.
Morals don’t necessarily mean or imply pro-social practice (i.e. a practice that fosters the flourishing of others, is honest etc.). As human history and research shows, there are operational, actually-existing, on-the-ground morals in particular social settings that prescribe or advance that it is acceptable, right, good, and necessary to defraud (or intimidate, threaten, evict, exploit, enslave, etc.) and thus harm another human being or social group, for particular reasons. Professionals who work or have worked in fraud-invested companies or organisations at times say – once they face a judge, investigator, or reporter, or blow the whistle – that fraud was the culture in the place, i.e. that it is/was the tacit or explicit moral culture in the organisation or team to deceive, cook the books, take short cuts, short-change vulnerable customers, and so on so as to meet revenue and profit targets, beat competitors, get bonuses, and keep the job (and thus make family/region/nation proud, send the kids to good schools, save for the future and old age, look after extended family, etc.).
Morals don’t necessarily mean or imply pro-social practice (i.e. a practice that fosters the flourishing of others, is honest etc.). As human history and research shows, there are operational, actually-existing, on-the-ground morals in particular social settings that prescribe or advance that it is acceptable, right, good, and necessary to defraud (or intimidate, threaten, evict, exploit, enslave, etc.) and thus harm another human being or social group, for particular reasons.
That said, let’s look at this alternative definition or take on morals in more detail then: Morals, including morals on the ground, as expressed in actual practice, can be understood as being in many ways about how we treat one another (for instance in the economy) and how we deal with matters of (in)justice, (un)fairnesss, (dis)honesty/authenticity, solidarity, etc. in this context. Morals are about what is regarded as acceptable or unacceptable, as right/wrong, good/bad, proper/improper, legitimate/illegitimate, or praiseworthy/blameworthy. As you can perhaps sense already, in society, in a local market place, in a factory or in an office there are all sorts of views about what constitutes acceptable practice, what or who is moral and immoral, and so on. And you can bet that the ruling classes (the powerful, the dominant, the oppressors and exploiters) in any place have a somewhat different view regarding what is right, good, proper and acceptable than the subaltern classes (the oppressed, exploited, humiliated, beaten-up people). In other words, what different social actors regard as proper or acceptable depends on the actor’s power, position in society and economy, experiences in and perspective on life and society, and so on. All this is far more open to people’s views and interpretations – hence diverse, variable and changing – than the many voices in public debates want us to believe.
One of the shortest and cleanest formulations of this aspect is one by Monika Keller: moral norms are “standards of interaction concerning others’ welfare”. In this phrasing of what morals are, the emphasis is on how we treat each other (and thus affect the lives of those involved), and what is regarded as normal or acceptable in this regard. Using this angle, the pro-social element (being altruistic, solidaristic etc.) is not a necessary part of the understanding of “morals” anymore. The morals in place could be: your welfare doesn’t matter (too much; or not as much as our welfare anyway), because of x (you are…; we are…; the situation…), hence, we (are justified to) treat you in a particular way (exploit, defraud, torture, kill etc.). Morals are thus also about what are acceptable levels of interpersonal or social harm in various settings, from the battlefields in business to those in wars. With this analytical starting point, one can now begin to search for, analyse, and understand (as well as critique) morals – and moral orders, cultures, climates and economies more broadly – that underpin – i.e. render (sufficiently) acceptable, proper, right, normal, necessary – exploitation, fraud, intimidation, humiliation, violence and trafficking in the economy, or the practice of leaving people who seek refuge/survival/a better life in Europe to drown in the Mediterranean. The analytical and political question then is: what are respective moral climates and moral codes, and what/who (re-) produces them, and why?
That said, from an analytical perspective we can now relate for instance fraud to morals, i.e. to standards of interaction concerning fellow human beings (and their lives and well-being, and related interests) in a specific time-place context. This “standard”, for at least some actors in their respective social settings, could be that under condition x, it is okay, necessary, proper, right, or good to defraud another human being, social group or class, because of z. Or, in case of corruption-infested road construction projects, the standard of those directly or indirectly advancing the deal could be something in the direction of: it’s okay to get some good money (for purpose x, y, z), at the expense of future victims of road accidents due to the resulting poor roads (because part of the money meant for building material etc. was siphoned off). And this shared notion, understanding, norm or “standard” – this action justification – is of course a social phenomenon, i.e. is socially constituted: (re)produced over time by something and someone (beyond the individual fraudster, or group of fraudsters), including global, national and local politics, political economy, religion, you name it. Remember, norms (including moral norms) are “socially constituted action justifications”.
