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.
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.
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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The Imperialist Soul of Social Democrats
Alfie Hancox writes how the apparently progressive post-war government in the UK which delivered unprecedented social security simultaneously undermined progressive political futures in the Global South – national liberation movements for land and resource sovereignty were thwarted. Hancox reveals Labour’s Aneurin Bevan’s role in deepening British imperialism.
The working-class vision of socialism during this period may be blurred by the corruption of the ‘welfare state’—Kwame Nkrumah
As the popular national story goes, after the Second World War the British working class, seeking a just reward for their sacrifices, came together to win a fairer society by voting in the Labour government which built the welfare state. At the heart of this reputed ‘Spirit of ‘45’ was the architect of the National Health Service (NHS), Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan (1897–1960). Bevan has pride of place in the romanticised pantheon of the Labour left, and he is widely held to epitomise the party’s ‘socialist soul’. While often memorialised as a class warrior who once called for ‘the complete political extinction of the Tory Party’, behind ‘the myth of the miner prophet’ there lies a much more complex and contradictory picture of Bevan the statesman.
Britain’s post-war welfare settlement emerged against the backdrop of negotiated decolonisation – which was by no means a peaceful or straightforward process – and class compromise within the bounds of the capitalist nation-state was mediated by an enduring relationship with Empire. For Bevan, socialism was above all a ‘language of priorities’, and a critical overview of his parliamentary career reveals that colonised peoples in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean were often a subordinate element in his considerations, despite his long-standing friendship with Indian independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru.
It is also often forgotten that the welfare state was serviced by a migrant workforce extracted from Britain’s colonial ‘dependencies’, who were greeted upon arrival with racial-exclusionary impulses which were at times reinforced by Bevan himself. Similar ‘nativist’ tendencies remained present in the recent social democratic revival, demonstrating the need for an interrogation of the traditional Labour movement’s entanglement with imperialism.
The welfare state as neocolonial compact
Social welfare reforms delivered by the state have a contradictory class character. On the one hand, they constitute immediate gains for workers, but at the same time they assist in the reproduction of a value-creating labour force and represent concessions which may boost the legitimacy of capitalism. Welfare measures thus play a mediatory function in the push and pull of class struggle, the surge forward and the reactive containment. Interwar Britain was not wholly immunised from the social convulsions that shook continental Europe, and one wartime Conservative Member of Parliament warned in a famous speech: ‘If you do not give the people social reform, they are going to give you social revolution.’
The reforming Labour government of 1945–51 adopted a carrot and stick approach to class compromise, as the expansion of social housing and public education, and advent of free healthcare, was accompanied with a consolidation of workplace discipline. Bevan claimed to have received his political training in Marxism, but his true faith was in parliamentary democracy, and he believed that national industrial management laid the foundations for the construction of socialism ‘from above’. As a member of Clement Attlee’s Ministerial Emergencies Committee, the erstwhile trade union militant helped defeat a strike wave in the newly nationalised industries (a response to efficiency drives), using the Supply and Transport Organisation which two decades earlier helped beat back the General Strike of 1926.
Britain’s post-war welfare settlement emerged against the backdrop of negotiated decolonisation – which was by no means a peaceful or straightforward process – and class compromise within the bounds of the capitalist nation-state was mediated by an enduring relationship with Empire
While welfare concessions reflect the domestic class balance of forces, this is only one part of the story. As the British New Left historian John Saville identified in 1957, ‘the flexibility and manoeuvrability of the ruling class’ in charting a new social consensus had ‘been derived from the possession of the world’s largest Empire.’ It was this situation which enabled the Labour government to square the circle of maintaining (relative) class peace at home, without eliminating capitalist exploitation. The Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah, in his seminal 1965 study Neo-Colonialism, explained how the governing elite in Europe and North America found a means to deal with social demands at home after the war:
A deliberate attempt was made to divert colonial earnings from the wealthy class and use them instead generally to finance the ‘Welfare State’ … this was the method consciously adopted even by those working-class leaders who had before the war regarded the colonial peoples as their natural allies against their capitalist enemies at home.
Immediately following the war, Britain was facing a currency balances crisis that called Labour’s social plans into question. Bevan was not explicit about where the money for Attlee’s ‘New Jerusalem’ would come from, but his colleague Evelyn John Strachey, a former Marxist and Labour’s Minister of Food, was more forthright. During a parliamentary debate on a Colonial Development bill in 1948, the year of the NHS’s founding, Strachey concluded that ‘by hook or by crook, the development of primary production of all sorts, in the Colonial areas, Colonial territories and dependent areas in the Commonwealth … is, it is hardly too much to say, a life and death matter for the economy of this country.’
A deliberate attempt was made to divert colonial earnings from the wealthy class and use them instead generally to finance the ‘Welfare State’ … this was the method consciously adopted even by those working-class leaders who had before the war regarded the colonial peoples as their natural allies against their capitalist enemies at home.
