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Why Bother to Vote? Why Elections Are Losing Their Lustre

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A couple of years ago, there was a contentious debate in academic and policy circles about the perceived decline in global democracy. Through all the talk about how to define democracy and measure its growth and reversal, one thing remained certain: the sanctity of elections. Regardless of whether or not democracy is advancing, elections retain their position at the center of any legitimate democratic system. Problematic though they might be, elections represent the height of political progress.

When there is public outcry over an election, is usually revolves around a particular aspect of the electoral process: the merits and/or drawbacks of election technology, controversy around how votes are counted, the source of campaign money; the list goes on. This has especially been the case in the last year, as people reacted in shock to -and looked for flaws in- the electoral process after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and Donald Trump won the American presidential election.

But how do we know that elections themselves are still a broadly accepted and publicly legitimate way to select leaders? And given that even dictatorial leaders are often happy to hold elections, what is their real value in advancing democracy around the world?

The Erosion of Electoral Credibility

It turns out that people around the world are wondering the same thing. In fact, more than ever before, citizens from across the globe report that elections are not necessarily a defining part of a democratic system. In the 2010-2014 wave of the World Values Survey, for instance, less than half of all respondents (41.5 percent) agreed with the view that elections are an essential characteristic of democracy. This represents a significant drop from the previous round of the survey (2005-2009), when more than half of the respondents (52.3 percent) expressed that elections are an essential part of democratic systems. This drop goes hand in hand with a sinking faith in democracy overall. From 2005-2009 to 2010-2014, there was a 7.1 percentage drop in the proportion of people around the world who felt that democracy is “absolutely important.”

It isn’t difficult to see that elections are losing their lustre. But why? In representative democracies, elections empower citizens to stand in judgment of their (prospective) leaders. Even if only for a short while, elections shine a spotlight on ordinary voters, providing a platform for them to debate, reflect and ultimately assess their choices. Voters hold ultimate power in elections…or do they?

Unfortunately, elections around the globe today have lost much of this original sense of purpose. This is hardly surprising. Over time, elites have used their positions and power to gradually distance electoral processes from the people, and this has created electoral contests that hinge on little more than big money and elite strategy. As a result, the rules that govern elections often do not uphold the principles of democracy, and ordinary voters do not hold the reigns of power in elections anymore.

Electoral Systems

In some ways, it all starts with the electoral system. Although the design of a country’s electoral system — involving calculations of district sizes and populations, determinations of boundaries and vote to seat ratios — may seem like a purely technical process, the choice has serious political implications. At their core, after all, electoral systems determine how votes get counted and translated into seats; they determine who has a chance of a seat at the table. Electoral systems are thus at the heart of democratic design.

Since the choice of electoral system design impacts many later phases of the electoral cycle – especially party and coalition formation and campaign strategy – it is a stage setter, providing the framework and incentive structure for electoral stakeholders’ behavior. A majoritarian system, for instance, tends to favor larger communities – often to the detriment of smaller groups — by requiring only a simple majority for electoral victory. In so much of the world, these types of winner-take-all electoral systems risk creating a tyranny of the majority. They also often produce governments that are seen to be “unfair” in the sense that the number of seats a party wins can often be highly disproportionate to the number of votes that party garnered. Parties who do not manage to win a majority of votes but who still capture a substantial amount of support are left with absolutely no access to decision-making power. In 2015, the controversy surrounding first past the post was brought to the fore in the United Kingdom. There, the Conservatives won 37 percent of the vote and 51 percent of parliamentary seats. The party therefore received a parliamentary majority with less than half of the electorate’s support.

Unfortunately, elections around the globe today have lost much of this original sense of purpose. This is hardly surprising. Over time, elites have used their positions and power to gradually distance electoral processes from the people, and this has created electoral contests that hinge on little more than big money and elite strategy.

Of course, other electoral systems – even ones that seek to produce more “fair,” proportional results – have their problems. Proportional representation may give more parties a seat at the table, but it can also bestow striking amounts of power to the smallest and most ideologically extreme parties, who become “kingmakers” in the kinds of coalition governments that PR systems produce. In Israel, for example, hard-line members of ruling coalitions have routinely blocked potential agreements related to the conflict with Palestinians over “any slight movement perceived as anti-settler.”

Electoral systems are not just about vote counting; they can also determine whose vote counts. In the United States, Donald Trump won the presidential election without winning the majority of Americans’ votes. In fact, Hillary Clinton received almost 3 million more popular votes than Trump, which represented the most votes ever won by a losing candidate in American history. Since it is the votes of the American electoral college, made up of elite party insiders, that ultimately decide the victor, the popular vote can end up determining nothing.

It is easy to see why such systems provide real disincentives to popular participation, especially for non-mainstream voters. Indeed, a post-election poll in the United States revealed that a mere 30 percent of surveyed Americans felt the electoral system was functional. 70 percent said that it was broken.

Money in Politics

Of course, electoral system design is just the tip of the iceberg. The electoral playing field is also heavily skewed by the growing role of money – both legal and illicit – in electoral contests. Without regulations that limit donations and expenditures, require regular and full disclosure of funding sources, and that incentivize close interaction with voters, it is all too easy for politicians to fall prey to a small group of wealthy donors who can and do influence policy formulation in the years between elections. In this situation, ordinary voters must fight to be heard, and even when they are they must struggle to compete with affluent elites. This kind of situation is also self-perpetuating. Once elected, leaders will think about how to retain their positions; the quest for campaign contributions and the subsequent quid pro quo may go on for the entirety of elites’ electoral careers.

This type of election is hardly voter-centered. Indeed, the Kofi Annan-led Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security listed uncontrolled, undisclosed and opaque political finance as a “grave threat” to the credibility of elections. “In an era of explosive growth in campaign expenditure across older democracies, citizens lose faith in the electoral process. They suspect that wealthier citizens and corporations have greater influence in public affairs…Poorly regulated campaign finance in turn leads to lower participation in the democratic process, tainted electoral integrity and impaired democracy.”

Examples of these situations abound. In India, where the election commission has set fundraising and expenditure limits, politicians resort to “black money” from the criminal underworld. Politicians have been forthcoming about the reality of the situation. In fact, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is often cited for saying that “every legislator starts his career with the lie of the false election return he files.” In 2012, parliamentarians discussed spending as much as $3.3 million on campaigns, despite expenditure limits of $26,000. To put this in perspective, the average Indian person earned $1,480 at that time, roughly 6 percent of the official limit and .04 percent of the maximum $3.3 million quoted by politicians. In Kenya, where parliament refused to pass a campaign finance regulatory bill into law, candidates have spent millions even before the official beginning of the campaign period. In the run up to the primary elections in April, for instance, aspirants in the North Rift region of the country spent approximately Sh850 million ($8.2 million) on their campaigns. In the Uasin Gishu region, the leading opposition party’s top two gubernatorial aspirants each spent Sh100 million ($967,000) in the primary contest.

Given the dangers, it is surprising how little regulation there is around these issues. In fact, around the world, only about a quarter of all countries in a global study banned corporate donations to political parties, less than half prohibited donations from corporations with government contracts to political parties, and just 4 in 10 outlawed anonymous donations to candidates. Rules about disclosure aren’t much better. Just 50 percent of countries require political parties to submit financial reports in relation to election campaigns.

In such contexts, it comes as little surprise that voters don’t have faith in electoral processes. Average voters can’t compete with big business, and it is easy to understand that some would think there is no point in trying.

Media and Elections

Voters also greatly depend on the media during elections. Indeed, as the conduit of information to the public, the media play a pivotal role in electoral processes. Voters rely on the media to learn about candidates’ and parties’ platforms, to debate with other voters on the current issues, and to find the practical information necessary to cast ballots. Furthermore, the media act as watchdogs, safeguarding the transparency of the process. Without credible information, voters stand little chance of making informed decisions at the ballot box.

