“I’m conflicted. Sometimes I want them to just tear it down. But it’s also part of our history. If we don’t deal with the legacy of that past then we are likely to repeat the same mistakes”.
Wachira Waheire spends several of the first minutes of our interview sizing me up. As he shares this observation with me, he is guarded and measured, uncertain that he will collaborate with me until he establishes who I am and why I need to speak to him. It is Saturday morning in the Kenyan capital Nairobi and the museum coffee shop where we are meeting is buzzing. Only when I show him samples of my previous writing on my phone does he begin to relax and speak a little more freely. “You know this story is very traumatising,” he tells me. “Every time a journalist asks me to talk about it, I give a piece of myself away. I relive the experience again. It’s very hard.”
Waheire was bundled back into the vehicle and driven around for hours before he was dropped off in the bowels of a building he didn’t recognise. “I was promised a short questioning – I ended up in prison for four years. But had I not been so young and healthy I’m not sure I would even be here today,” he says, laughing mirthlessly.
This story is the 17 days Waheire spent in the tower looming over us during our interview, days in which he was beaten, tortured and interrogated before he was finally transferred to a maximum security prison, where he was held in solitary confinement for four years. In 1986, Waheire was 25 and two years out from university when Kenyan Special Branch officers showed up at his office and asked him to follow them. The officers calmly escorted him to the back of a four-wheel-drive vehicle and took him to his home. There, they found a political poster featuring an ear of corn and an AK-47 that stated that food insecurity was the root of revolution. The officers argued that that was enough to charge him with sedition. Suddenly the mood shifted.
Waheire was bundled back into the vehicle and driven around for hours before he was dropped off in the bowels of a building he didn’t recognise. “I was promised a short questioning – I ended up in prison for four years. But had I not been so young and healthy I’m not sure I would even be here today,” he says, laughing mirthlessly.
The building where Waheire was held is Nyayo House, once the Nairobi provincial headquarters and administrative heart of the city. Commissioned in 1973 by the Ministry of Works, it was initially planned as the 14-storey “Nairobi House”. In 1979, a year after he assumed office following the death of his predecessor Jomo Kenyatta, President Daniel arap Moi, also known by the sobriquet Nyayo, renamed the project Nyayo House. In a 2003 interview, the then chief government architect, the late A. A. Ngotho, said that by the time they broke ground, the decision to use the building for Special Branch offices as well as other government ministries had been taken.
Nyayo House is loaded with symbols of the relationship between the two presidents. It was for several years the second tallest building after the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, a nod to the way Moi, who served as vice president under Kenyatta, always positioned himself as secondary to his predecessor. Indeed, the word “Nyayo” is Kiswahili for footsteps – a nickname that Moi gave himself and his political philosophy to indicate that he would follow in the footsteps of his predecessor. Thus the building initially conceived as Nairobi House became Nyayo House on completion, and for almost 22 years, Nairobi’s big men symbolically presided over the capital city until Times Tower was completed in 1995.
Both Nyayo House and Nyati House were at the heart of the Moi regime’s torture network, and Kenyans who remember the 1986 to 1992 period still associate the two buildings with arbitrary arrests, detentions and disappearances. Growing up in Nairobi, we avoided walking past Nyati House, especially because of rumours that you could be arrested and held incommunicado for simply looking at the building in the wrong way.
The Moi regime was on shaky grounds from the beginning, but its most severe challenge was an attempted coup by the air force in 1982 that triggered a wave of punitive repression that arguably didn’t end until the Moi regime itself ended and reached its apogee in sites like Nyayo House. Between 1982 and 1985, after the building had been finished, the government architects who oversaw the project were asked by the Special Branch to make several alterations to the original planning that would turn an office block in the heart of a major city into one of the most secretive and notorious prisons in the country. Twelve strong rooms in the basement were turned into pitch black holding cells and concrete slabs blocked elevator access to all but five floors. Access to the top three floors was blocked almost entirely, except through a single door.
In a 2003 interview with a local paper, the then police commissioner Bernard Njiinu argued that even he didn’t have a sense of the full scope of what was happening in the building. “I knew what I read in the newspapers like anybody elsewhere,” he told journalists, even though he was building a picture of his own from titbits of information he gathered independently.
Waheire gives credence to this argument. “It used to be a very busy government office,” he recalls, “but we were always brought in at night, and they made it so that the office workers never knew what was happening in the basement.” Thus, while by day bureaucrats pushed paper and traded water cooler banter, by night hundreds of political prisoners were held incommunicado in the basement, shuffled to the rooftop for painful beating and interrogation sessions, and then shuffled back downstairs for more torture in the form of sensory deprivation and environmental manipulation. Those in the offices may not have known the particulars, but certainly most of Nairobi suspected that all was not well within the building. There were too many “suicides” off the top floor. There were too many armed police officers milling about in the corridors and at the entrances, shouting at civilians to stay away from the staircases.
The scale of the operation was eventually so large that it couldn’t be contained completely and locals would swear that even the air around the building was sodden with the stench of death. The fear and paranoia it triggered is still reflected in the way Nairobians who remember that time navigate the city, leaving a wide berth around Nyayo House even if it is the shortest route to their destination. It is seared in the collective memory of the city.
Do buildings have memory? The phrase “institutional memory” generally refers to the way ideas get preserved and transmitted across a network over time. But there isn’t really a word to describe the ways in which negative energies become indelibly associated with buildings or constructed artefacts that have been used to violent ends. Yet violence like torture marks buildings not least with the physical debris of damaged human bodies: blood stains the walls and floors and soaks into the concrete; human waste in substantial quantities festers in poorly ventilated spaces.