The Attlee government essentially pursued a policy of issuing ‘IOUs’ to the colonies in return for the dollars earned from key exports such as rubber and tin from Malaya and cocoa from Ghana. Britain’s post-war reconstruction employed ‘a more systematic exploitation of colonies than at any previous time in imperial history’ – with the active support of the labour bureaucracy. The trade union leader, Ernest Bevin, declared: ‘I am not prepared to sacrifice the British empire [because] it would mean that the standard of life of our constituents would fall considerably.’ As the Trinidadian Marxist George Padmore put it, these labour lieutenants of imperialism wanted to turn the British working class into collective ‘shareholders of the Empire.’
British socialism’s civilising mission
Writing in the socialist newspaper Morning Star, the trade unionist and historian Graham Stevenson has attempted to defend the legacy of the welfare state, and detach it from Attlee’s imperialist adventures in Korea, Malaya and Iran, by arguing that ‘foreign policy was not in Nye Bevan’s remit’. It is well known, however, that Bevan had wanted the Colonial Office, and he was an influential voice in international affairs as the charismatic leader of the ‘soft left’ Tribune faction.
Though Bevan’s rejection of the pre-war colonial status quo did put him at variance with the Labour right, he nevertheless stressed he was ‘against any proposal for complete self-government’ until the colonised countries had endured sufficient tutelage under British parliamentary democracy. He believed in the civilising mission of the ‘Socialist Commonwealth’, and in 1948 declared that with the advent of the National Health Service Britain had achieved ‘the moral leadership of the world’. This paternalistic mindset, which smacked of the ‘white man’s burden’, was typical of the ethical socialist tradition in Labour, and distanced Bevan from the approach of the Comintern-affiliated League Against Imperialism and the Manchester Pan-African Congress, which both rejected the ‘Enlightened’ colonial doctrine of trusteeship.
Bevan never challenged the unequal economic relationship with the ‘dependencies’ which characterised Britain’s free trade imperialism, or what he preferred to call ‘the legitimate claims of world commerce’. The superior British capacity for ethicizing self-interest was shared by Bevan’s wife and fellow MP Jennie Lee, who said at Labour’s annual conference in 1956, without a hint of irony: ‘We have to work for the day when there will be a higher standard of living here, a higher standard of living in the colonies, and when as free and friendly nations they will want us to be their bankers.’
It was in his attitudes to the Middle East that Bevan’s more overtly imperialist leanings came to the fore. While opposing the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt, Bevan nonetheless expressed his outrage when President Gamel Abdel Nasser, who he racistly dubbed ‘Ali Baba’, nationalised the Suez Canal used to transport ‘our oil’. In justifying the Zionist colonial project that violently displaced 700,000 Palestinians, Bevan also argued in the Cabinet that ‘it was not necessarily true that we must avoid estranging Arab states. A friendly Jewish state would be a safer military base than any we should find in any Arab state’. He thought that Europeanised Jewish settlers could shake up the ‘semi-medieval institutions’ of the Arab world and prepare the grounds for socialist democracy, betraying a racialised view of civilisational development.
Bevan’s wavering stance on colonial liberation didn’t make him an outlier on the Labour left. For example, it was the former treasurer of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, Anthony Greenwood, who as Labour’s Colonial Secretary oversaw the ousting of British Guinea (Guyana)’s socialist Premier Cheddi Jagan. The Communist Party theoretician Rajani Palme Dutt identified this tried and test pattern of western social democracy, whereby ostensibly left-wing spokespersons are ‘given positions in the imperialist machine such as would not only gag them from expressing anti-imperialist sentiments but compel them to undertake the official duty of defending imperialist policies’.
As the British New Left historian John Saville identified in 1957, ‘the flexibility and manoeuvrability of the ruling class’ in charting a new social consensus had ‘been derived from the possession of the world’s largest Empire
Ultimately, the government that delivered unprecedented social security at home simultaneously thwarted progressive political futures in the Global South – national liberation movements for land and resource sovereignty, and regionalist aspirations like those fleetingly concretised in Nkrumah’s Union of African States. Labour’s inglorious colonial record came up one time when Bevan was lecturing the Conservatives on their imperial policy. When he mentioned the imprisonment of Nkrumah, Tory members opposite reminded him that the Attlee government he served in as Health Minister was responsible! Bevan brushed this off, replying: ‘Well, we shoved him in gaol. If honourable members will restrain their hilarity for a moment, I said that this is part of the classic story of these struggles.’ This glib response omitted the killing of unarmed protestors in Ghana, which took place months before the arrest of Nkrumah. The West African Students’ Union, of which Dr. Nkrumah was a former member, noted that US imperialism often appeared a lesser threat to colonial independence than ‘British Socialism’.
An additional pillar of Attlee’s foreign policy was the backing of Western Europe’s remilitarisation under the US Marshall Plan, enabling the British Communist Party to declare that Labour’s welfare state was really a ‘warfare state’. Before WWII, Bevan had alienated the Labour leadership by calling for a United Front with communists against the fascist threat in Europe. However, his sympathies had changed with the onset of the Cold War, as anti-colonial movements supported by the Soviet Union destabilised the hegemony of the western imperial powers; and the Bevanites became enmeshed in an ideological struggle pitting Occidental social democracy against Marxism-Leninism. Bevan’s 1951 ‘rebellion’ against Labour’s militarism was not a protest against the genocidal proportions of the Korean War – he had in fact fully supported the Anglo-American invasion of the Peninsula – but because bloated defence spending was now cutting into his health service.