Unfortunately, however, media around the world are in crisis. In its most recent report, the Electoral Integrity Project lists media as one of the two (the other was campaign finance) most serious obstacles to a level electoral playing field. There are many challenges to free and independent media today, but some of the most critical election-related problems include:

Freedom of the Media: Media cannot fulfill its duties to society in a politically restricted environment. It is thus worrying that the 2017 edition of the World Press Freedom Index lists only fifteen countries (out of 180) in its most free category (“good situation”). Of these, twelve are located in northern and western Europe. In other countries, media outlets and journalists face high-profile bashing – increasingly from elites, financial restrictions, threats, physical abuse and violence, and an oppressive legal environment. Notably, the Index singles out the African continent for the recent spate of internet shutdowns during elections.

The 2017 Index warns of a “tipping point” in the state of media freedom, especially in democracies. The report states that media freedom “has never been so threatened,” and documents a 14 percent rise in the overall level of media constraints and violations over a five year period as well as how an “obsession” with surveillance and the death of respect for confidential sources have contributed to the decline of many consolidated democracies.

Consolidation: The vast majority of media outlets are owned by an increasingly smaller number of people and firms. In Australia, for instance, the News Corporation and associated Rupert Murdoch companies own 57.5 percent of the country’s newspapers. In Chile, El Mercurio SAP owns 54.9 percent of that country’s newspaper market. The concentration of media ownership means that there is less diversity of opinion in the public domain. Without multiple, diverging viewpoints and feisty public debate, voters are less informed and thus less able to make independent and free choices on election day.

A majoritarian system, for instance, tends to favor larger communities – often to the detriment of smaller groups — by requiring only a simple majority for electoral victory.

Access to Media: Media become especially critical during election campaigns, when candidates and parties rely on television, radio, newspapers and the internet to communicate with the public. Without regulation of some sort, smaller, less affluent contenders will struggle to access the media and therefore to reach voters. In 67.2 percent of cases, countries provide subsidized access to media for political parties, but in many of those cases that subsidy is based on the party’s share of the vote/number of seats in the previous election, or even on the number of candidates running. Newer and smaller parties are thus at an extreme disadvantage. In cases where there is no subsidy for media access, the costs can be prohibitive. In the United States, for instance, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spent approximately $227 million on media. That was 58 percent of her total expenditures for the campaign. Donald Trump spent less in actual dollars, but it still amounted to 59 percent of his campaign’s total expenditures.

Without the freedom to report honestly and in safety and without a balanced playing field, characterized by equal access to media, voters are at a distinct disadvantage, simply because they do not have the opportunity to freely and easily obtain the information they need to make informed decisions about their choices on election day as well as about the legitimacy of their electoral processes. This is even more true as global threats to internet freedom grow.

These problems threaten media’s connection to the public around the world. They also serve to perpetuate elite dominance in the electoral arena, undermining the rights to information and the freedoms of expression and speech that are fundamental to democracy.

Electoral Manipulation

As if the issues outlined above were not enough, old-fashioned rigging continues to be a problem in elections around the world. Despite the advent of electoral technology, which is perceived by some as a way to prevent many polling station-level crimes, in many parts of the world, elections are still susceptible to ballot box stuffing, multiple voting, underage voting, and voter bribery.

These types of incidents are regular occurrences, happening all over the world. Egypt provides an exemplary case in point. In 2010, observers cited the removal of opposition candidates’ names from ballots, blocking opposition agents from entering polling stations, premature closing of polling stations and ballot box stuffing. Evidence in the public record included photos and videos of voter intimidation and election officials filling in blank ballots. In 2014, turnout was so low during the scheduled two days of voting that the election commission took the step of adding a third day. International observers called this a “needless irregularity.” On the night before this additional day, the opposition candidate withdrew his monitors because security forces were abusing them. In 2015, Egyptian elections were marked by widespread vote-buying and violence. In fact, the situation was so extreme that some candidates dropped out of the race.

The same issues can be seen in many other parts of the world. Recent analysis cites allegations of electoral fraud in Russia, election related violence and the theft of vote counting machines in the Philippines, and irregular figures from results sheets in Gabon. In Nigeria, accusations of double voter registration are threatening the legitimacy of a sitting governor and a British MP is on trial for 14 counts of electoral fraud.

Allegations of rigging are also occurring in relation to election technology. The United States 2016 election is perhaps one of the best known recent examples of polls tainted by such accusations, but the vulnerability of election technology is well known in other parts of the world. In 2016, Andrés Sepúlveda revealed how, beginning in 2005, he manipulated elections for a variety of clients across the South American continent, ultimately having a hand in nine different countries. Just before the 2016 election in the Philippines, hackers attacked the country’s election commission website and compromised personal data of approximately 70 million people.

Electoral systems are not just about vote counting; they can also determine whose vote counts

And this isn’t all. The drawing of electoral boundaries, the drafting and amending of laws, access to voter registration, electoral dispute resolution and many other aspects of the electoral process can all be skewed to serve private rather than public interests. In recent years, much of the conversation and rhetoric around elections has focused on trying to determine how many problems, or exactly what problems, constitute a fraudulent election. This is a difficult question – after all, the manipulation of even one part of the electoral process can impact a number of stages later on. If it is clear that private interests have trumped public interests in even one phase of elections, shouldn’t that be enough?

Are polls passé?

For some, issues such as the ones raised above call the very legitimacy of elections into question. For these critics, the solution does not lie in bolstering the electoral process; it rests in upending reliance on elections altogether.

Indeed, one argument is that elections are outdated, relatively undemocratic and far from the best way to channel people’s thoughts and opinions.

Isn’t it bizarre that voting, our highest civic duty, boils down to an individual action performed in the silence of the voting booth? Is this really the place where we turn individual gut feelings into shared priorities? Is it really where the common good and the long term are best served?… Imagine having to develop a system today that would express the will of the people. Would it really be a good idea to have them all queue up at polling stations every four or five years with a bit of card in their hands and go into a dark booth to put a mark next to names on a list, names of people about whom restless reporting had been going on for months in a commercial environment that profits from restlessness?

The argument has its merits. Although elections are processes, made up of multiple phases and activities, each of which has its individual purpose and impact on the final result, the majority of attention, money and work is – more often than not — focused on election day and the counting and announcement of votes. Practically, then, an election is about individual decisions at the ballot box. One tick and it’s all over.

There is also the argument that electoral democracy is a particularly western conception, designed for particular social systems that are organized quite differently from social structures and systems in other parts of the world. Thomas Koelble and Edward LiPuma contend, for example, that “the real measure of democracy is the extent to which governance conforms to the visions of democracy worked out by the governed.” Elections, at least the way they are currently practiced, may not factor into all visions of democracy.

In this reality, what are the other options? Should the focus be – as it has been for the last two decades – on improving electoral processes? Or is there another way altogether? Is it time to reconsider elections as the preferred mode of choosing political leaders?

That may already be happening.

In many places around the world, new political movements – many of which have sprung from waves of popular protests against the corruption, greed, and self-serving mindsets of politicians, are working to create innovative structures through which citizens and voters can easily and directly participate in governance. While these movements do not necessarily reject the concept of elections, they place as much – if not more – importance on internal democracy and consensus. As a result, they approach elections from a position that has grown much more directly from constituents’ and members’ input and decisions than those of traditional parties.

It comes as little surprise that voters don’t have faith in electoral processes. Average voters can’t compete with big business, and it is easy to understand that some would think there is no point in trying.

By placing ordinary people at the center, these movements are defining new modes of direct democracy. Indeed, the Podemos party in Spain makes use of digital platforms like Loomio and Reddit, which allow citizens to take part in policy discussions, vote on senior party positions and come to consensus on issues under debate. Similarly new movements in India and Italy make efforts to grow from the local level upwards, prioritizing grassroots issues.