So, the point is to recognise that whatever the social practice in the economy, there is some sort of moral grammar – a notion of how to treat others, what is regarded as acceptable/unacceptable – underpinning it. And these views, understandings and justifications – how to treat others in economic sites ranging from agricultural fields to markets, factories, bank branches, domestic homes and so on – do not fall from the sky but are a product of society, including its history, class and power structure, and its mode of production, as well as, for instance, the global political economy that impacts this society.
We have now arrived at an analytical point where we can shift gear: instead of mainly thinking about whose morals are right and wrong (from whatever political, philosophical standpoint), or what is moral/immoral, other questions to grapple with emerge: what are these specific morals in specific settings that bring about a certain social practice (that conventional analysis declares as immoral, inhumane etc.) and where do these morals come from, what/who (re)produces them, what has it to do with politics and capitalism, and so on. And: how do morals change over time, and why?
With this sort of take on morals, one can now understand better, and claim scientifically, that a particular set of morals (whether as an analyst one likes them or not) are actually present in the cases that much of public debate and commentators declare as immoral, amoral, or inhumane: from the cases of fraud, greed, exploitation, humiliation and intimidation in our high-stakes economies (where people relate and interact in order to make a living, survive, keep the job, ensure the bonus, escape poverty, get wealthy, strike riches etc.) to a capitalist economy, culture and society as a whole.
Of course, philosophers of war have for long run the line of argument that under specific conditions, for particular reasons (to protect/advance one’s country, king, god, etc.), it is good, necessary, legitimate, proper, or just to kill another human being, to kill (or imprison, torture etc.) others by the hundreds or thousands i.e. to harm others, to lower their welfare levels, to limit their flourishing. If war was one context and site where some scholars could construct an argument about the morals of harming others (aka, Just War) – which was of course not just a desk-based argument but somewhat reflected aspects of the historical situation on the ground where this war-is-moral was one of the existent morals at the time (arguably advanced, then as now, especially by rulers, and profiteers of war) – then the morals-of-harming-others analysis can be extended to other social sites, contexts and actor groups i.e. beyond war, soldiers, generals (or nowadays drone operators), enemies in the battlefield and so on.
Then there is an open analytical pathway, i.e. hope that the scholarly oddity – that we hardly study, let alone gather qualitative data on the morals that underpin the entire spectrum of human action (from so-called “good” to “bad” actions), across history – could be addressed, and perhaps amended over time. The oddity that there is so little theory and data on the moral underpinnings of a lot of social practices that humans in the millions and billions have very consistently, for a very long time, shown and opted for in their engagement with each other when matters of livelihood, poverty, survival, wealth, power, prestige, status, privilege, career and so on are on the line: these humans have deceived, exploited, intimidated, bought-off, bullied, defrauded, killed (with ever more effective weaponry), as well as conquered, colonised, enslaved, burned-the-place, and eradicated alternative, resisting, non-compliant cultures. Given the size, significance and importance of the phenomena of concern, it is odd that the (e.g. qualitative) data set about these aspects of the macro and micro moral climates, worlds and milieus of earning a living, of profit-making, of striking riches, of accumulation, of outcompeting others, you name it, is so astonishingly small.
Anyway, once one can hold this analytical point (regarding such a take on morals), one can engage with more unconventional analyses in order to learn something about the entire spectrum of moral orders and morals of human beings. For example, some scientists have explored moral systems and moral subjectivities related to “bad stuff” and “bad actors” outside the economy: cases here range from the mentioned soldiers and generals in war, to mass murders, terrorists, neighbours-as-killers in heightened social conflicts (in Rwanda, for example), Nazis and Nazi Germany, and so on. And some scholars have looked at the “moral worlds” of state institutions too, including police, courts, prison, social services, and mental health facilities, i.e. what some would regard as “bad” actors and practices. But this literature – especially the former that explores morals that prescribe significantly (and routinely) harming others – is generally not used in the scholarship, let alone in our public debates, about the moral order and dynamics in a capitalist economy and society.