Empire and the National Health
The welfare state also carried the imprint of Empire domestically. While healthcare is a basic social necessity, historically the state provisioning of medical services has been framed in terms of labour productivity and, from the late-nineteenth century, imperialist ideologies of racial hygiene. The Liberal economist William Beveridge’s 1942 blueprint for the welfare settlement recommended that ‘good stock should be allowed to breed while bad stock would be ameliorated through state intervention’, and similar eugenics-influenced sentiments permeated the Labour movement through the Fabian Society.
The nationalisation policies in 1945–51 were not in any meaningful sense socialist, being administered from above by the capitalist state. While Bevan described the National Health Service as ‘pure socialism’, it was compromised from the start by the continued existence of independent contractors and retention of private practice. Nevertheless, the post-war reforms were a step forward in terms of collective social security, and they boosted loyalty to the nation-state that administered them: welfare came ‘wrapped in the Union Jack’. The language of socialism was co-opted and degraded by what Tom Nairn termed Labour’s ‘nationalization of class’, and lost in the process of the patriotic social compact were the Marxist values of working class self-empowerment.
Notions of national belonging and entitlement in Britain became increasingly racialised after the war, and as Satnam Virdee reminds us, the apogee of British social democracy ‘was also the golden age of white supremacy [and] legal racist discrimination’. When migrant workers from the non-white ‘New Commonwealth’ were induced to bolster Britain’s public services and stagnating industries, they were met with a racist ‘colour bar’ in employment and housing, often reinforced by the white-dominated trade unions. In 1948, a year that saw violent attacks on Black residents in Liverpool, Bevan wrote that if ‘colonial subjects come here on their own responsibility’ they ‘cannot complain if it is not all plain sailing’.
An informal caste system was built into the NHS itself, with workers of colour restricted to the lowest-paid employment grades, regardless of their level of training. A Brixton-based Black feminist group described how the health service was like a colony in the way it was run: ‘in the head of the black nurse from the Caribbean is the echo of slavery; in the head of the Asian nurse is the servitude to Sahib and Memsahib.’ Britain was simultaneously draining skilled medical labour from developing countries, the effects of which were described in Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. The hyper-exploited labour of Black and Brown women was unacknowledged by Bevan, who ascribed the NHS’s success to ‘the vitality and genius of the British people’.
Healthcare was quickly propelled to the centre of popular anti-immigrant discourses, and only a year after the NHS’s inception Bevan succumbed to nativist pressures by assuring voters that he’d ‘arranged for immigration officers to turn back aliens who were coming to this country to secure benefits off the Health Service’. The image of non-British ‘foreigners’ exploiting the NHS was a trope later deployed to great effect by Conservative MP Enoch Powell in his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.
The welfare state also carried the imprint of Empire domestically. While healthcare is a basic social necessity, historically the state provisioning of medical services has been framed in terms of labour productivity and, from the late-nineteenth century, imperialist ideologies of racial hygiene.
Bevan’s capitulation reflected a failure to offer a principled counter to anti-immigration rhetoric. His celebrated essay ‘In Place of Fear: A Free Health Service’ was riven by a tension between the defence of ‘the collective principle’ in terms of socialist universalism, and a cost-benefit approach that stressed immigrants’ contributions to ‘national revenues’, and the expenses that would be incurred by passport checks at hospitals. When Bevan rebuked the Trades Union Congress’s call for immigration restrictions after the 1958 racist riot in Notting Hill, this was not on grounds of proletarian internationalism, but the potential damage it would do to the image of the Commonwealth as ‘the greatest constitutional experiment in the history of nations’.
The legacy of Empire persists in the health service today, as demonstrated by the revival of medical racism in the Coronavirus context. The NHS is also still dependent on the labour of precarious migrant workers, now extracted from developing countries such as the Philippines and Nigeria. The present struggle to defend healthcare services in Britain thus needs to be coupled with a historical awareness of the inherent dangers of seeking social reform within the confines of the imperialist nation-state. We should look beyond the elitist parliamentary socialism of Bevan, to the alternative politics of metropolitan anti-colonialists like Dutt and Padmore who sought not a class settlement within the parameters of capitalist competition, but the levelling of wages and conditions across national and racial boundaries. The experiences of the 1970s–1980s further demonstrated that rank-and-file struggles in the health sector, often instigated by low-paid Black ancillary workers, can galvanise the labour movement in a profoundly progressive manner. We can draw on these lessons, and reconnect with more radical, worker and patient-driven visions of socialist healthcare which target the social roots of ill-health intrinsic to capitalist exploitation.
This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy Journal.
Neocolonial Components of Algorithmic Capitalism in Africa Today
More than half a century after Kwame Nkrumah first articulated his magisterial critique of neocolonialism, Scott Timcke argues his critique remains just as relevant in the analysis of present-day developments of capitalism in Africa.