Another possibility is sortition, or drafting by lot. In this system, a random sample of the population comes together to learn about selected topics, hear from experts, debate with each other and make decisions. In this way, everyone does not vote on a range of issues that few understand. Instead, a randomly selected group of people takes the time to comprehensively understand a set of questions and make well-informed decisions. This body could then interact with elected representatives to draft legislation. Proponents argue that sortition reduces corruption and promotes attention to the common good. Sortition is not new. It was used in ancient Athens, and it has been and/or is being used in Bolivia, Australia, Canada, China, the Netherlands, Ireland and the United States.

The new political movements and the concept of sortition demand much more of people than mainstream elections. This makes sense; it takes significant effort and time to weigh the policy choices facing society. Elected representatives, regardless of their experience and expertise, can only do so much on their own; citizens and voters must be active participants, providing their leaders with the information they require to make informed decisions and constantly demanding accountability.

It may be that if elections are to regain and maintain legitimacy, they, too, will have to ask more of voters. And voters should demand more of their elections, if it’s not already too late.

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Seema Shah is an elections expert with experience in North America, Asia and Africa. She holds a doctorate in Political Science, and her research focuses on electoral politics, with an emphasis on electoral integrity and electoral violence.

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The Souls of White Folk Revisited

At another historical inflection point, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized white Americans’ delusions as the property of the West more broadly.

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The Souls of White Folk Revisited
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When US Congress members resumed deliberations on the Electoral College vote after a pro-Trump mob violently stormed and temporarily occupied the Capitol building on January 6, many of them expressed shock and dismay that such an event had occurred in the United States. The scene was certainly abominable. More than fifty people were injured, and five people died in the attack, including a Capitol police officer. But the greatest damage had been inflicted upon the feeble facade of American exceptionalism and white innocence.

In a revealing display of historical delusion, the mantra in Congress that evening and throughout the following day was that the barbaric attempt to subvert the outcome of the election was an aberration in US political history and culture. “This is not who we are,” members of congress repeated. Instead of introspection, there was deflection. “This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic—not our democratic republic,” former President George W. Bush related through a formal statement, without any apparent awareness of his own irony and racism.

And there were even boasts. Vice-President Mike Pence, in his address to the reconvened Senate envisioned a world in awe of the US. “The world will once again witness the resilience and strength of our democracy,” he said. New York Senator Chuck Schumer, revealing the limits of his historical literacy, was aghast that this aberrant event will stain America’s image. “Unfortunately,” he said to his colleagues, “we can now add January 6, 2021 to that very short list of dates in American history that will live forever in infamy.”

A half a century ago, at another historical inflection point, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wisely recognised these delusions as the property not simply of the United States, but of the West more broadly. The US, he discovered, shared with European states and their imperialist outposts in Africa and the Caribbean a near pathological determination to dress up labour exploitation, gross materialism, militarism, and white supremacy as democracy. We are at a similar historical moment.

This myth of exceptionalism and white superiority continues to yoke the white working class in the US and elsewhere—France, Britain, Brazil, and in South Africa, among other places—to an economic system that is destroying them. King, in his time, implored us to recognize this fact. Today, he would remind us that what Americans saw on January 6 was a domestic variant of a world problem of persistent adherence to white supremacy casually cloaked in political and economic grievance.

The US, like South Africa, needed collective myths to fuel its national pride, and allow its leaders the self-assurance they displayed. Their myopic sense of exceptionalism fueled their claims to superiority vis-à-vis the rest of the world. The same internal inhibitors to self-reflection allowed Donald Trump to label country’s “shitholes” and former President Bush to dismiss others as “banana republics.” This absence of self-reflection compounded by delusion inspired the pro-Trump white-nationalist mob to attack the US Capitol building in an act of domestic terrorism.

We can learn from King’s prescient admonition for white Americans, Western Europeans generally, to recognise the inevitable calamity that will result from the ease with which they hold aloft the banner of racial superiority, while they trod aggressively toward an all-encompassing conflagration. King offered an alternative path forward borne of his engagement with non-violent movements in Asia and Africa to end of European imperialism, and the movement in the US against racial segregation and economic exploitation.

King’s analysis of global white supremacy grew increasingly astute in the early 1960s, through his involvement in initiatives to end white-minority rule in southern Africa. King was not alone in his thinking. He espoused a philosophy that was in the tradition of the Black social gospel theologians who mentored him, such as Benjamin E. Mays, Howard Thurman, and King’s father, Martin Luther King Sr. The inspiration they derived from Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolence was immense, first in his struggle for Indian rights in British-ruled South Africa and then, after 1915, in India, toward its independence from Britain. Others, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, and South Africa’s Albert Luthuli, shaped the rich, internationally-oriented intellectual and political environment that nurtured King and shaped his political outlook.

King’s goals for the Civil Rights Movement were also consistent with those of his contemporary radical activists who were unsatisfied with arguments for integration into an unaltered American society. His Black social gospel predecessors, as would King himself, insisted that the US social and economic system be understood in its global context, which would evince the necessity of a radical reordering. The global perspective that King and his contemporaries in the Civil Rights Movement gained through their involvement in the struggle against white-minority rule in southern Africa, equipped them to discern the global dimensions of capitalism, white supremacy and resulting forms of creeping authoritarianism.

Part of King’s brilliance and his usefulness for understanding the current political moment was his capacity to link culture, philosophy, and national politics within broad, global economic and political structures. In his speech to the First Conference on New Politics Chicago in 1967, King derided the persistent myth of the US as a paragon of justice, equality, and freedom. He diagnosed America’s social malady as a “triple-prong sickness that has been lurking that is the sickness within our body politic from its very beginning. That is the sickness of racism, excessive materialism and militarism. Not only is this our nation’s dilemma, it is the plague of Western civilisation.”

King did not issue diagnoses without prescriptions for a more healthful body politic. He strove toward the realisation of what he referred to as the “Beloved Community,” built on justice and equality. Toward that end, we must be honest about and learn from our own history.

King warned that it was detrimental to the US to continue to deny that “capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves,” and demanded the acknowledgement that capitalism “continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor, both black and white, both here and abroad.” Again, his antidote for this sickness was not mere social integration, but true social justice, which required a radical remaking of American society. “The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice,” he argued, “cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.” What he called for, in other words, was a social revolution.

King’s internationalism and the deepening sophistication of his social analyses in a global context were most fully displayed in his Human Rights Day address at Hunter College in 1965, in which he warned that the delusion of superiority and exceptionalism among white South Africans was propelling that country toward internal violence, as he feared it would among whites in the US. The prospect of white violence prompted King to muse on the image of the African savage in the European imagination, reinforced by innumerable books, motion pictures, and magazine photos. He lamented that this figment of Africa as home to backward savages had persisted for more than a century despite the nimiety of facts that controverted it.

King contrasted the African-savage narrative with Europe’s well-documented economic and political savagery on the African continent: “Africa does have spectacular savages and brutes today, but they are not black. They are the sophisticated white rulers of South Africa who profess to be cultured, religious, and civilised, but whose conduct on philosophy stamp them unmistakably as modern-day barbarians.”

He feared that the persistence of these brutes, these barbarian white rulers would propel South Africa toward a race war, as Africans exhausted all peaceful routes to liberation and self-determination. To forestall or, even better, prevent such an outcome, King called for an international moral coalition against white-minority rule in southern Africa. “The leaders of South Africa’s openly and virulently racist regime were very specific about their intention to secure and maintain white dominance in the country. Quoting Prime Minister Verwoerd [of South Africa]: ‘We want to keep South Africa white.’ Keeping it white can only mean one thing, namely white domination, not ‘leadership,’ not ‘guidance,’ but control, supremacy.”

King neatly summed up apartheid’s corrosive efficiency for securing white political and economic power in the country, while ensuring a stable reserve of cheap Black labor. Rather than a southern outpost of Western civilization, as many South African leaders claimed, their country’s social and economic system made it, as King put it, “a formidable adversary of human rights.”