Walking through such spaces, especially when these spaces have been built or altered to accommodate such uses, one often gets a sense of claustrophobia. Spiritualists may argue that this is the weight of tormented spirits that succumbed to unnatural deaths in these spaces, but non-spiritualists would probably observe that our perception of physical spaces is altered by the uses we associate with them.
Moreover, there’s the more ethereal sense of oppression that lingers even after the torture. Walking through such spaces, especially when these spaces have been built or altered to accommodate such uses, one often gets a sense of claustrophobia. Spiritualists may argue that this is the weight of tormented spirits that succumbed to unnatural deaths in these spaces, but non-spiritualists would probably observe that our perception of physical spaces is altered by the uses we associate with them. The philosopher Saul Fisher argues in the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy that beyond aesthetics or beauty, our experience of the built environment contributes to our state of mind – “the ways we experience architectural objects may contribute to how we comprehend, and interact with, those objects.” So an ugly building used as a space to save lives will evoke an entirely different emotion from a beautiful building used for torture.
The experience – even if second hand – of associating a building with torture, or even with deep uncertainty that is amplified by watching others’ anxieties around such buildings, shapes the way we experience these buildings. You feel it when walking through the basement of Elmina Castle in Ghana, a major stopover for the transatlantic slave trade, where hundreds of thousands of slaves were held in near complete darkness before being shipped off to slavery between 1637 and the abolition of slavery in 1814. It is present in the small rooms of Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where almost 20,000 Cambodians were tortured and killed during Pol Pot’s regime. Long after the blood stains have dried and the smell of decaying flesh has wafted, the weight of history hangs in the air in these places, altering our experience of even the most banal bureaucratic artefacts.
But does it persist forever?
Certainly, a collective memory of oppression changes the way people interact with buildings and constructed artefacts: a step is just a step until a parent tells you that it is the “naughty step” where you’re expected to wait out a time out. But buildings like Nyayo House in Nairobi or John Vorseter Square (Johannesburg Central Police Station) in Johannesburg, which both remain in quotidian use, raise the question of whether the legacy of torture is imprinted indelibly into the structures’ DNA. Like Nyayo House, John Vorseter Square was at the heart of a violently oppressive state in which political prisoners were arbitrarily detained, tortured and killed. The similarities don’t end there; John Vorseter Square is also an architecturally uninspiring building that would be left out of any city tour of Johannesburg were it not the site of so much of the apartheid state’s machinery of murder. As with Nyayo House, none of this is a secret, but governments continue to use these buildings.
It’s been 25 years since the last confirmed incident of torture at Nyayo House, and in the lead-up to the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the city has still not resolved what to do with the building. The Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) convened in 2008 and suggested that it should be turned into a museum, a move that Waheire – who worked with the commission – supports. “It’s a symbol of unfinished business because it remains there and it remains in use,” Waheire reflects. Yet, Waheire isn’t convinced that demolishing the building would give victims the closure that they need. “It should remain,” he tells me, “and they should retain the name to retain the essence. If they change the name they can change everything. It should remain Nyayo House so that the history is encapsulated.”
Memory is an idea that Waheire obsesses over, especially as he watches the state erase the truth about Nyayo House torture from the minds of younger generations by leaving it out of the current school curriculum. In other countries, such buildings are decommissioned and turned into museums – spaces where a community can reckon with an ugly chapter of its history. But Nyayo House is a staggeringly tall tower in the heart of a city struggling for space. There simply aren’t enough artefacts from the 12-room cell below and the three stories at the top to fill every space of the building as a museum.
Waheire sees a compromise, arguing that the basement alone should be turned into a museum, instead of its current use as a storage space and dumpsite for office waste from above. “The government hasn’t accepted the idea [of Nyayo House as a historical site] so they are attempting to delete that history. It’s filthy. It is a dumpsite. It was cleaned in 2013 during the [TJRC] hearings but since then …” he trails off. Preserving the memory of these dark years is Waheire’s main work that he does as a volunteer, pushing for the public to rally and protect this memory so that it may never happen again.
Nyayo House is one of a pair of buildings in downtown Nairobi indelibly marked by a legacy of torture, the other being Nyati House, a squat and architecturally uninspiring stack of gray concrete that once served as the headquarters of the dreaded Special Branch, a clandestine arm of the police force that was instrumental in arresting, detaining and torturing real or imagined dissidents during the Moi era. In a 2012 interview with a local newspaper Wanyiri Kihoro, a former detainee, observed of Nyati House that “people would get shivers just from passing by the building’s entrance. It was shrouded in so much mystery that it would seem your own personal demons came alive with each step towards it.”
Over time, stories began to leak, especially when it became impossible to ignore the sheer number of “suicides” reported at Nyayo House. It seemed strange that while no one was allowed access to the top three floors of the building, and at a time when suicide was technically illegal in Kenya, a dead body having allegedly jumped off the top floor would show up every few days. Growing up in Nairobi in the 1990s, I remember being advised to walk past the building quickly in case a body was falling.
Nyayo House, on the other hand, has at least some architectural merit. The dull orange exterior dominates the intersection of two of Nairobi’s main thoroughfares – the Uhuru Highway and Kenyatta Avenue – and its phallic symbolism is all the more prominent as it towers past the trees of the three parks that comprise the southern boundary of the central business district.