The present convergence of finance and wireless technology has generated considerable enthusiasm in development circles about the promise of connectivity and FinTech to improve quality of life and create wealth on the African continent. The prototypical example that proponents point to is M-Pesa, a service run in Kenya by Safaricom. Launched in 2007, M-Pesa is a form of mobile banking which uses cellphone accounts as a financial service, permitting transfers and credit extension facilities. Initially funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), the service was commercialized through a joint venture by Vodafone and Safaricom.
By 2018 there were 30 million customers and 6 billion yearly transactions. By most assessments, the service is a success. This blogpost revisits that conclusion by asking how these kinds of FinTech technologies, in their current configuration, perpetuate neocolonial relations. Replacing direct military rule, neocolonial relations can be understood as the coordinated exploitation of developing countries by advanced capitalist ones through their clout in international political economy. If such a claim at first appears like a stretch because it appears conspiratorial, it is worth recalling how European imperial and colonial practices were naturalized and normalized for most of modernity.
While ‘the methods of neo-colonialists are subtle and varied’ let us begin with the obvious. Desires to ‘bring Africa online’ in the 2000s had to confront stark realities born from both (i) the legacies of colonial infrastructure planned primarily to support resource extraction or settler communities, and (ii) the IMF imposed structural adjustment policies that slashed state maintenance budgets and social, economic, and political infrastructure. So, when digital neo-modernization advocates maintained that without access to the internet people in the Global South would face a digital divide which would exacerbate poverty that stemmed from the already asymmetrical relations in the global system, they overlooked the very history that gave rise to those inequalities and deficiencies in the first place. But this rhetoric of digital inclusion tended to overlook the historical materialist method at the heart of discussions about digital inequalities. Indeed the ‘connectivity paradigm’ currently promoted by the World Economic Forum and Facebook focuses on building infrastructure to create markets and customers, which will bridge the digital divide. However, this conceptualization ignores the insights of the scholarship around uneven and combined development or the research on the spatial fix required by capitalism to stall social problems in metropoles. In other words, for all the discussion about connectivity when digital neo-modernizers deny the connections of history; they deny how some polities are rich because others are poor.
Take the case of rising household over-indebtedness mediated by micro-lending platforms like M-Pesa. Sociological studies of the working-class in Kenya, like that by Kevin Donovan and Emma Park, demonstrate how these digitally mediated financial markets create debt traps for this class. In effect their earnings are used to pay off debts and more loans are taken against future earnings to service existing debts. This digitally mediated indebtedness of the working class is facilitated by the combination of the increase in the volume of rents extracted in the modern financial economy as well as, crucially, analysis of user generated data to assess their creditworthiness. In short, social reproduction is articulated through the logic of this financial system in turn causing severe maldistribution. Through this employment of FinTech ‘poverty is understood as a new frontier for profit-making and accumulation.’ These are the kinds of processes that Dan Kotliar and Abeba Birhane have in mind when they write about data orientalism and the algorithmic colonization of Africa respectively.
While the excellent critical literature on FinTech in Africa is growing, too often this work is lost in the analytical (and political) noise of neo-modernization. As the connectivity paradigm illustrates, this ideology has a naïve comprehension of technology as a social form. By contrast, when approached from a critical perspective, FinTech is not confined to reconfiguring or extending new services. Rather it involves creating new markets, introducing new machinery to reduce labor costs and more generally aiding inter-sector competition. But most importantly, FinTech is concerned with enclosing and capturing the value in existing informal lending practices the African working class has already built themselves. For example, South African informal saving networks are estimated to hold US$3 billion. To put it another way, the purpose of FinTech is to readjust the balance of power between capital and labor. This means that the central issue is not about the outcomes this technology produces, nor is it even a matter of access. The fundamental question is about how control rights of this technology reside with a minority of shareholders and how their interests are adjacent to the interests of their firms’ customers. And through indebtedness, FinTech is effectively creating a ‘digital-creditor-debtor-divide’ in Africa.
There is considerable value in revisiting Kwame Nkrumah’s Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism to understand the neocolonial components of algorithmic capitalism (informational or cybernetic capitalism). Published in 1965 and written in the wake of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s 1960s Wind of Change speech in the Parliament of South Africa in which the Conservative British government signaled that is would no longer actively oppose independence movements, neocolonialism as Nkrumah described it, was a technique of indirect rule kept in place through a combination of economic arrangements and treaties, innovations in communication technology, and with the assistance of local sympathetic agents. In short, Nkrumah argued that European politicians like Macmillan and Charles de Gaulle offered disingenuous statements about the formal end of colonial rule, in part because newer mechanisms of colonial exploitation were possible to implement.
As a quick illustration of the durability of neocolonialism as a form of imperial rule, consider how, sixty years after formal political independence, the CFA franc has kept former French colonies under the influence of France monetary policy and structuring the economic relationship between France and these former colonies. Fanny Pigeaud and Ndongo Samba Sylla’s recently published Africa’s Last Colonial Currency concretely shows how 162 million people in 15 states have France mediate their monetary policy. When paired with the frequent military interventions that still take place, as Nkrumah accounted for, African populations continue to be subjects of scientific and financial experimentation by global powers.