He emphasised his endorsement of international sanctions against South Africa, in this speech. Although the push for sanctions in the US would fail to shift the US government’s position on South Africa until the 1980s, King recognised the potential for a sanctions campaign, beyond the specifics of its immediate goal to cripple the apartheid regime, to form the basis of a global movement; what he called an “international alliance of all peoples of all nations against racism.”

As the minister extolled the virtues of sanctions, he singled out the US for its hypocritical and economically gratuitous embrace of South Africa. There had always been quick and deliberate US action in international events when the US believed its interests were at stake. He said that when the US invaded the Dominican Republic, which took place that year, it showed what it was capable of doing if willing. “We inundated that small nation with overwhelming force, shocking the world with our zealousness and naked power.” But toward South Africa, he bemoaned, “our protest is so muted and peripheral, it merely mildly disturbs the sensibilities of the segregationists, while our trade and investments substantially stimulate our economy to greater heights.”

Such is the hypocrisy of exceptionalism. The US would not condemn South Africa at the height of its own hypocrisy on race relations, because to do so would indict both countries. They mirrored each other, with their racist economic and political systems, hyper militarism and historical delusions. “Colonialism and segregation,” he wrote in an essay published that year in the New York Amsterdam News in 1962, “are nearly synonymous; they are children in the same family, for their common end is economic exploitation, political domination and the debasing of human personality.”

King would have recognised the raiding of the US Capitol building as a stark reflection of what America has always been. Like the white rulers of South Africa during the 1950s and 60s “who profess to be cultured, religious, and civilized,” US leaders have conjoined mythology and delusion to blind themselves to the fact that the marauding horde that brought such shame to the US Capitol on January 6 and, indeed, to the US, acted in the long and dependable tradition of white nationalism in America and in the indomitable spirit of global white supremacy.

King endeavoured to steer whites from the course on which their historical delusion had fixed them and that would lead them inevitably toward violence. His legacy inspires a clear-eyed examination of movements like Marine Le Pen’s National Front (National Rally), Boris Johnson’s Brexit, and Trumpism, to understand their deep-rootedness in the ethos and praxis of white supremacy. Naming it, as King counseled, will allow for self-reflection and an opportunity for true exceptionalism. Success within this process will enable US politicians to recognize the marauding horde wandering the corridors of the Capitol building as themselves and a product of their history.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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African Economies, Societies and Natures in a Time of COVID-19

Reginald Cline-Cole provides an analytically rigorous understanding of the differentiated spread and impact of Covid-19 around the world. In so doing he returns us to what ought to be our core concern: the political economy of uneven incorporation of African economies, societies and natures into the world economy.

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Several correspondents of mine have suggested that it makes a nice and welcome change that something this big, this bad, this scary and this seemingly predictable is not coming out of Africa. ‘This’ and ’it’ being, of course, the all-encompassing and still evolving phenomenon of Covid-19 or coronavirus, which ROAPE has been covering in the journal and online. And with good reason for, as others have already observed, the time of coronavirus is not just leaving an indelible mark on the year 2020 but might well be transforming neoliberal capitalism in previously unimaginable ways. The virus continues its inexorable advance  and, having taken some time to reach Africa from Europe and Asia, has spread rapidly since its reported arrival in mid-February, with confirmed cases numbering some 4300 people spread across  (African Arguments 2020), and more than 9000 people in  (ACSS 2020). As elsewhere, increasing infection numbers (and, sometimes, rates), imploding economies and disrupted social interactions have fuelled mutually reinforcing health and economic crises, precipitating sometimes.

And this despite, or sometimes because of, high-level policy and other discussions about, and adoption of, frequently exceptional measures which aim to slow the transmission and spread of the virus and prevent the worsening of what is already considered by many as a global crisis of unprecedented threat, impact and uncertainty In the process, as Bird and Ironstone note, ‘[p]ower structures are being radically re-arranged in our societ[ies] right now and if we lose our capacity to criticize the future may be beset by new, even more damning ones.’

It is thus vital that Theophanidis clarifies that his call for ‘distancing’ aims to create space for critical thinking and careful reflection, notably in a context in which digital, mostly social, media connectivity is helping to counter the isolation of ‘physical social distancing’. As numerous and varied examples of radical digital activism and solidarity which have emerged demonstrate, it would be regrettable if far-reaching lessons were not learned from crises precipitated by the pandemic and the varied responses to them.

Does Covid-19 discriminate?

Available data on age–sex distribution of confirmed cases for the WHO African Region indicate that, overall, older men would appear to be disproportionately affected by Covid-19 with a preponderance of males (1.7:1 male-to-female infection ratio) across all age groups and a median age of 36 years (range of 0–105). Further instances of disproportionate impact based on religion, class, occupation or ethnicity will no doubt emerge in time, notably as readily available details on the demographics of coronavirus victims extend beyond the fundamentals of age, sex, nationality, residence and travel history. In the UK and USA, of course, such metrics have been invaluable in identifying the overrepresentation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) health and care workers and volunteers among coronavirus fatalities. Similar racial and ethnic disparities characterise wider BAME community and hospital in-patient infection and death data from coronavirus, with black people (four times), Bangladeshi and Pakistani (three and a half times) and Indians (two and a half times) more likely to succumb to Covid-19 than white people in England and Wales. The phenomenon has attracted extensive media and other coverage which has focused on health inequalities and risk factors, deprivation, affluence and racial discrimination, and in the absence of acceptable causal explanations for the overrepresentation.

But it has been left to organised labour and popular mobilisation to extract hard-won concessions from state actors and the public–private healthcare complex to institute an official enquiry, provide adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline health, care and allied workers and expand coronavirus testing opportunities for these workers and their families (NHS Confederation 2020). Special compensation programmes for families of NHS staff (and, in England, social care workers) who die from coronavirus have also been announced, although the level of compensation is considered inadequate by some, and labour unions, among others, have called for the scheme to be extended to cover all key workers who die from the disease.

And yet, as tardy, reluctant, inadequate and reactive as these state interventions have undoubtedly been, it is social mobilisations which have ‘forced the state to take on its responsibilities’. These have included medical professionals and cross-party campaign MPs ‘breaking silence’ over Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on particular sections of society, which itself speaks to the promise of social action and emancipatory politics in influencing (post-) Covid-19 politics and realities.

But as the coronavirus BAME casualties and fatalities include Africans and people of African descent whose remittances are often integral to the livelihoods and survival strategies of family at home, their existential struggles have not been lost on Africans at home and in the diaspora. Indeed, as social media exchanges were quick to indicate, for countries like Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, among others, the earliest known coronavirus deaths were of their (often dual) nationals in the diaspora rather than at home, where the continent’s first fatality was a German tourist in Egypt. For many, family, friends, colleagues and casual acquaintances would eventually succumb to the virus, in my case across three continents.

Thus one of my acquaintances regretted what he saw as a ‘lamentable waste’ of African medical and health expertise which was going to be both sorely needed and badly missed on the continent, if the worst predictions of Covid-19 were ever realised. A second drew a comparison between these coronavirus deaths and the often tragic demise of undocumented migrants along trans-Saharan and Mediterranean routes to Europe, suggesting that both groups had paid the ultimate price in their respective attempts to escape the poverty of opportunity in Africa.

These have included medical professionals and cross-party campaign MPs ‘breaking silence’ over Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on particular sections of society, which itself speaks to the promise of social action and emancipatory politics in influencing (post-)Covid-19 politics and realities

Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe, frontline medical staff followed up on a protest strike which had been observed jointly by the Hospital Doctors Association (ZHDA) and Professional Nurses Union (ZPNU) in mid-March to highlight the shortage of PPE for health workers in the country’s hospitals. The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) sued the government in the High Court in early April to compel it to provide adequate equipment and supplies to enable frontline medical practitioners and healthcare workers to tackle the Covid-19 crisis safely and professionally and, in the process, to significantly improve public access to functioning quarantine and isolation facilities.