Although fundamentally an archetype of the sterile brutalism of Nairobi in the 1980s, it is not an entirely uninspiring example. Rather than a solid rectangular shape, it has a doubled-H shape, and is essentially three towers connected by a corridor. The orange of the two outer towers contrasts slightly with the dull brown of the core tower, and its corners are rounded where other towers have sharp edges. Combined with the flamboyant two-tone colour, the structure of the building adds a touch of quirkiness to the austere design.
In 1985, when it was opened, Nyayo House reflected a style that was perceptively different from the city’s Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC). The latter conformed to the flamboyance of the African modernist frenzy of the 1960s and 70s – the euphoria of the independence era leading to fanciful, extravagant designs that birthed a rotating restaurant flaring from the ceiling of a tower like an elaborate head dress, while a squat plenary hall echoing the lines of a traditional hut sits nearby. Nyayo House, on the other hand, was a concession to the pragmatism of the economic austerity of the 1980s – clean, tame lines with only the smallest concessions to artistic flare.
Both Nyayo House and Nyati House were at the heart of the Moi regime’s torture network, and Kenyans who remember the 1986 to 1992 period still associate the two buildings with arbitrary arrests, detentions and disappearances. Growing up in Nairobi, we avoided walking past Nyati House, especially because of rumours that you could be arrested and held incommunicado for simply looking at the building in the wrong way. In a 2014 interview with the local press, John Ng’aari, a pro-democracy activist in the 1980s, said that he still felt an urge to urinate in fear whenever he walked past Nyati House and that “seeing it evokes memories of the old terror days when speaking out was a crime. Amongst our prayer items in those days was ‘may God save us from Nyati House’”.
Waheire’s ambiguous position on Nyayo House is indicative of the less categorical perspective that Nairobians have towards Nyayo House compared to Nyati House. Unlike Nyati House, which is still used as a police building, and is therefore, closed to the public and shrouded in secrecy, Nyayo House has always been a mixed-purpose building. Since 1983 when the building was completed, it has been home to the Department of Immigration, the provincial administration where Nairobi residents applied for various permits and official documents, as well as the head office for the first privately owned television station in the country’s history, the Kenya Television Network (KTN). Given this expansive use, it has always been and remains one of the busiest buildings in the country, with queues for new passports and permits often snaking around the parking lot and into the street. All of this went on even while people like Waheire were moaning in misery – beaten, deprived of food, sleep and water – in the basement below.
Buildings like Nyayo House are integral to the process of administrative massacres because they allow authorities to bureaucratise the process of torture and killing and to normalise the process as a function of the state.
Ngotho, in the Saturday Nation of 5 May 2012, insisted that Nyayo House was not deliberately built for torture, but testimony given at the Kenya Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission argued otherwise. In their summary findings, the commission argued that “the infamous Nyayo House torture chambers were designed and built […] specifically for the purpose of terrorising those who were critical of, or perceived to be critical of, the established regime.” Waheire concurs. “After the 2002 change of government,” he tells me, “they tried very hard to destroy evidence of all the torture that had happened but when they tried to demolish the torture chambers, the architects told them that if they did that it would undermine the structural integrity of the whole building. That suggests that the torture chambers were part of the structure from the beginning.”
Ngotho argued otherwise. He told a newspaper in 2003 that the sound- and waterproof rooms that would become the main torture chambers were designed as strong rooms for the storage of important documents produced by the government officers upstairs. They were poorly ventilated because people were not expected to spend extended periods of time there, he insisted. Similarly, the elevators to the basement only served certain floors because only the occupants of those floors required access to the money and the secret documents kept in the basement at any time.
Another architect working on the project concurred with Ngotho. Gideon Mutemi Mulyungi told the TJRC that the rooms were initially designed to store cash and sensitive and valuable government documents, and that they were built with reinforced concrete so that they would be fire resistant, and that because of the lack of natural ventilation, air was piped in through special air vents in the roof and walls to assist in climate control.
Still, Ngotho conceded that the Special Branch did, in fact, have a hand in the final design of the building. He recalled that two senior Special Branch officers and a British national, a “Mr. Parkins”, regularly briefed his team on changes that needed to be incorporated into the structure. And to make the situation really work, the building’s administrators put in place several restrictions on the structure’s use. For instance, the original elevators to the basement only served five of the 27 floors: “those government offices that really needed them”, recalled Ngotho. When public elevators were made available, civilians were prohibited from using the staircases even to the first floor, meaning that the lifts at Nyayo House were always crowded. Eventually, the flow of everything from people to recycled air was structured around restricting access to the extremities of the building.
Eventually, the building could no longer contain its secrets. Over time, stories began to leak, especially when it became impossible to ignore the sheer number of “suicides” reported at Nyayo House. It seemed strange that while no one was allowed access to the top three floors of the building, and at a time when suicide was technically illegal in Kenya, a dead body having allegedly jumped off the top floor would show up every few days. Growing up in Nairobi in the 1990s, I remember being advised to walk past the building quickly in case a body was falling. The suicide theory held up only as long as the autocratic regime remained in power. Soon after the democratic vote in 2002, survivors and security officers who had worked in Nyayo House confirmed that those who died during the torture would be thrown off the top of the building to mask the extent of their injuries.