Even reviewing Nkrumah’s sequence of chapters gives an early indication of the larger argumentation and stakes of his thesis. “Exercised through economic or monetary means” and “by a consortium of financial interests” imperialist finance and its currencies enable capitalists to establish corporations dedicated to extracting raw materials from concessions. By pressing labor—whose wages are artificially depressed through monopoly in economic sectors and the monopsony of labor (a market situation in which there is only one buyer) like in many African extractive economies—the profits of which are repatriated to metropoles through monetary zones and foreign banks. Indeed, at the time the book even caught the eye of the CIA in November of 1965. Nkrumah’s government would not last even four more months. It was deposed in February 1966 by a military coup. While it is difficult to adequately discuss Ghanaian politics in the 1960s in this venue (and more generally we must resist mono-causal explanations) it is nevertheless telling that Nkrumah’s removal set in motion a ‘diplomatic realignment’ that benefited the West.
Indeed, it is this kind of protracted material struggle between oppressor and oppressed that gave rise to the neocolonial critique. In the 1989 edition of The Black Jacobins, CLR James included an appendix ‘From Toussaint L’Ouverture to Fidel Castro’ in which he writes that about the intellectual encounter between the West Indians like Marcus Garvey and George Padmore and Africans like Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah. Calling this “one of the strangest stories in any period of history”, James described how encounters between sets of migrants in European cities led to the formation of groups like the International African Service Bureau, as Theo Williams has previously discussed on roape.net. Being in metropoles these Pan-Africanists had front row seats to witness the transition from ‘the old colonial system’ that had stood since the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference to ‘neocolonialism’ that emerged after World War Two. Through their ‘criticism of the weapon’—to employ a line from Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right—the Pan-Africans made their theory ‘a material force.’
While there are several tendencies in African studies, neocolonialism and neo-modernization represent two divergent conceptualizations of actions occurring on the continent. Despite protestations otherwise, neo-modernization is institutionally, philanthropically, and academically entrenched. It provides the initial frame of reference for design of empirical studies. And it is precisely “because they have already established a near monopoly of what is written on the subject” to enroll some of Walter Rodney’s remarks, that space is made for the neocolonial critique. This critique can, for example, show how local intermediaries facilitate neocolonial rule. Walter Rodney called these local agents’ allegiance to, or cynical cooperation with neocolonial powers, part of the ‘elementary conditions’ of neocolonial rule. For example, as it applies to algorithmic capitalism, the Kenyan government owns 35% of Safaricom. This means that the state gains revenues from the indebtedness of its citizens and the commodification of their data that Donovan and Park describe. But here arises a contradiction, because these revenues may be offset by costs spent to address the social consequences of indebtedness like homeless and mental illness. Indeed, depending upon their mandate, parts of the Kenyan bureaucracy are likely working at cross purposes from one another. This adds conflicting interests to any intra-governmental discussions on how (or if) to regulate lending apps like M-Pesa.
To recap, aside from the skews and parameters that arise from internal properties, it is true that there is nothing intrinsically exploitative about digital technology. That said, due to the global supremacy of the private property regime, the meaning and operation of these digital infrastructures is overdetermined by capitalist values. Accordingly, using neocolonialism in studies of digital sociology can help us focus less on the mechanisms of this or that platform, and more on how platforms are part of the basic forms of a society that shape social relations. In this vein, neocolonialism provides a different methodology—a counter-narrative that foregrounds the experience of the oppressed—that comes to vastly different conclusions to the neo-modernization perpetuated in the elite ‘fintech-philanthropy-development complex’.
This complex promotes platforms to advance economic liberalization and skirting existing regulations believing that such policy courses can nominally improve material conditions for Africans. However, in practice due to platform mediated financialization setting up conditions of perpetual insolvency, the lived-experience of the African working class is delimited by the interests of metropolitan capital, an arrangement that is reminiscent of the same kinds of subordination that Nkrumah described in the latter half of the 20th century. Much like in the 20th century this most recent iteration of neocolonialism will have long reverberations.
This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy Journal.
Germany’s Namibia Genocide Apology and the Limits of Decolonizing the Past
Heike Becker writes about the recent agreement between the German and Namibian governments for special “reconciliation and reconstruction” projects to benefit the Ovaherero and Nama communities that were directly affected by colonial genocide. Becker asks what are the possible international ramifications of the Namibian-German agreement? Will the deal possibly turn the tide more broadly for reparation claims from ex-colonies of the empires of European colonialism?
“Words cannot be found to relate what happened; it was too terrible.” This is how Jan Kubas, an eyewitness of the events that followed the battle of Ohamakari in what was then called German South West Africa, now Namibia, in 1904, articulated his struggle to express his memories of the German pursuit of the Ovaherero into the parched Omaheke desert. Kubas was a member of the racially-mixed Griqua people who lived at Grootfontein near the area where following the extermination order by German general Lothar von Trotha, thousands were driven into the barren Omaheke.
In 1904 and 1905 the Ovaherero and Nama people of central and southern Namibia rose up against colonial rule and dispossession. The revolt was brutally crushed. By 1908, 80% of the Ovaherero and 50% of the Nama had succumbed to starvation and thirst, overwork and exposure to harsh climates. Thousands perished in the desert; many more died in the German concentration camps in places such as Windhoek, Swakopmund, and Shark Island.