Similar protests have been widespread across the continent, many representing a continuation of long-running dissatisfaction with public health provision predating coronavirus. In one of the more recent of these, coronavirus frontline workers in Sierra Leone who announced they were going on strike in early June were joined at the start of July by doctors refusing to treat coronavirus patients in quarantine or isolation facilities in protesting government failure to pay outstanding bonuses, ‘hazard pay’, promised as incentive to persuade health workers to agree to treat Covid-19 patients during the outbreak, often with inadequate PPE, diagnostic and therapeutic equipment and supplies.

Thus, a government with the foresight and presence of mind to draw up a Covid-19 response plan before the outbreak of the pandemic, and probably earlier than anybody else on the continent, stands accused of not only reneging on the memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed in April with the Sierra Leone Medical and Dental Association (SLMDA) to facilitate this Covid-19 response, but also of failing to renew the MOU before it lapsed three months later (Inveen 2020a). Recalling that disasters like pandemics are influenced by human ‘decisions, attitudes, values, behaviour, and activities’ one cannot but wonder whether there is indeed merit to the SLMDA’s claim that the government does not appear to be particularly interested in resolving the dispute, and if so what the political reasoning behind such a choice might be.

Protests have been widespread across the continent, many representing a continuation of long-running dissatisfaction with public health provision predating coronavirus

Clearly, the ZHDA/ZPNU, SLMDA and NHS struggles share more than just a generic similarity. There are recognisably Zimbabwean and Sierra Leonean names on published lists of NHS and care worker coronavirus fatalities. And in all three cases, albeit in noticeably different ways, the struggle to pressure the state to assume its responsibility in relation to public health and wellbeing is rooted in austerity, long predates Covid-19 and is fuelled by perceptions of official inefficiency, neglect and corruption. In addition, as recent SARS and Ebola epidemics have shown, potential risks and opportunities for corruption are significantly increased during major health crises, most commonly in drug and equipment procurement, leading to calls for increased oversight, accountability and transparency during the coronavirus pandemic

Thus, a major grievance of the SLMDA, for example, is a perceived ‘misuse of funds for the coronavirus response’, a reaction to official procurement priorities which have seen 20% of Sierra Leone’s total coronavirus budget being spent on new SUVs and motorbikes, with only a tenth as much on medical equipment or drugs, leaving PPE in constant short supply and contact tracers seemingly unaffordable. The national Coronavirus Response Team, for its part, justifies the delay in disbursing promised bonuses by citing the necessity to both establish the identity of frontline health workers and ensure that hazard pay went only to those entitled to receive it But as improperly disbursed hazard pay was one of several examples of mismanagement of funds by public officials during the Ebola crisis with its high health worker mortality rates SLMDA impatience and suspicion do not appear entirely unfounded. And, at nearly 11%, Sierra Leone’s ratio of health worker infection to total reported infections is among the highest on the continent.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwean health professionals have also embarked on the latest in a series of strikes, partly to protest at the erosion of local purchasing power and living standards by hyperinflation and demand payment of their salaries in US dollars, but also to highlight both police harassment of striking nurses and the perennial shortage of PPE at a time of rising incidence of Covid-19.

But whereas SLMDA appear to be contending with seemingly misplaced procurement priorities, their Zimbabwean counterparts are confronted with alleged criminality, which has seen the sacking of the country’s minister of health, who has also been charged with corruption and abuse of office for the illegal award of a large contract (since revoked by government) for PPE, testing kits and drugs to a company which would deliver these supplies at hugely inflated cost.

The combination of a worsening economic crisis and sharply increasing coronavirus infection totals (including of health workers) has seen opposition politicians make common cause with the media and popular forces to decry corruption and demand greater accountability, while calling for a national day of protest against ‘corruption and political challenges’ at the end of July.

The authorities refused permission for the 31 July protests to take place, on the grounds that it would be subversive, unconstitutional and anti-democratic (BBC 2020d), as well as violating Covid-19 pandemic regulations at a time when there has been a spike in coronavirus infections. As a result, they claimed, a dusk-to-dawn curfew and tighter restrictions on movement had to be imposed.

It is presumably also in the common good that leading organisers/supporters of the proposed protest have been arrested, charged to court and refused bail.The example of state officials rewriting coronavirus reality to suit a favoured narrative is a recurrent and intensely political one, to which we return later.

Philanthro-capitalism in coronavirus times

An earlier prolonged doctors’ strike over pay and conditions in Zimbabwe had been called off only in January this year, when the ZHDA accepted an offer of funding for a fellowship programme for its members which would guarantee a monthly subsistence allowance of up to three times their salary for a period of six months from Strive Masiyiwa, the country’s wealthiest individual.

Following the PPE protests in March, funding to cover the cost of PPE for doctors and other health workers was added to the original offer, which was also extended to all nurses, as well as doctors in non-state hospitals, and expanded to include health and life insurance cover with cash or lump-sum benefit in the event of ‘hospitali[sation], … permanent disability or death from the virus’. Although he is Zimbabwean born, Strive Masiyiwa presides over his Econet Group from London, where he currently lives and from where he has undoubtedly been monitoring the wide variety of local responses to the pandemic worldwide, or at least in those world regions in which Econet has a presence.

But while nothing in the way of private donations to Sierra Leone’s coronavirus response effort is likely to have come anywhere near the sums certain to have been involved above, reports from Nigeria indicate that Masiyiwa’s fellow billionaires have also been making substantial donations to the (federal) Nigerian Private Sector Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID) and their state equivalents, as have corporate entities (often fronted by the same individuals). Is it likely, then, that we might have a case of transnational capital ostensibly contesting state in/action as part of a wider coalition while still acting in its own long-term interest?

Masiyiwa’s conglomerate Econet, for example, combines telecom, mobile phone, fintech and power distribution enterprises which operate across large parts of Africa, but also in the Americas, Asia Pacific, Middle East and Europe. The funding/fellowship programme for health workers is to be established and run by the Higherlife philanthropic family foundation, while Ecosure, the insurance arm of one of the Econet Group companies, will underwrite the insurance component of the offer.

Similarly, Nigerian media reporting of the private coronavirus response donations by individuals and corporate entities gives as much prominence to the identities of donors and their net worth as to the size/purpose of their donations and sources of wealth, thereby fulfilling invaluable public relations and/or corporate social responsibility (CSR) functions, as well as playing a commercial advertising role. Consequently, while donor state of origin or residence tends to be the primary beneficiary of private philanthropy, corporate donations often favour populations and institutions in states and regions of direct commercial importance. Thus Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest individual, has provided a fully-equipped and staffed Covid-19 testing facility, as well as part-funding a wide range of vital public interventions in coronavirus prevention and containment via private and corporate donations in his home state of Kano (and, to a lesser extent, Lagos State, where the Dangote Industries group has its head office).

He also assumed shared national leadership of CACOVID’s quest to raise funds from private and corporate sources for federal and state Covid-19 response; and, by making the largest corporate donation to the fund to date via the Aliko Dangote Foundation (ADF), triggered something of a ‘giving war’ of donations and pledges among his fellow billionaire donors. He also made a further multi-million-dollar donation to the Nigeria UN COVID-19 Basket Fund which aims to provide support to individuals and households trying to rebuild livelihoods disrupted and/or undermined by the coronavirus pandemic.

In the end he and his fellow donors are publicly thanked by President Muhammadu Buhari (who encourages other high-net-worth individuals – HNWIs – to follow their example). Dangote is also thanked by the governor of Kano State for his services to coronavirus prevention and response, with which his name becomes inextricably linked in media reports, which almost invariably also mention his equally sterling contributions during the earlier Ebola epidemic. Like Strive Masiyiwa, with whom he earlier collaborated on regional and continent-wide Ebola response efforts, then, this enhances his reputation as one of Africa’s biggest philanthropists and, as CEO of ‘Nigeria’s most profitable company’ (Augie 2020), one of the continent’s most successful business people. Is this what capitalist philanthropy in a time of coronavirus looks like? And is it as accommodating in its business practices as it is in its public giving?