In a 1995 article for the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, law professor Mark Osiel defined an administrative massacre as “large scale violations of basic human rights to life and liberty by the central state in a systematic and organised fashion, often against its own citizens.” An administrative massacre is particularly horrifying because it involves building a bureaucracy around human rights violations in order to sanitise them and create an illusion of legality. The political theorist Hannah Arendt first used the term to describe the horrors of British colonialism, especially in India, when colonial administrators would justify widespread murders and deportations of locals in the most sterile bureaucratic terms, a practice that extended to Nazi Germany, where SS officials kept meticulous records of the machine they built to exterminate Jews, Romas, homosexuals and other groups deemed “undesirable and irredeemable”.
Architecture is an integral part of an administrative massacre, particularly where the state in question wants a visible monument to both contain the horror and make an example of those who endure it. Buildings like Nyayo House that are geared primarily to this purpose are not designed to horrify – a remarkable building that stood out from the rest of the architecture would quickly become a focal point for protest and possibly revolt. Rather, the more banal and routine the exterior, the more citizens are likely to accept that what goes on within is a normal part of state function – even if this banality is a function of how quickly the buildings are put together by an autocratic state.
Examples of this type of building can be found on every continent. Many have been turned into museums, like Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh and the Stasi prison in Berlin. Some are still in continuous use, like John Vorseter Square. The US government’s Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba is the most notable addition to the list, although similar smaller sites, like Richmond Hill prison in Grenada, also exist. Oftentimes buildings that facilitate administrative massacres are modified from other functions, but rarely are they as architecturally striking as the Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada in Buenos Aires – the largest detention centre used during Argentina’s Dirty War from 1976 to 1983. Even though it was an educational facility like Tuol Sleng, this classical revivalist building, with its four imposing pillars, looks more like a museum than any of the other buildings on this list, and so the transition into a museum of the period was perhaps smoother.
Nyayo House was part of the administrative massacre of Kenyans in the 1980s. Unlike generalised violence in neighbouring countries like Uganda and Somalia, it percolated slowly and relied on the acquiescence of the public rather than on widespread demonstrations of force. It focused on fear as a method of control rather than outright destruction, and caused significant physical harm to a few in order to impose psychological control over the majority. It also altered the character of the city significantly – until the mid-2000s, pedestrian traffic around Loita Street was uncharacteristically light for a bustling African city, as civilians avoided walking past both Nyayo House and Nyati House in order to avoid getting caught in the dragnet of a paranoid state.
Although the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) recommended that the Nyayo House torture chambers be converted into a museum, the government has so far resisted this recommendation for many reasons. Quite simply, the state refuses to acknowledge the magnitude of the suffering it inflicted on its citizens.
Buildings like Nyayo House are integral to the process of administrative massacres because they allow authorities to bureaucratise the process of torture and killing and to normalise the process as a function of the state. It is, therefore, almost predictable that the most banal exterior should house a bloody history of violence because the form of a building that truly manifested the function of such buildings might prove too grotesque to contemplate. Similarly, the decision to use buildings close to the proximity of the city centre serves not only to speed up the process of arbitrary arrest and detention, but also serves as a visual reminder of what the state is doing. An administrative massacre relieves the perpetrator of the need to entirely mask what they’re doing: they need the public to suspect just enough so as to incite paranoia and paralysing fear.
Although the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission recommended that the Nyayo House torture chambers be converted into a museum, the government has so far resisted this recommendation for many reasons. Quite simply, the state refuses to acknowledge the magnitude of the suffering it inflicted on its citizens. Many of those who ended up in office after the end of the authoritarian Moi regime had served under that regime. Mwai Kibaki, the president who set up the TJRC, was once vice president under Moi and also served as chair of the National Security Committee that oversaw internal security at the time that the Nyayo House machine was being deployed. Beyond having knowledge, it is possible to infer that he was complicit, and thus had no incentive to adopt the recommendations of the commission. Kibaki’s successor Uhuru Kenyatta, who received the final report of the TJRC in 2013, has also failed to adopt the commission’s recommendations.
This leaves survivors like Waheire in limbo. On the one hand, they have been financially compensated following prosecutions against the state in the days after Moi left office, but, on the other hand, they sense that without a physical monument to their suffering their place in history is being systematically erased. Kenya is a young country with an average age of 18.1 years, meaning that an entire generation has already emerged since the last prisoner left Nyayo House: an entire generation that doesn’t know why people walk quickly and look up when passing Nyayo House.
Waheire believes that such collective amnesia is disrespectful and undermines the stability of the country in general. As a founding member of the Nyayo House Torture Survivors Association, he battles the state on preserving the memory of the era. (The organisation remains unregistered because the state said its mission was prejudicial to national security.) Waheire volunteers to keep information archived and organised, sharing the Kenyan story at regional and international meetings of torture survivors but is pushing back against apathy from other survivors who, once compensated, argue that the past is better buried.
The sole “good” dimension of the administrative massacre is the meticulous record-keeping that makes such memory projects possible. “We have all the information we need,” Waheire tells me. “We know 98 per cent of the names of the people who were held there and my long-term goal is at least to be able to memorialise them in a plaque or statue of some kind.”
Until then, the tower remembers for everyone. The torture cells below can be buried underneath reams of waste paper but they cannot be detached from the building, which also means that they cannot be physically erased from our collective memories.
This article was initially published in Disegno Magazine, #15, June – August 2017.
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The Case for a Non-Violent Political Culture
A culture of violent political action by those who aspire to power or by those who wish to retain and enhance it risks plunging society into a swamp of self-destruction.