A century after Jan Kubas struggled to articulate the horrors he witnessed in 1904, the German government has, at long last, officially acknowledged the colonial genocide. An agreement between the German and Namibian governments was recently concluded. According to the agreement, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will soon travel to Windhoek and offer a formal apology for the first genocide of the 20th century; the deal also stipulates additional German development aid for Namibia. These funds, to the amount of 1.3 Billion Euro, will be paid over the next thirty years. They will be earmarked for special “reconciliation and reconstruction” projects to benefit the Ovaherero and Nama communities that were directly affected by the genocide.
There are many open questions, however: What are possible international ramifications of the Namibian-German agreement? Will the deal possibly turn the tide more broadly for reparation claims from ex-colonies of the empires of European colonialism?
Penetrating questions need to be asked also about the extent to which Germany is committed to “working through” its violent colonial past. Has it, following decades of avoidance, truly committed to addressing its painful colonial past? Can the restitution of looted cultural objects and human remains from the postcolonial metropole’s museums and academic collections be considered a serious and sufficient effort at decolonization? What are the limitations of recent challenges to the historical staging of former colonial empires in the public space, such as monuments, and the renaming of streets, which were named after colonial despots?
And in national as well as transnational perspectives: What could be the next steps in going beyond dealing with the colonial past in purely symbolic terms? What kind of new solidarities are being forged in moves towards decolonization, racial justice and re-distribution?
When the announcement that after almost six years of bi-lateral negotiations an agreement had been initialled by the Namibian envoy, Zedekia Ngavirue, and his German counterpart, Ruprecht Polenz, the German government and mainstream media celebrated this as a political and moral triumph: “Germany recognises Genocide” broadcast the main news bulletin of the state television ARD on 28 May 2021. The deal was quickly dubbed the “reconciliation agreement” in German discourse. The leader of the German delegation, Polenz remarked confidently that with the promise of special aid Germany would ensure that the acknowledgment and apology did not remain lip service.
The Namibian government’s announcement was much more subdued. President Hage Geingob’s spokesperson cautiously expressed that the agreement was a “first step in the right direction”. However, associations of the affected communities, the Ovaherero and Nama, whose ancestors had been victims of the genocide, were a whole lot more critical. They criticized the agreement on substantial as well as procedural grounds: For one, the German government had succeeded to enforce its stated principle not to pay reparations for the crimes committed during German colonial rule. And, as they had done for years, descendants of the victims protested that they had not been properly involved in the process. Ovaherero traditional leader Vekuii Rukoro, who sadly succumbed on the 18 June to the terrible Covid surge currently haunting Namibia, called the agreement “an insult“; a statement, which made front page headline news on the The Namibian newspaper.
Members of the victim associations took to the streets of Windhoek. Even those representatives of the affected communities, who had in the past been more amenable to the negotiation process, expressed their concerns in growing numbers. They particularly questioned the amount of the payment package, which was far lower than what had been expected by the Namibian government, who had rejected, in 2020, the earlier German offer of 10 million Euro compensation. While the amount offered now is an improvement on last year’s, it still falls short of Namibian expectations, as even Namibian Vice-President Nangolo Mbumba admitted although he officially accepted the German offer on behalf of his government.
For Namibians, and the descendants of the genocide victims in particular, it is not all about the amount of money though. Activist and politician Esther Muinjangue, the former Chairperson of the Ovaherero Genocide Foundation, now an opposition MP, and also Namibia’s Deputy Minister of Health and Social Services, cut to the chase when she unequivocally stated that “development aid can never replace reparations”.
The Namibian government’s official response on 4 June 2021 clearly attempted some damage control and referred to the agreed “reconstruction and reconciliation” payments as a “reparations package”. This is in distinct contradiction to the official language of the agreement that these payments were decidedly not reparations but an additional set of development aid. Three weeks after the announcement of the agreement, and what the German government had obviously hoped would bring closure to a painful past, there’s only one phrase to describe the situation: it’s a total mess.
When former German Foreign Minister Joseph ‘Joschka’ Fischer visited Windhoek in October 2003 he went on record to say that there would be no apology that might give grounds for reparations for the genocide, which was committed by German colonial troops in Namibia. Fischer’s rather undiplomatic words are indicative of the intense and heated, historical and present relations that are at stake.
There is an underlying conjecture of the German-Namibian negotiations: what are the potential international ramifications of accepting legal, political and moral responsibility of reparations for colonial violence and genocide. Colonial Germany may have committed genocide, according to the UN definition, “with intent to destroy, …, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” only in Namibia; but it certainly carried out atrocities and mass killings also in other colonial territories. Esther Muinjangue nailed it when she said: “We know that the German Government is guilty equally when it comes to the people of Tanzania or when it comes to the people of Cameroon. So, they want to safeguard themselves.” The German government fears more claims from ex-colonies; it also fears claims from European countries such as Greece, which have never received compensation for World War Two war crimes.