Morality and power
Many positions in our public debates about morals in contemporary society are, in my view, so sterile, so stuck, so analytically flat, because they do not allow us to talk about, and thus understand, the social constitution, including the politics, of these sorts of morals: the morals of the small and large “wrong-doers”, such as the fraudulent (and/or “greedy”) bankers, insurers, industrialists, traders, speculators, tycoons, doctors, lawyers, or politicians, and the moral climate in the organisations and sectors they work and operate in. The debates, as outlined earlier, mostly say: immorality (or, out-of-hand greed, self-interest etc.) is the issue and problem at hand – and this can be cured by more morals, including an injecting of more morals into capitalist corporations and sectors. This closes off any engagement and debate with what is in my view the real issue: morals (of treating others, of making money etc., including deceiving, defrauding, taking advantage of, exploiting, and harming others) and moral order in a society shaped by capitalism.
Many positions in our public debates about morals in contemporary society are, in my view, so sterile, so stuck, so analytically flat, because they do not allow us to talk about, and thus understand, the social constitution, including the politics, of these sorts of morals: the morals of the small and large “wrong-doers”, such as the fraudulent (and/or “greedy”) bankers, insurers, industrialists, traders, doctors, lawyers, or politicians, and the moral climate in the organisations and sectors they work and operate in.
One more important point: morals – notions of what is acceptable, legitimate, normal, okay or necessary practice – are (i) political i.e. shaped by political and political-economic context, and thus matters of power and conflict, and (ii) co-constituted in a social process by a variety of social actors with different – and often competing and conflicting – moral views and priorities, and of course different and competing economic and political interests. There are always power structures and processes as well as social conflicts (regarding what is right/wrong, acceptable/unacceptable, legit/illegitimate) that underpin any dominant moral order, or specific aspects of that order. As an example: the absence of an effective minimum wage for decades now is a key characteristic of the moral order in neoliberal Uganda, backed, at the minimum, by a range of powerful actors and their moral views and priorities regarding right, good and acceptable and related political and economic interests.
Most public analysts that I read or listened to in our media over the years never really bothered to deeply analyse this collective nature of our actually existing morals in the economy. For instance, what are the societal processes and structures – and interplay of actors – that produce fraudulent bankers and fraud-invested banks? Crucially, economic activity takes place in an uneven landscape of power and resources in which social actors contest and negotiate over the boundaries of acceptable action. In other words, the moral order, the moral climate in the economy, or in specific sectors (say, maize production and trade in Kenya) is deeply shaped by politics and the political economy. What turns out to be the dominant practice, the dominant norm – i.e. the way things are done – is thus a “function” of power, or more specifically, of power structures and relations in a capitalist society. That basic insight makes the phenomenon and analysis of moral order so political; again, something most public commentators don’t recognise or make much of. So next time you are “shocked” about the practices and “immorality” of tycoons, bankers or managers, check out what their morals are and what they have to do with power.
To close the discussion of this point: according to theoretical and empirical scholarship, the current variant of capitalism, neoliberalism, is associated with or puts emphasis on morals (that endorse matters), such as self-interest, individualism (with a focus on individual choice, gain and material success), personal enjoyment and achievement, self-actualisation, a focus on transactions and money, wealth accumulation, consumption, opportunism, cunning, low other-regard and empathy, low regard for the common good, and so on. Does some of this sound familiar when you look at your society, your town, your community? Of course, there is more to neoliberal moral order and neoliberal moral economy than I can outline here but these are some of the issues to start with.
Those who study and emphasise pro-social morals are not wrong, but they only tell a part of the story of the morals of human beings and human society. The economy (or polity for that matter) of your country is full of and overflowing with morals (not all “good” ones, I give you that, but morals still), with millions of actors with morals and moral compasses; even the notorious, hard core fraudster has a compass, a particularly skewed one perhaps but a compass it still is. Try to go through everyday reality and observe fellow human beings and their practices through this lens for a day or two. You might find it insightful.