Just before Kenya’s 2007/2008 post-election crisis, a friend gave me an audio version of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. With my total visual disability, audio books and e-books are always a banquet. The novel features a group of middle-class British boys who find themselves on an island without adult supervision. At first they set up a liberal democratic type of government, with impressive standing orders for their deliberations. However, tensions build up after elections, leading to the formation of two mutually hostile tribes, and ultimately an orgy of violence that culminates in a fire that decimates the boys habitat. A British cruiser arrives just in time for a naval officer on board to call the boys to order and evacuate them from the now devastated island. It was not difficult to see an almost perfect correspondence between the characters in the novel and the ones who were splashed on the front pages of our newspapers during that dark chapter of our country’s history.
Around the world, politicians striving to get into power declare their unflinching commitment to peaceful demonstrations, but covertly, and sometimes even overtly, engage in violent activities. Similarly, although many regimes claim to be democratic, they ignore, muffle or suppress political dissent, often leading to political disobedience. In response, they often deploy security forces to crush such disobedience, resulting in a cycle of violence. Consequently, pertinent questions arise regarding the nature of truly non-violent political action, the moral justifications for it, and possible objections to it.
The nature of non-violent political action
There are authors that assume that “non-violent political action” is synonymous with “civil disobedience”. For example, in his seminal work, A Theory of Justice, the renowned American philosopher, John Rawls, defines civil disobedience as a public, non-violent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law, usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government. According to Rawls, by acting in this way one addresses the sense of justice of the majority of the community, and declares that in one’s considered opinion the principles of social cooperation among free and equal persons are not being respected. Nevertheless, in view of the fact that other writers consider the use of violence to be a type of civil disobedience, it is advisable to use the more specific term “non-violent civil disobedience” to eliminate the possibility of confusion.
One of the earliest articulations of non-violent civil disobedience is that by Plato in the Apology and the Crito. In the Apology, Plato presents Socrates as declaring that while he is committed to obeying the dictates of the state, he is obliged to disobey them whenever they conflict with the express will of the gods, even if the state threatens to put him to death for doing so. Socrates goes on to assert that if the Athenians were to sentence him to death, they would thereby injure themselves more than him. This position is pivotal to the doctrine of non-violent civil disobedience, which seeks to appeal to the conscience of the oppressor through the suffering he or she inflicts on the oppressed. In the Crito, Plato presents Socrates advancing three arguments in support of the view that it is virtuous to submit to the decision of the state to sentence him (Socrates) to death, and therefore that it is vicious for him to escape from prison: We ought not to harm anyone, yet escaping from prison would harm the state; we ought to keep our promises, yet escaping from prison would be tantamount to breaking the promise of loyalty to the state; we ought to obey and respect our parents and teachers, yet escaping from prison would be tantamount to disobedience and disrespect to the state, which enjoys the status of a parent or teacher.
As Roland Bleiker explains, Plato’s Socrates hence provided the precedent for a tradition of dissent that aims at resisting a specific authority, law, or policy considered unjust, while at the same time recognising the rulemaking prerogative of the existing political system as legitimate and generally binding. As indicated below, several other thinkers are associated with non-violent civil disobedience.
Étienne de La Boétie and David Hume
The basic assumption of non-violent civil disobedience is that governments are ultimately dependent on the fearful obedience and compliance of their subjects. This was succinctly stated by the sixteenth century French jurist and political philosopher, Étienne de La Boétie (1530–1563), who wrote his seminal essay, Discours de la Servitude Volontaire (The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude) in 1552–1553. For La Boétie, all that the oppressed masses need to do in order to overthrow the tyrant is to withdraw their cooperation from him:
He who … domineers over you has only two eyes, only two hands, only one body, no more than is possessed by the least man among the infinite numbers dwelling in your cities; he has indeed nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you. Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do not provide them yourselves? How can he have so many arms to beat you with, if he does not borrow them from you? The feet that trample down your cities, where does he get them if they are not your own? How does he have any power over you except through you? How would he dare assail you if he had no cooperation from you? What could he do to you if you yourselves did not connive with the thief who plunders you, if you were not accomplices of the murderer who kills you, if you were not traitors to yourselves? …. Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces.
The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) independently discovered the principle of the goodwill of the populace as the ground of government two centuries after La Boétie, and stated it as follows:
Nothing is more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye than to see the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find that, as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is, therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.
Henry David Thoreau
While the thoughts of La Boétie and Hume on non-violence were purely theoretical, the 19th-century American thinker, Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), engaged in a non-violent action in an attempt to challenge a specific public policy. He refused to pay the state poll tax imposed by the US government to prosecute a war in Mexico and to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. Consequently, in July 1846, he was arrested and jailed. He was supposed to remain in jail until a fine was paid, which he also declined to pay. However, without his knowledge or consent, relatives settled the “debt”, and a disgruntled Thoreau was released after only one night. The incarceration was brief, but it has had enduring effects, as it prompted Thoreau to write his seminal 1848 essay, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Thoreau shared with La Boétie and Hume the view that states continue to exist because of the acquiescence of the citizenry.
Nothing is more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than to see the easiness with which the many are governed by the few.
Nevertheless, as Lawrence Rosenwald correctly observes, although proponents of non-violent action often cite Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” in support of their strategy, he did not rule out the use of violence in politics. Indeed, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, and still more after John Brown’s raid, Thoreau defended violent action on the same grounds as those on which he had defended non-violent action in On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. This is evident in Thoreau’s 1859 work, A Plea for Captain John Brown.