Then there are the shared postcolonial anxieties among the former colonial empires. Would Germany’s acceptance of its colonial past open the floodgates to a surge of claims by formerly colonized nations, in Africa as elsewhere, against their erstwhile colonizers? Muinjangue thinks this a likelihood: “all countries that were present at the Berlin Conference of 1884 and divided up the African continent are guilty: France, Britain, Belgium, and many others. They all have blood on their hands – and they all fear that one day they will have to pay reparations for their crimes.” The fears of former empires, such as Britain, France and Belgium, have been the proverbial elephant in the room.
Not without us…
If any agreement between a former colonizing power and the formerly colonized should stand a chance of bringing about justice and reconciliation, the descendants of those affected must be closely listened to. This means that they should be appropriately included in the negotiations. This has been the vocal persistent demand of genocide victim groups for an inclusive process under the slogan “not without us” ever since the negotiations between Namibia and Germany began in 2015. In January 2017 representatives of Ovaherero and Nama traditional authorities filed a lawsuit in New York, which although ultimately unsuccessful, sent a strong message to Germany and the Namibian government that negotiations “without us” remained unacceptable for those whose ancestors were killed in the genocide.
A common grievance, often expressed in Namibia, questions Germany’s pronounced difference of responding to different victims of genocide. Ever since 1990, descendants of those who suffered under the colonial genocide have often asked me, why did Germany pay generous and easily negotiated reparations to Israel after the reparations programme, which was created when Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of West Germany and Israel signed the Luxembourg Agreement in 1952, but has been so recalcitrant regarding Namibians? Why did the German government readily include the Jewish Claims Conference as representatives of Jewish non-governmental organisations but insisted on government-to-government only talks with Namibia? Is it “because we are Africans”, with these words Namibians regularly express suspected racism.
Restitutions: Symbolic reparations, not quite…
Symbolic commemorations of Germany’s African genocide have taken place over the past few years. If not without controversy, human remains of genocide victims were repatriated from Germany to Namibia in 2011, 2014 and 2018. These had been shipped to academic and medical institutions in Germany, and had remained there until recently.
In 2019 some significant items of cultural memory, which had been stolen during colonial conquest, were returned to Namibia from the Linden Museum in Stuttgart. These included the slain Nama leader Hendrik Witbooi’s Bible and his riding whip.
Other former German colonies have also begun to claim restitution. In 2018 Tanzania’s ambassador to Berlin requested the repatriation of human remains, which are being stored in German museums and academic institutions. In Berlin alone the remains of 250 individuals were identified, and more are suspected to be in Bremen, Leipzig, Dresden, Freiburg, and Göttingen. Provenance research on the human remains from former German East Africa also include about 900 remains of colonized people from Rwanda, which together with today’s Tanzania and Burundi formed colonial German East Africa. Also, in 2018, the President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation promised funding for future provenance research in transnational collaborations on collections of human remains with the perspective of repatriation to Cameroon, Togo and Papua New Guinea.
Yet, the debacle of the Namibian-German “reconciliation” agreement points out that the attempts at addressing the German colonial past, including, but not restricted to the shared-divided history of Germany and Namibia, have thus far been at best half-hearted.
Bronzes, a boat & street names
At the same moment that the “reconciliation agreement” was presented in Germany with some fanfare, controversy erupted once again around the Humboldt-Forum. Berlin’s ambitious new museum is housed in the royal Prussian palace in central Berlin; the reconstructed Baroque structure that was built over the past decade at a cost of over 680 Million Euro. In this space in the historical centre of imperial Germany, controversially, ethnographic collections will be exhibited. The Humboldt-Forum has been at the centre of highly critical responses from anti-colonial and black community civil society organisations, cultural workers, as well as historians and anthropologists. Its claim to decolonization has been highly contradictory.
Just before news broke about the Namibian-German agreement, high-profile German politicians loudly congratulated each other for their decision to return some of the hundreds of Benin bronzes kept in German museum collections to Nigeria. Until recently Benin bronzes were meant to occupy pride of place in the new museum in central Berlin, where Germany wants to demonstrates its cosmopolitanism; now German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas celebrated the “turning point in our way of dealing with [our] colonial history”. Quite ironically, just a week later the next prominent scandal of colonial loot hit the news. A new book by the historian Götz Aly revealed the dark history of an artistically stunning vessel looted from former German-New Guinea in 1903.
Berlin’s leading museum officials displayed an astonishing level of ignorance. Even more astounding was the suggestion to continue exhibiting the beautifully decorated 16 metres long boat, that was built by residents of Luf Island in the Western part of the Hermit Group, and who fell victim to German colonial atrocities in the new museum by declaring it “a memorial to the horrors of the German colonial past”. This arrogance is indeed astounding since there is still no memorial in Berlin to honour the victims of German colonialism and genocide in the central Berlin space, near the Reichstag, where Germany honours the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and belatedly, now also the victims of the Porajmos (genocide of the Roma and Sinti), and the Nazis’ persecution of homosexuals.
A tongue-in-cheek suggestion came from a leading historian of German colonialism and genocide. In a column in die tageszeitung Jürgen Zimmerer, Professor of Global History at Hamburg University, asked why not turn the reconstructed Prussian Palace itself into a fitting memorial. His proposition: fill-up its centre courtyard with sand from the Omaheke desert, or break up the castle’s fake Baroque façade with barbed wire in remembrance of the concentration camps in colonial Namibia.