False Freedom: The Hollow Pillars of Liberal Democracy
In a now commonly known assessment F. Fukuyama, after 1989 change in world systems, predicted the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. It is the ideal system the African continent is not only looking up to, but also being either encouraged, or, in some instances forced to adopt. Saying liberal democracy, today, means a certain number of things that some people call features of liberal democracy, others call its values, others its characteristics, and so on. They include the rule of law; citizens’ rule; majority rule, minorities’ rights, individual rights; regular free and fair elections; democratic representation; freedom of speech, freedom of association and pressure groups; pluralism understood as distribution of power between competing groups, i.e. mainly political parties; freedom of religion; equality as equal opportunity to develop potential and equal say in government matters. This long list would be incomplete if it does not state that all this is ensured by constitutionalism understood as the system of checks and balances between State’s arms of power drawing up the mechanism of cooperation and consultation between them on the one hand; and on the other between citizens and State institutions.
Those who have demanded periodically “democracy now”, in Africa and in other parts of the world, were demanding the system described above. Before them, those who have struggled to overcome the excesses of single party regimes, or even military regimes, sought to embrace liberal democracy.
The above shows how there can hardly be an exhaustive definition of liberal democracy. It is commonly accepted that it relies on classical liberalism which in turn, in simple terms, would mean an ideology concerned with man’s freedom from any impositions. It is based upon the principles of liberty and equality. In addition, classical liberalism propounds a system as central to itself: private property, free market, unhampered by government rule; the rule of law; constitutional guarantee of freedom of the media and religious freedom, as well as peace achieved through trade, both domestically and internationally. If that is what is “liberal’ in liberal democracy, what would be the “democracy” part in it? It would be the universal suffrage, a strong middle class, and an active civil society. Moreover, pluralism expressed through political parties is supposed to ensure that alternation in governing is possible since it is assumed that loyal opposition would give voters the chance to get out office individuals or a party that is not performing.
Those who have demanded periodically “democracy now”, in Africa and in other parts of the world, were demanding the system described above. Before them, those who have struggled to overcome the excesses of single party regimes, or even military regimes, sought to embrace liberal democracy. Indeed it appears to create room for the sovereignty of the people to give itself a constitution; to accommodate the representation of large populations with the widest sociological diversity; to ensure the control of government is assured by the division of power with a direct control exercised by parliament, usually a bicameral one; and be open to citizens’ participation as channels for people to organize themselves according to shared opinions and ideologies made possible by political parties. Has it worked? Some say in parts yes, and in parts it is a problem.
PROBLEM IN PRACTICAL TERMS
The problem, however, is that embracing liberal democracy on the African continent has yielded progress, yes but also has created new problems. It would be enough to look at the aftermath of the so-called “Arab Spring” in northern Africa. Moreover, the fact is and remains that the gains of multiparty politics as well as those of the recent revolutions in northern Africa in terms of achievements of social justice and peace are still questionable. Generally, in terms of what can be termed political common good understood as the different social conditions, material and non-material, that allow people as individuals and groups to develop their own potential and that of their community, small and large, liberal democracy hasn’t done much. Instead, new forms of conflicts have sprung up. At times liberal democracy policies and practices have also created social paralysis. In this aspect, one can think of some unsuccessful coalition governments that created endless bickering rather than advance people’s true development.
Generally, in terms of what can be termed political common good understood as the different social conditions, material and non-material, that allow people as individuals and groups to develop their own potential and that of their community, small and large, liberal democracy hasn’t done much.
The previous contribution to this publication alluded to the fact that liberal democracy conceptually promotes individualism which is in stark contrast with the basics of the African society based upon solidarity and hospitality. This is due to its major principles of absolute freedom and equality, which remain theoretical and impossible to translate into tangible response to people’s needs. In a bid to emulate developed societies’ life style, or rather liberal democracies’ life style for example, urban Africa is living some kind of a proxy life characterized by a growing individualism, with no other duties than seeking to maximize individual wellbeing through pronounced materialism, as well as a series of subjective rights. Why call it proxy life? On the one hand because so few have the means to actualize it. And on the other, because a much and far bigger number, on the continent, is still living very far below such standards, a fact that makes it impossible to unleash a critical mass of a middle class with decent income necessary for a stable democracy.