Mohandas Karmachand Gandhi
One of the best known organisers of non-violent civil disobedience is the Indian nationalist, Mohandas Karmachand Gandhi, commonly referred to as “Mahatma (“Great Soul”) Gandhi” (1869–1948). As a young lawyer in South Africa protesting the government’s treatment of immigrant Indian workers, Gandhi was deeply impressed by Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience. What is less known is that Gandhi believed that the Indians in South Africa deserved equal treatment with the Europeans in the country, and was in fact incensed that they were being treated like the majority indigenous peoples there. Thus in 2018, the University of Ghana removed Gandhi’s statue from its exalted place following protests from the university’s lecturers. For now, however, let us focus on Gandhi’s policy of non-violence.
Satyagraha is literally holding on to Truth and it means, therefore, Truth-force. Truth is soul or spirit. It is, therefore, known as soul-force. …. The word was coined in South Africa to distinguish the non-violent resistance of the Indians of South Africa from the contemporary ‘passive resistance’ of the suffragettes and others.
Gandhi was at pains to make a sharp distinction between “passive resistance” and Satyagraha. The main difference, according to him, is that passive resistance is not committed to love, but is rather an expedient strategy that can be easily abandoned whenever it was convenient to use violence. On the other hand, Satyagraha is committed to non-violence, considering itself to be the very opposite of violent resistance. He believed in confronting his opponents aggressively, in such a way that they could not avoid dealing with him. The difference, as Mark Shepard points out, was that the non-violent activist, while willing to die, was never willing to kill. In support of non-violent action, Gandhi argued that if the world were to pursue violence to its ultimate conclusion, the human race would have become extinct long ago. He is often quoted as having said that “an eye for an eye would make the world blind”.
Mark Shepard notes that Gandhi practised two types of Satyagraha in his mass campaigns. The first was civil disobedience, which entailed breaking a law and courting arrest. The second was non-cooperation, that is, refusing to submit to the injustice being fought. It took such forms as strikes, economic boycotts and tax refusals.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Gandhi’s thought and practice greatly influenced the thinking of the African-American Civil Rights Movement leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968). According to Andrew Altman, in contemporary political thought, the term “civil rights” is indissolubly linked to the struggle for equality of African Americans during the 1950s and 1960s, whose aim was to secure the status of equal citizenship between African and European Americans. After slavery was abolished, the US federal Constitution was amended to secure basic rights for African Americans. In 1877, however, the federal government moved to frustrate efforts to enforce those rights. As a result, state constitutions and laws were modified to exclude African Americans from the political process.
Martin Luther King, Jr. catapulted to fame when he came to the assistance of Rosa Parks, the Montgomery, Alabama African American seamstress who, on the 1st of December, 1955, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery bus to a European American passenger. In Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, King Jr. was emphatic that he was not the founder of non-violent civil disobedience among African Americans; rather, he merely served as their spokesman. Like Gandhi, King, Jr. states that his adoption of non-violent civil disobedience was inspired by Thoreau’s On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Nevertheless, he attributes the details of his strategy to the work of Mohandas K. Gandhi.
Thoreau shared with La Boétie and Hume the view that states continue to exist because of the acquiescence of the citizenry.
In Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King, Jr., like Gandhi before him, advanced the view that the purpose of direct mass action is to attain a situation in which the opponent is willing to negotiate. In Stride Toward Freedom, he outlines several basic aspects of the doctrine of non-violence as follows: It is not for cowards, but is actually a method of resistance; it seeks to win the friendship and understanding of the opponent; it attacks forces of evil rather than persons who happen to be doing the evil; it is willing to accept suffering without retaliation; it avoids not only external physical violence, but also internal violence of spirit; it is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice.
Moral justifications for non-violent political action
As Bernard Gert explains, to justify an action is to show that it is rational. Besides, George Fletcher points out that a justification speaks to the rightness of the act, while an excuse focuses on whether or not the actor is accountable for a concededly wrongful act. An unflinching commitment to non-violent political action can be morally justified on at least nine counts.
Violence breeds violence by stimulating the desire for revenge, with the grim possibility of an endless cycle of violence. Because of the physical and psychological harm caused by violence, it often leaves the two sides as longstanding enemies. Even when an armed insurgency is victorious, the final outcome is often disastrous, yet no such losses are associated with non-violent political action.
Armed resistance tends to push undecided elements of the population towards the government, as any effects of the violence they suffer serves to convince them that the purported “liberators” are actually “terrorists”. In sharp contrast to this, government repression against unarmed resistance movements usually creates greater popular sympathy for the regime’s opponents. According to Jerry Tinker, this explains the tendency of many governments, when faced with non-violent resistance, to emphasise any violent fringes that may emerge.
As Stephen Zunes cautions, quite frequently, regimes which come to power through violent means soon forget their pledges to uphold personal liberties. According to Kimberley Brownlee, throughout history, acts of non-violent political action have helped to force a reassessment of society’s moral parameters. Indeed, it is partly for this reason that today’s dissidents are often tomorrow’s heroes.
Like Gandhi before him, advanced the view that the purpose of direct mass action is to attain a situation in which the opponent is willing to negotiate.
In his autobiography, the British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, observes that engaging in civil disobedience often leads to wide dissemination of a position which would have otherwise received inadequate coverage in mass media. Mark Shepard notes that even in revolutions that are primarily violent, the successful ones usually include non-violent civilian actions. Shepard further observes that there are other cases in which violence would work, but so would non-violent action with much less harm. Kelley Ross observes that by refraining from causing physical damage which is, by its very nature irreversible, non-violent political action caters for the fact that we may very well be wrong in holding a particular political position.