Then there is street renaming, the most noticeable form of postcolonial activism in the German public space. A well-known dispute over street names comes from Berlin’s Afrikanisches Viertel (‘African Quarter’), where from 2004 civil society activist groups have been calling for the renaming of streets, which are currently named after German colonial despots. The members of the long-standing activist group Berlin Postkolonial and other initiatives, now active in cities and towns across Germany, have employed decolonial guided walking tours as a main tool of intervention. Recently, one of Berlin’s oldest campaigns gained success when the former Wissmannstrasse in the borough of Neukölln was renamed Lucy-Lameck-Strasse. The infamous German colonial officer and administrator was thus supplanted with the Tanzanian liberation fighter and politician, who after her country’s independence campaigned for gender justice.
Entangled memory: from violent pasts to new solidarities
The question remains, how much real change can come from the symbolic engagement with the colonial past. A future-oriented trajectory will point out that, beyond symbolic action, Germany’s culture of remembrance has to face challenges for the country to understand its own history within European colonialism.
Public debates in Germany have frequently posited colonialism and Holocaust memory against each other; it is alleged that an expansion of “working through the past” to include the colonial era, would ‘relativize’ the Holocaust. In contrast to this supposed competition of memory, Michael Rothberg’s concept of Multidirectional Memory has recently garnered some interesting, though at times controversial attention in public debate. Rothberg’s intervention, translated into German only twelve years after the original publication of the book in 2009, has become a catalyst for productive dialogues. In a nutshell, Rothberg suggests that memory works productively through negotiation and cross-referencing with the result of more, not less memory.
Berlin-based Ovaherero activist Israel Kaunatjike
An interesting case to explore new ways of thinking about colonial memory, social change and solidarities relates to the historical legacies of racial science and eugenics, which were developed by the anthropologist Eugen Fischer on the basis of research in Namibia in 1908. Fischer’s research was mainly used in the European colonial empires. From 1927 it was further developed under his leadership at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics (KWI-A) in Berlin-Dahlem. From 1933 it became the basis of the Nazi race laws that targeted Jews and other racially and socially ‘undesirables’. Today the colonial roots of racism and inequality, as well as the systematization of racial studies and eugenics in Nazi Germany, continue to raise questions about the politics of remembrance and decolonization.
During excavations on the grounds of the Free University, which now occupies the site of the former KWI-A, hastily buried human remains were discovered. In 2015 and 2016 the University commissioned archaeological expertise on these finds. The KWI-A entertained close connections to the Auschwitz camp. Thus the initial suspicion was that the excavated bones may have belonged to people murdered during the Nazi era. However, when the archaeological report was presented during a well-attended online meeting in February 2021, it turned out that the situation was more complex. Some of the remains seem to have originated indeed in crimes against humanity that were perpetrated during the Nazi terror. Others, however, are more likely to originate in anthropological collections from the colonial era. It appeared impossible to ascertain the regional origins of the remains of the about 250 individuals. This gave rise to new solidarities that originated in entangled forms of remembering the atrocities of the colonial and Nazi eras. Representatives of Jewish, Black, and Sinti and Roma communities now work together to ensure that these human remains are treated with dignity.
Such new forms of solidarity are already practiced in civil society and transnationally in the global anti-racist movement. When the global Black Lives Matter movement formed a year ago, young activists got involved in Germany as well as in Namibia. In Windhoek, the movement was directed primarily against the statue of the German colonial officer and alleged city founder Curt von François. Not only the Nama and Ovaherero communities, but also young Namibians from all sections of the population are confronting colonial legacies. Over the past year the young Namibian activists who campaigned against the offensive monument and who support the claims of the descendants of the genocide survivors, have clinched a number of social justice issues as part of their decolonizing activism, and have been calling for an end to sexism, patriarchy, and racism.
In Germany too, civil society activists have played a big role and the “reconciliation agreement” is owed, more than anything else, to their post-colonial remembrance work. Campaigning started around 2004, i.e., the time of the centenary of the genocide. In October 2016, for instance, an international civil society congress, “Restorative Justice after Genocide”, brought together over 50 Herero and Nama delegates and German solidarity activists in Berlin. The participants staged public protests and Ovaherero and Nama delegates held a press conference in the German Bundestag. And now that the, unsatisfactory, agreement is on the table, activists in Germany are again campaigning vibrantly in solidarity with the affected Namibian communities and have taken to the streets of Berlin. The current Namibia solidarity alliance brings together civil society outlets of long-standing, and young groups, who have come together during the past year’s surge of radical anti-racist activism.
The agreement that has been concluded falls short of expectations in many ways. However, it can be an impetus for the former colonial rulers and the formerly colonized to finally begin a meaningful conversation about the difficult divided history. The question arises as to whether the civil society decolonization movements in both Germany and Namibia can influence the future politics of remembrance in both their countries in a way that makes a solidarity-based post-colonial policy of reconciliation and justice possible.
This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy Journal.
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