When it claims to be the rule of the majority, even in developed societies, including the United States of America, it often is the case that from the business world, to political institutions and municipalities, the will of the majority can find itself under a fierce control of just a few, normally a very restricted economic elite. In Western societies, the participation in political processes is similar to the law of the jungle: the survival of the fittest. The fittest here being the one with the money. Ordinary people do not see the difference their vote can make where financial power rules politics, which explains, in part, the declining number of those who actually vote. The case of recent general elections in France is an illustration of this. The same could be said of the shrinking power of organisations that used to represent ordinary people such as unions, which weakened the workers in the face of corporate power; a panorama suggesting that liberal democracy is a political system in which the free market rules. Consequently, at least in the west, the ordinary citizen looks like he is left aside. Such situation has forced even liberals like Mrs. Clinton to use, in her recent campaign, such concepts as inclusive capitalism instead; or the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders to campaign against “Wall Street”.
In Western societies, the participation in political processes is similar to the law of the jungle: the survival of the fittest. The fittest here being the one with the money.
The system is a problem if money controls politics, or if corporations control political agenda as well as the media. The resulting disenchantment is that elected political office holders do not represent the voters, they represent the interests of those who fund them. In Africa this is double jeopardy, as those who fund politicians could be, not just a small financial elite in any given country, but also foreign donors with special interests, far removed from the needs of the voters. The problem as it appears in practical terms demands that the tenets of liberal democracy be interrogated. Such an interrogation must first posit the problem in theoretical terms.
THE PROBLEM IN THEORETICAL TERMS
Asked recently about what has just started to go wrong in liberal democracies, Fukuyama said: “Well, there are several things. So one is just the fate of globalization, which actually worked very well in the aggregate. But it didn’t benefit everybody equally. You know, we’re now more than a generation away from the collapse of communism. And in a way, everybody now takes democracy for granted. And they’re very unhappy with the way that their institutions are performing, I think, both in the United States and in Europe”. In the West, the reaction against globalization stems from the fact that huge swathe of the working population feels that the free market tied to the liberal democracy hasn’t worked for them at all. It has increased the power of a small financial elite to decide the fate of a political system everyone else should put up with even if it is not working for them. That is what makes the illustrious Fukuyama say that people feel the pull of taking part in tribal societies instead.
Talking about tribal societies, in Africa, we never departed from our tribal societies. There is never a need to shun one’s tribe as it does form part of one’s identity. Trouble started when channeling political pluralism in terms of political parties. In most African countries, multiparty politics drew up those political mechanisms of seizing and retaining power along tribal lines, perverting the tribe into tribalism. This permeated the only instance of political participation, i.e. elections, with the consequences known to all. The aggravating circumstance that goes with it is the sheer number of individuals that are far from being members of the so-called middle class. One could even say that what is called “middle class” in a number of African countries is the “indebted class” whose home is mortgaged, the car is on loan, school fees are on loan and, even sometimes, the furniture is on loan, etc…
However, it can’t be said that what is wrong with liberal democracy should be reduced to the social ills of where it is to be implemented. This is because, liberal democracy is also flawed conceptually. Its flaws can be summarized in the following points, proving that its main pillars are rather hollow. Coming to terms with such a reality could push the debate to seek some corrective measures, in the African context, in some of our traditional understanding of the art of government as based upon wisdom. Which pillars appear to be hollow?
1. The principle of liberty and equality
When liberal democracy is touted as the most adequate system of government, it is assumed that it is because, through the distribution and control of power, it offers greater guarantee against arbitrariness and oppression. On such ground it defends its foundational principle of liberty and equality by presenting greater protection to individual liberty and respect for human rights, which are the expression of equality. In virtue of equality all can participate in democratic governance, because all are free and equal. However, political power cannot really be exercised by all. It is necessary to hand it to someone: that is what elections do. Hence the reason why for some, with elections the purpose of public governance is achieved. This means that the purpose of the political community is to give to the individual his rights and consequently the political community has no value in itself. It is an instrument for individual interest. Here is a major characteristic of the liberal tradition, in contrast with the republican tradition. The distinction between these two should be the object of a different issue.
However, political power cannot really be exercised by all. It is necessary to hand it to someone: that is what elections do. Hence the reason why for some, with elections the purpose of public governance is achieved.
Considering the community as a mere instrument at the service of individual liberties, easily morphed into individual interests where free market reigns, is the surest way of emptying the concept of individual liberty of its content. This is because individual liberty exists within an order of liberties. Individual liberty cannot be absolute as liberal democracy has made it to be. It needs a measure, without which it can become a means of violence against other people’s liberties. When individual liberty is absolute, it can easily create fertile ground for conflict of “us” against “them”, or, as it has been the case in totalitarian regimes, a case of conflict of all against all.