Zimbabwean health professionals have also embarked on the latest in a series of strikes, partly to protest at the erosion of local purchasing power and living standards by hyperinflation and demand payment of their salaries in US dollars, but also to highlight both police harassment of striking nurses and the perennial shortage of PPE at a time of rising incidence of Covid-19.

While philanthropy is not restricted to wealthy individuals and profitable corporations, their role can be strategic and decisive. UBS and TrustAfrica (2014), in a jointly published study, document and seek to analyse how and why this is the case for African philanthropists/philanthropy during ‘normal’ times. But as the Dangote and Masiyiwa examples and numerous others like them illustrate, this is also largely the case during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, with its varied, changing and often expanding demands/appeals and frequently inadequate – if improving – philanthropic responses (Julien 2020). Experience with previous epidemics and pandemics, supplemented by emerging insights from Covid-19, have informed the design and implementation of emergency coronavirus plans and strategies worldwide, including for dealing with voluntarism and managing donations (Alexander 2020). In emergency coronavirus planning scenarios, responsibility for external donations and government/state resource commitments is routinely combined with administrative oversight for internal donations of various kinds.

In practice, this creates a pressing, possibly overwhelming, need to coordinate appeals for assistance while managing a diversity of resources earmarked for coronavirus response in an accountable and transparent way (Transparency International 2020). Notably, the circumstances surrounding the previously mentioned sacking of Zimbabwe’s minister of health, and ongoing legal and media challenges to UK government officials against the lack of transparent and competitive tendering in the award of Covid-19 related contracts (Monbiot 2020) remind us that expectations of resource governance, transparency and accountability are not just ethical and moral, but frequently political and legal too.

And that, like the good governance agenda as a whole, these expectations can be heavily neoliberal in tone and intent, and as process. Significantly, however, expectations of transparency and accountability in how donations are managed or used have not historically been routinely extended to how the wealth which makes corporate and HNWI Covid-19 philanthropy possible is generated in the first place. How best to explain such imbalances in what has been described as the power of process and practice in philanthropy (Mahomed and Moyo 2013)? And how best to prevent its use in, say, ‘offset[ing] reputational damage or exploitative practice’ (Mahomed 2014)?

The point is that African philanthropy is increasingly seen as indispensable to the emergence of a self-reliant continent, with corporate philanthropists looking to strengthen links between business and philanthropy, considering ‘investments with a social impact’ a suitable means for achieving this. Aliko Dangote Foundation  and Higherlife Foundation, for example, thus function as CSR units of Dangote Industries Ltd and Econet, respectively. Their donations or pledges in both cash and kind undoubtedly give a significant boost to the overall coronavirus response effort, to include staff recruitment, training and remuneration. Equally, and particularly noticeably, they also impact directly on local and import markets in specialised medical equipment and supplies, as well as in two- and four-wheeled motor vehicles, among other commodities. Yet, these markets might well be dominated by manufacturers and/or intermediary suppliers which are subsidiaries of corporate partner organisations to the charity foundations through which philanthropy is dispensed by conglomerates in the first place.

More directly, how have corporate philanthropists reacted to the disruptive effects of Covid-19 and the varied responses to it on the factory floor, behind the bank counter, at the plantation gate and in front of the computer screen? Specifically, were business practices adequately adjusted to reflect the new normal in a time of coronavirus? Did they readily and effectively incorporate workplace Covid-19 preparedness planning and response strategies, including testing facilities where appropriate? Were adequate supplies of PPE, relevant equipment, water, soap, sanitisers, etc. made available to employees? And where, as with several of the corporate donors in question, their businesses operate across national boundaries, were common standards maintained across the board or did arrangements differ between ‘home’ and ‘foreign’ sites and workforces (and, if so, why and with what consequences for workers)? Overall, do philanthro-capitalists lead by example here in a way reminiscent of their public giving and pledging? As Mahomed (2014) notes, ‘the ethics of how philanthropy money is made (especially if made in an endeavour that disadvantages those it now seeks to support) must be called into question.’ That we are in the middle of a pandemic is no reason not to at least raise the question of the often differentiated nature of the process by which donated wealth is made or, indeed, of how coronavirus has been (or is likely to be) exploited for capitalist investment and profit accumulation.

But the lesson of Covid-19 need not involve either depoliticising philanthropy (it has after all contributed actively to the long-term process of privatising and commercialising formerly public health systems on the continent) or underestimating the complex dynamics of emergent solidarity between often conflicting and competing class interests. Take the following two parallel and competing but interrelated phenomena. On the one hand we had Donald Trump’s largely futile attempts to encourage wider use of the labels ‘Wuhan Virus’ and ‘Chinese Virus’; his still unfounded but periodically repeated claim that SARS-CoV-2 was developed in a Wuhan laboratory; his insistence that the WHO is so severely compromised by links to China that its handling of the pandemic was tardy, grossly inadequate and ineffective, as well as lacking transparency; and his threat to withhold American funding for the organisation – a political stance which has not won widespread or unqualified support from other major WHO donors who have publicly supported the agency and its director-general, if not necessarily China’s reported handling of the initial stages of the virus outbreak.

On the other hand, there are official Chinese state objections, denials and counter-accusations; and the skilful ‘weaponisation’ of the material and symbolic significance of its carefully cultivated (self-)image of generosity to, and solidarity with the world’s needy and oppressed, particularly in coronavirus times. So, alongside Chinese government support in cash, kind and personnel provided to selected African and other countries under threat from coronavirus, we also have worldwide donations of medical equipment and supplies in support of Covid-19 response efforts by private philanthropic foundations linked to Jack Ma, China’s wealthiest man, and member of the Chinese Communist Party.

Ma’s corporate philanthropy has extended to donations to New York authorities and the WHO in the wake of Trump’s de-funding threat, as well as to all of Africa, and has included an online training manual for clinical treatment of coronavirus based on first-hand experience of doctors in Zhejiang and the Global MediXchange for Combating Covid-19 programme with its International Medical Expert Communication Platform. But while Jack Ma’s donations have been widely celebrated in Africa as promptly and efficiently delivered, Chinese government donations have not been universally welcome, partly because of reported poor quality and questionable reliability of donated supplies and equipment.

Ma’s philanthropy has made him as newsworthy at home and abroad as President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party leadership, who see Chinese state and private Covid-19 philanthropy as part of a wider coronavirus diplomatic strategy designed to distract attention from Chinese state contribution to the initial ‘escape’ or spread of the virus, while positioning their country as champion of the fight against the pandemic. This assumes heightened significance in places like Europe and Africa where, in contrast to Jack Ma and his private foundations, the Chinese state has suffered Covid-19-related reputational damage. Indeed, the arrival of Nigeria’s allocation from Jack Ma’s Covid-19 donation to African countries via the African Union’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention was a major prompt to local media and popular commentators to challenge local HNWIs to emulate Ma’s philanthropy. In contrast, the Nigerian Medical Association, Trade Union Congress and main opposition party strongly opposed federal government approval for a team of Chinese medical professionals funded by the state-owned China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation to provide direct support for the government’s Covid-19 response efforts, citing rumours of an upsurge in coronavirus infection and mortality in other countries following the arrival of Chinese medical personnel.