Answering objections to non-violent political action
At least six objections have been levelled against non-violent political action, but answers to them are readily available.
First, objectors point out that non-violent political action results in harm, and any harm is undesirable. However, proponents of non-violent political action reply that the kind of harm it causes is much less grievous than that from violent political action. Nevertheless, some critics have questioned this assertion. Yet, while the issue may not be conclusive, our intuitions suggest that this is the case: a stone hurled at the police or a tear gas canister hurled at a crowd are much more harmful than a peaceful sit-in.
Second, some critics claim that non-violent political action is unbearably slow in achieving the desired results. Yet, as Mark Shepard observes, even violent actions take long to produce the desired results. Shepard quotes Theodore Roszak as having once commented: “People try non-violence for a week, and when it ‘doesn’t work’, they go back to violence, which hasn’t worked for centuries.”
Engaging in civil disobedience often leads to wide dissemination of a position which would have otherwise received inadequate coverage in mass media.
Third, some thinkers have charged that there are cases in which non-violence cannot produce the desired results, as has been experienced in highly repressive regimes. Nevertheless, the cases in which non-violent action would not work are also often cases in which violence would prove pointless or worse. Indeed, Mark Shepard points out that where violent efforts would be easily contained or instantly crushed, non-violent action may be the only realistic choice.
Fourth, according to David Lyons, some objectors contend that even those who are treated unjustly can have moral reason to comply with unjust laws – as when non-violent political action would expose some persons such as children and the very old to risks they have not agreed to assume. However, such casualties are to be found both in instances of violent and non-violent political action, as long as at least one side in a political contest shows no commitment to non-violence.
Fifth, according to Roland Bleiker, some critics charge that non-violent political action is merely a manipulative strategy by the Western liberal democratic establishment to maintain the status quo. However, there is evidence that it has the potential to effect radical change in any society, as was the case with Gandhi in India, and, to an extent, with Martin Luther King Jr. in the US.
The culture of violent political action by those who aspire to power, as well as by those who have power and wish to retain and enhance it, risks plunging society into a swamp of self-destruction; and unlike the case of the boys in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, there is no assurance that the cruiser will arrive just in time. In fact, in several cases on our continent, it did not arrive at all.
The Continued Relevance of Pan-African Marxism in a Time of Crisis
Do we look back to the Pan-African Marxism of the moment of flag independence to address contemporary challenges to Pan-African liberation or do we need new ideas and new guiding insights in order to truly usher in the liberation that independence promised but has yet to deliver?
To celebrate African Liberation Day, I encourage us to revisit Pan-African Marxist theory to assess what it might offer us in the continued struggle for liberation. During the 20th century, as national independence movements were gaining ground on the African continent, anti-colonial intellectuals devised new ways of thinking about liberation in a Pan-African context. This theoretical tradition, sometimes called Black Marxism, Pan-African Marxism, or Anti-colonial Marxism, was developed to aid national independence movements in their more revolutionary aims through an analysis of the political economy and culture of Africa in the world system. Through an analysis of the history and political economy of the African continent, Pan-African Marxists rethought European narratives of Africa’s integration into the capitalist world system through European imperialism, revealing economic development to be a relative concept that hinged on the exploitation of Africa by Europe through colonialism and neo-imperialism.
Not only did Pan-African Marxist theorists describe the long history of African political economy as a way to build strategy for national independence movements in their fight against colonialism, but they also took up the question of how true liberation might be realised across the continent. One of the main tensions among Pan-African Marxists in thinking through the question of liberation after the end of formal colonial rule was between those who saw a return to pre-colonial cultural formations as a way toward liberation versus those who contended that the way forward was to embrace “the new”.
For Marxist thinkers such as Chiekh Anta Diop and Walter Rodney, recovering pre-colonial histories and culture was an important assertion of national identity and a way to overcome the colonial mentality that lingered after flag independence. Walter Rodney wrote that, “to know ourselves we must learn about African history and culture. This is one of the most important steps towards” liberation. For those who subscribed to this position, the process of recovering history and culture was, ultimately, the way to recover one’s humanity.
Other Pan-African Marxists, however, such as Aquino de Bragança, Thomas Sankara, Amilcar Cabral and Frantz Fanon, for example, emphasised “newness” as the means to liberation. Fanon believed that recovering pre-colonial culture was not an effective strategy for liberation. In the face of systematic structures that assert the inferiority of the culture of the colonised, he contended, culture “solidifies into a formalism which is more and more stereotyped”. Instead of engaging in critique and evolution, the postcolonial intellectual who looks to the past for inspiration has a tendency to reify older cultural forms by combatting the colonial project to devalue culture on the terms delineated by the colonizer. In such reification, Fanon asserted, “there is no real creativity and no overflowing life”. In other words, in looking to the pre-colonial past for inspiration, the African intellectual renders themselves incapable of creating the new movements that will best critique colonialism and its remnants.
Fanon tells us that recovering a pre-colonial past is not enough to counteract the harm done by colonialism. Instead, he contends that we must be forward-looking and envision a future in which liberation triumphs over colonialism and its remnants. This vision for a new future must also look to other places within the Global South for affinity in grappling with similar problems such as “trade union questions” or economic issues stemming from a common colonial legacy.