What is the right content of individual liberty then? It could have two meanings: fundamental human rights and prosperity for all as well as the good of each citizen. Such content refers directly to the common good, a concept that has not found room in liberal democracies, where it’s all about interests. This demonstrates further why a true content for the idea of equality cannot be found either. Indeed human beings are different. We can’t put the same value on the opinion of educated people and uneducated ones, wise elders and ignorant people, law abiding citizens and criminals, etc. More importantly those upon whom power is invested, in order to be free and equal, must recognize their own good in the common good of the people they lead. This fact clashes, once again, against the wall of individual interests be they of the few or of corporations within a liberal democracy.
The discussion of what is lacking under the pillars of liberty and equality in liberal democracy indicates or gives rise to questioning its understanding of another of its seeming pillar: the idea of what is just.
2. The idea of what is just
In liberal democracy, there is a tension between the idea of freedom, as the form of democratic life, and the idea of what is just and what is right as its content. Observing today’s trends, it can be easily seen that the emphasis is always on freedom, while what is just and good remain secondary matters and, in some instances, they appear in third, fourth or even fifth place in the debate, in the name of the fact that no one wants the State to shape their idea of what is just and/or good. This position is even pronounced when there is need to understand what is just in the light of the truth. The liberal tradition does not believe that truth, especially truth about what is good and just can be known at the level of the community or in the public sphere. Liberals firmly believe that truth belongs to the realm of the private sphere. Thinking about what is truly just and truly good for all is practically un-democratic. So the question is, what is then the foundation of liberal democracy’s claim for social justice if there is no hint of a publicly, or commonly understood truth about what is just, not only for a ruling class but also for an ordinary citizen? Social justice appears then to be another hollow tenet of liberal democracy. The absence of a universal understanding of the truth not only about what is just but also about what is good, for the leader and the citizens, is one of the reasons why a number of thinkers are of the opinion that liberal democracy relies on relativism as another pillar for it as a system
3. The principle of relativism underlying the majority rule
The fact that liberal democracy relies on relativism is a contradiction in principles. This is because democracy is perceived to be the best guarantee of inviolable rights. Indeed, depriving others of their rights cannot be the content of justice and liberty. In fact it is core idea that points towards the ethical dimension that democracy can’t really renounce. However, if democracy cannot accommodate a truly universal and unchangeable idea of freedom as limited by the order of freedoms -the idea of good as personal good and common good and the concept of the truth- it remains without any other reference for political decision except the principle of majority rule. In the political arena, relativism as a pillar of liberal democracy has substituted the truth by the majority rule. And justice is left to be determined by the law, meaning what the competent organs say, even if they could declare something wrong to be just. Here is why liberal democracy has come to be defined by the rules of the game which consists in forming majorities for the transmission and alternation of power. It is no longer about the common good of those who elect the leaders that count!
Liberals firmly believe that truth belongs to the realm of the private sphere. Thinking about what is truly just and truly good for all is practically un-democratic.
The consequences of such relativism cover a wide range of facts such as populism that operates with opinion polls, when it is clear that popularity cannot be synonymous with right; partisan divides with consequent partisan legislation never meant to really achieve the common good but rather serve partisan interests; corruption in the form of clientelism where lobbies and corporations pay for favours in the form of policies; entitlements; formal and informal complex systems of non-accountability etc.
Unmasking the hollow principles of liberal democracy is a duty, if a way to solve such problems is to be found. In summary, the quick diagnosis above shows that, only a return to the ethical dimension of democracy would pave the way to solutions. However, consideration on this needs a greater elaboration which must start from the truth about the nature of political society in order to restore the true meaning of freedom and equality. Such an elaboration would also need to include: a) a discussion on the true meaning and role of “civil society”; b) an analysis of the distinction between metaphysical liberalism and political liberalism, which would also indicate a mention of c) the distinction between the liberal democracy tradition and the republican tradition.
 Ratzinger, J. (2006), Truth, values and power, Rialp, 6th ed., Madrid, p. 82. (in Spanish)
 Ibidem, p.83.
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