While Jack Ma’s donations have been widely celebrated in Africa as promptly and efficiently delivered, Chinese government donations have not been universally welcome, partly because of reported poor quality and questionable reliability of donated supplies and equipment

There was also residual popular resentment at the widely reported scapegoating of African migrants in China at the outbreak of the pandemic which had drawn official protests from the Nigerian and other African governments. But as the donation which also included a consignment of medical equipment and supplies had been announced as a fait accompli, government officials and spokespersons would spend media appearances trying to justify the decision, pacify local doctors, rebut opposition claims and win public support through a fascinating mix of obfuscation, mendacity, petulance, deflection and insinuation in a desperate attempt to deliberately downplay Chinese state involvement and thus avoid a diplomatic incident. So in their different ways, and like the Zimbabwe government’s desperate bid to silence internal dissent and protest which we encountered earlier, Trump’s assault on WHO handling of the pandemic, official Chinese and Nigerian government public relations and propaganda assaults on their respective (and wider) publics indicate active involvement in what Carrie Gracie has described, with specific reference to the Chinese ruling class, as rewriting Covid-19 facts to suit their narrative.

Politics must not be allowed to stand

The world is still in the grip of a coronavirus pandemic; that Africa might or might not be its current epicentre; and that nobody knows for sure how Africa’s many ‘other’ or local epidemics will evolve over the next few weeks, months or even years. Yet this has not stopped multilateral institutions and multinational corporations from outlining a variety of options for exiting lockdowns and, ultimately, the entire or whole pandemic; or indeed predicting and modelling the contours of post-coronavirus ‘new normal’ continental and/or global economies. As an increasing number of countries exit lockdowns (and enter new ones), this should awaken an urgent desire among progressive forces to redirect the focus of attention to a determined pursuit of an analytically rigorous understanding of the differentiated spread and impact of, and state and other responses to Covid-19 – and in so doing to return also to what ought to be our core concern: the political economy of uneven incorporation of African economies, societies and natures into the world economy, the accompanying implications for social, spatial, structural and other forms of differentiation, and the latter’s manifestation within and between population, place and space/territory. For, as Philip Alston reminds us, ‘[t]he coronavirus has merely lifted the lid off the pre-existing pandemic of poverty. Covid-19 arrived in a world where poverty, extreme inequality and disregard for human life are thriving, and in which legal and economic policies are designed to create and sustain wealth for the powerful, but not end poverty. This is the political choice that has been made.’  It is a political choice that cannot and must not be allowed to stand unchallenged either in the current coronavirus times or in a post-Covid-19 world.

This article was first published in The Review of Africa Political Economy journal

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Why Indeed Scholars are the Heirs of Prophets

All through history prophets have oscillated between one extreme end, the highest level of political leadership — what Plato called “the Philosopher King”, the ruler of his utopian city Kallipolis who possesses wisdom and simplicity — and the other extreme end, the highest level of political activism — what the 19th century termed as Radical Activism, individuals who called for total societal change, engineering complete upheaval of the status quo. Both the Philosopher King and the Radical are enabled by one thing—Knowledge.

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Why Indeed Scholars are the Heirs of Prophets
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“Scholars are inheritors of Prophethood”
Prophet Muhammad PBUH

To fully contextualise and grasp the gravity of this saying of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH requires knowledge of not just the role of prophethood in society but also of the nature of society. At both the level of Max Weber’s Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, society consists of large groups underpinned by a set of beliefs that organise the membership’s affairs. This is irrespective of the fact that one is organic and the other legal-rational.

This underpinning corpus of beliefs that serves as the groups’ existential truth, criterion of measure and all-encompassing narrative of and about existence, is the lens through which the internal and external universe at both individual and group level is perceived and therefore ordered. It is this story that is articulated by prophets and oracles of yore, and the scholars and intellectuals of the present day.

It is by this measure that the scholars are inheritors of prophethood. From this saying, by analysis of the function of prophets, we can extract the role of scholars in society.

All through history prophets have oscillated between one extreme end, the highest level of political leadership — what Plato called “the Philosopher King”, the ruler of his utopian city Kallipolis who possesses wisdom and simplicity — and the other extreme end, the highest level of political activism — what the 19th century termed as Radical Activism, individuals who called for total societal change, engineering complete upheaval of the status quo.

Both the Philosopher King and the Radical are enabled by one thing — Knowledge.

What knowledge?

Knowledge of truth.

What truth? Which truth?

Empirical? The truth about the inner workings of nature? No.

The truth about the existential, teleological and relational nature of man. In short, a coherent set of beliefs that tell us where we came from and where we are going, why we are here and how we should relate to one another.

The most cogent and convincing story told, that comprehensively answers this question, will calibrate all social interaction, order and direct us all.

It is for this reason that British colonialism of the African continent began with a story. A Story about the salvation of souls, a promise of a beautiful place of endless bliss and, over and above that, complete absolution. Successful “Christianisation” was a sine qua non for absolute subjugation and slavery of the natives. The advance guard of imperialism was the Church Missionary Society.

In fact, the need for this “story” and its power over peoples was common imperialist knowledge. Penelope Carson’s book The East India Company and Religion 1698-1858, records an incident in which 17th century churchman and orientalist Humphrey Prideaux, who was later to become Dean of Norwich, castigated The East India Company for neglecting the propagation of Christianity in India, pointing to the success of the Dutch East India Company, arguing that their Dutch counterparts thrived due to proselytisation of Christianity where they expanded.

Where native elites intervened to bar the entry of missionaries in places such as Japan, the peoples of these lands remained free of European colonisation for centuries.

The answer to the question of existence, manifested in the instinctive questions we all ask — Where did we came from? Where we are going? Why are we here? How we should relate to one another? — has all-encompassing power over a community and society, and herein lies the power of the scholar.

Knowledge has only one purpose: to elevate the human condition, to drive away barbarism and raise us to civilisation. For knowledge is the only attribute that differentiates us from the rest of creation.

Why not make the case for free will here too? For free will is a factor of knowledge. Free will and self-awareness are implied and are necessary predicators for knowledge.

There was never any need for a tree of knowledge in the heavens where angels reside, as angels have no free will. Neither was there any need for one in the realm of beasts, for beasts have no intellect. Only man has the unique ability to value knowledge, for only he has both intellect and free will.

Given that the purpose of knowledge is to lead us to our Xanadu, it follows that those amongst us with the wherewithal for knowledge have a teleological duty to the knowledge and an essential duty to their kind to take the mantle of intellectual leadership together with all the risks and rewards it portends.

This knowledge of purpose enables the scholar to direct the society from its empirical state towards its normative ideal. This direction is not frictionless. It ensures a never-ending struggle between the interests anchored in the status quo and those rising from the promise of change. American scholar and activist Noam Chomsky captures this function well in this quote from his essay The Responsibility of Intellectuals: “With respect to the responsibility of intellectuals, there are still other, equally disturbing questions. Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyse actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions.”

Failure to rise to this duty can be legitimately termed betrayal of calling, betrayal of self.

In the past, where humanity was organised at village and tribal level, it would have been sufficient to speak to individual scholarly duty, but in today’s complex social order, we must communicate the same argument to the organisations in our society that consist of knowledge workers and whose purpose is knowledge or a derivative of knowledge.

This would consist of universities and religious organisations and their affiliate unions and associates. To this end we will cite the most well-known or stereotypical examples of individuals and organisations that have endeavoured to live up to the demands of this vital function, or calling.

The unity of individual scholarship and activism is perfectly epitomised by the world-renowned Scholar Noam Chomsky mentioned earlier, as this summarised excerpt from Who is Noam Chomsky?” perfectly illustrates:

Chomsky joined protests against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in 1962, speaking on the subject at small gatherings in churches and homes.

He also became involved in left-wing activism. Chomsky refused to pay half his taxes, publicly supported students who refused the draft, and was arrested while participating in an anti-war teach-in outside the Pentagon. During this time, Chomsky co-founded the anti-war collective RESIST with Mitchell Goodman, Denise Levertov, William Sloane Coffin, and Dwight Macdonald. Although he questioned the objectives of the 1968 student protests, Chomsky gave many lectures to student activist groups and, with his colleague Louis Kampf, ran undergraduate courses on politics at MIT independently of the conservative-dominated political science department.

Because of his anti-war activism, Chomsky was arrested on multiple occasions and included on President Richard Nixon’s master list of political opponents. Chomsky was aware of the potential repercussions of his civil disobedience and his wife began studying for her own doctorate in linguistics to support the family in the event of Chomsky’s imprisonment or joblessness.

Locally Dr David Ndii has struggled immensely and very successfully to live up to Noam Chomsky’s The Responsibility of Intellectuals, explaining the economic reality and the Government of Kenya’s policies/plans to the public in terms understandable by all. He began in the most widely read newspaper Daily Nation and now writes economic analyses and open letters to the rulers on the popular online political journal The Elephant, often successfully compelling the government to respond, albeit with more propaganda and red herring.

His sister-in-arms Dr Wandia Njoya has waged an equivalent struggle in the domain of education and culture. Patrick Gathara and Rasna Warah, whose timely pieces questioned the reasons for the Kenya government incursion into Somalia as part of America’s global imperialist Wars of Terror, triggered a vital conversation at the most appropriate time and place, where the powers that be would have preferred none.

Two critical parts remain for our native scholars and intellectuals (“native” continentally-speaking). First is crystallising their ideas into philosophies that can animate the public and move it to action, “action” being the work of bringing the ideas to life in social order and government policy.

Second is inculcating in a group of their students their philosophy, and organising them to carry it to the public space. The scholar or intellectual is a social actor just as is the politician, only at a different stage of the work of social organising. The scholar or intellectual produces the ideas that the politician or activist organises the public around. If a politician is “Philosophy in Action”, the scholar then is the “Action of Philosophy”. That the group for the politician is termed a political party is moot; the currency for both actors is public opinion and neither scholars nor politicians can be effective without the support of groups. We may term the group around a scholar as followers or disciples for purposes of differentiation.

It is hard to imagine, but Noam Chomsky was once a student. Chomsky began his studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Chomsky states in many interviews that he found little use for his classes until he met Zellig S. Harris, an American scholar touted for discovering structural linguistics (breaking language down into distinct parts or levels). Chomsky was moved by what he felt language could reveal about society. Harris was moved by Chomsky’s great potential and did much to advance the young man’s undergraduate studies, with Chomsky receiving his B.A. and M.A. in non-traditional modes of study.

Noam Chomsky is categorical that, outside of his father, Zellig S. Harris is most responsible for his intellectual direction, political thought and activism.

From scholar-activists to organisation activism

For examples of organisations that have transcended the limited group interests of their membership to actively engage social issues that affect all, we may look to the teacher’s unions in Latin America which are actually social movements that have played critical roles at national and sub-national levels.

The paper Promoting education quality: the role of teachers’ unions in Latin America from the UNESCO Digital Library reports that in Brazil, during the 1988 constitution-writing process, teachers’ unions worked with academic, student and national trade confederations to advocate minimum funding for education. They succeeded in obtaining a constitutional provision establishing that 18 per cent of federal and 25 per cent of state and municipal taxes must go toward education.

Given the crisis we face today is fundamentally a crisis of ideas — or more specifically the lack thereof — to galvanize society, we need our scholars to tell us a new story, or to tell us an old story in a new way.

The Canadian scholar and psychologist, Dr Jordan B. Peterson, serves as an apt example of telling “an old story in a new way”. He reframed the Christian story for an atheistic age, infusing new life into the West’s Cultural Right. After years of losing ground to the liberal social values of the Left, conservatism has found its footing.

Sheikh Taqiuddin An-Nabhani, the Palestinian jurist and founder of political party Hizb ut-Tahrir, reframed Islam as a System for “the Age of Systems”, giving Muslims a way to perceive the complex new global order through the lens of their beliefs. And in so doing, giving Muslims new faith in their way of life and re-energising them to work to find their way forward to re-establishing the Islamic order they had lost.

This spark is what we need. As individuals, and as humanity.

For us in Africa, the 1885 Berlin Conference order is in the terminal stages of decay, just like its Sykes-Picot equivalent in the Middle East. Talk of secession is everywhere in Africa. Even the presumably stable territories like Kenya have not been exempt. Secession, which is the fracture of states, suffers conditions similar to “entropy”, which is the dissipation and dispersion of particles within an entity. Secession creates new problems beyond the potential for an infinite recurrence of further secession. Darfur’s struggle to secede from South Sudan, after South Sudan seceded from Sudan on 9 July 2011, after Sudan seceded from Egypt on 1 January 1956, is a perfect modern example in Africa. Somalia need not be elaborated.

Superficial measures such as renaming countries are no different from adopting some costume as a national dress in search of a new post-colonial identity. They are named in top-down tyrannical initiatives and “un-named” after the death of the baptising despot.

Convergence of nations into new blocks has failed to resolve any of the problems humanity faces, even at the highest level of political awareness, with the blocks beginning to BrExit and GrExit even before they are fully formed.

Democracy is imploding as the multiple centres of thought — democracy’s vaunted raison d’être, “Pluralism” — mature into the centres of gravity of powerful hurricanes of political movements, many currently spinning across America leaving death and destruction in their wake, and threatening to tear America, the paragon of Democracy, into a thousand pieces.

Yet we cannot dial the clock back to our tribal ways as Mungiki the Kikuyu tribal cult that rose in the central highlands of Kenya proved. Our tribal enclaves have been completely shattered by imperialism’s modern-day manifestation — liberalism — never to exist again. There is no tribal safe haven to return to for any of us.

Never in the history of humanity has there been such plenty sitting side-by-side with such great need. Capitalism promised humanity that the free market would solve all its problems. Freedom as a doctrine would lead all of humanity to happiness, plenty and fulfilment. This paradise would follow absolute “freedom of markets”, “freedom of capital”, “freedom of thought and speech”.

But as the Bible famously says, “as it was in the beginning so is it in the end.” Freedom of ownership was first enshrined in the Magna Carta, the 1215 AD agreement between King John of England and his Barons, the land owning aristocracy. Freedom of religion, was promulgated in 1648 from the Treaty of Westphalia, as the right of the Kings and Princes of Europe to choose the religions for their nations and therefore their subjects. The now sacrosanct “Universal Suffrage” born of the French Revolutions of 1789 and 1848 was a “right to vote” for “white men”. Universal Suffrage being for white men had the net effect of establishing a “political universe” in which only white men are the only legitimate citizens.

That summarised the beginning of “our cherished freedoms”.

History shouts loud and clear that freedom, in all its configurations, from the beginning was and is only for the powerful ruling elites, yesterday the Barons and Princes, today the capitalists and selected politicians, or as Marx termed them, the Bourgeoisie. As for the working class, the poor masses, in the words of Marx, freedom for them was, is and continues to be, the freedom to choose “to work” or “to starve”.

Yet the story the “angry genius” Karl Marx himself told, that promised equality by negation of our most basic human instincts — our instinct to possess, our instinctive need to believe and to be, and that has gained great resurgence powered by the dramatic failure of Capitalism in recent times — also failed humanity epically.

It is incumbent upon those gifted with ability and knowledge, and those vested with the leadership of organisations that consist of agents of knowledge, to transcend their group interests and work for society’s overall well-being.

The need has never been greater.

An outcome of the homogeneity imperialism imposed upon us all is that we are all immersed in the same operating system, secular capitalism. For this reason, we find ourselves in the same predicament of crisis, literally globally.

We need a powerful new story, or an old story told in a powerful new way.

A story that will remind us of our common humanity, harmonise our relations with each other and the rest of creation and reveal to us a common destiny, that can unify our sense of purpose.

We need scholars at the universal and local level, to crystallise a story, an idea into an isotope that will fuse with our imaginations and trigger a chain reaction that will galvanize radical change.

The situation is critical, the need urgent.

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