Admittedly, the two different positions in this debate aren’t really that distinct. Both sides ultimately agree that the goal of recovering the history and pre-colonial culture of Africa is secondary to the revolutionary movement against capitalism and neo-imperialism. What is distinct, in these two positions, however is the means to this end of true liberation for Africa. And the key question around which this debate was centred remains: Is the way forward to liberation through recovering the past or is it found in creating completely new ways of thinking about the current situation?
Let us recall Marx’s famous quote from the 18th Brumaire; Marx writes that history happens, first as tragedy then as farce… The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things, in creating something that had never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them their names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.
Is the way forward to liberation through recovering the past or is it found in creating completely new ways of thinking about the current situation?
Here, Marx gestures to repetition through the cyclical nature of time, but each repetition, for Marx, is not a return, but instead a mimicry of previous moments of history. In attempts to create “the new” there is always necessarily a borrowing from and a simulation of the past. Jacques Derrida termed this genre of repetition hauntology. In this framework, Marxism is then a ghost whose expected return repeats itself again and again. That recurring return is not solely a reappearance, but also, each time, a new beginning.
To question what Pan-African Marxism still is, we need to understand how time operates within this concept of hauntology. Hauntology implies two temporalities: that which is no longer, but remains, and that which has not yet happened, but the idea of it exists. Marx describes a cyclical return where each new phase of the cycle is borrowed from the previous phase but is different from its previous incarnation because of our desire for newness coupled with an inability to conjure it without the old surviving within the new. Derrida delineates an expected return that never happens, but nonetheless clears the way for newness because there cannot be a return, only a new beginning in the guise of the old. But Mark Fisher sees hauntology as “a failed mourning. It is about refusing to give up the ghost or… the refusal of the ghost to give up on us”. Are we failing in our endeavour for a completely new politics, as Marx claims, or creating the new through the ghosts of the old as Derrida posits, or mourning the new futures we expected that never materialised as Mark Fisher suggests?
The key question is, then, what is the way forward? Do we look back to the Pan-African Marxism of the moment of flag independence to address contemporary challenges to Pan-African liberation or do we need new ideas and new guiding insights in order to truly usher in the liberation that independence promised but has yet to deliver? We need to revisit, assess, and debate this critical question on whether Pan-African Marxism can provide a way forward to liberation. As a launching point, I offer two examples through which we can start to think through how Pan-African Marxism might still be relevant in helping us develop solutions to pressing contemporary problems.
Frantz Fanon famously wrote about inequities in global health stemming from the colonial legacy in his essay, “Medicine and Colonialism”. This essay demonstrates, through several historical examples from colonial Algeria, how the relationship between African people and colonial healthcare is structured by the colonial relationship. Fanon points to “the inhuman methods” of colonialism that mediate African people’s experiences with the latest medical technology whether it’s through medical experiments conducted on colonial subjects, the historical legacy of French doctors aiding the colonial police and military in torturing FLN members, or through the denial of treatment to Africans in need. Based on what Fanon witnessed as a health care professional in Algeria, he concluded that one of the many key objectives for liberation and decolonisation involves disrupting Europe as an intermediary in bringing medical technology to Africa.
We see today, in the case of COVID-19, that Fanon’s assessment of the healthcare system in colonial Algeria is markedly pertinent. Access to COVID-19 vaccines is mostly mediated through the United States and Europe. This situation in which African countries have to go through the former colonial power for access to vaccines is something that Fanon’s essay predicted. Preventing such a situation in which Africa needed to go through Europe to access the latest medical technologies is something that, furthermore, Fanon identified in the late 1950s as a key problem that African liberation movements should take up in order to ensure Africans’ access to just and plentiful healthcare. While he may not have predicted the specificities of vaccine hoarding by the Global North along with patent laws that restrict the ability of Global South countries to produce their own affordable vaccines, Fanon did warn us in the 1950s of the pressing need to be able to access the latest medical technology without having to rely on Europe as a mediator.
One of the many key objectives for liberation and decolonisation involves disrupting Europe as an intermediary in bringing medical technology to Africa.
But the failure of national liberation to be realised today is not for lack of trying. In the contemporary period we have witnessed many movements for liberation in North Africa, Sudan, and elsewhere, along with vibrant student movements across Sub-Saharan Africa and a variety of other contemporary movements aimed at realising liberation of various forms. But contemporary movements, particularly political movements aimed at regime change, have been limited by authoritarian rule and particularly by religious nationalist forces that have hijacked the more revolutionary aims of contemporary movements.
Here too, however, Fanon provides a way forward. In his essay “On Violence” (1961), he posed a very critical question for independence movements, that is, to paraphrase, what was the point of fighting for independence if not much had changed in the period following? Fanon, of course, was talking about the class structure that remained in place after flag independence and posed this question as a critique that while formal political rule by Europe may have ended, independence movements did little to combat capitalism and imperialism. In several of my books and essays, I’ve contended that we need to push this important question a bit further and also need to consider how the revolutionary promise of national independence soon eroded into the proliferation of dictatorships across the continent. Local-born leaders oppressed the very people who had just won their independence in a manner similar to that of the colonial rulers they fought for freedom from. And today we see a resurgence in movements looking to now realise the quality of freedom independence promised but in so many instances has failed to deliver. Yet, in the current moment, this political freedom still remains an open question as far-right forces seek to limit political freedom but movements for liberation wage on.
There are infinite possibilities for the future and the goal of political action is to begin with a workable possible and then transform that possible into the future real. In this endeavour to imagine possible futures, theory is crucial. Futures are not “waiting for us ready-made like heavenly bodies… They must be invented, fabricated, or rather created”. Through Pan-African Marxist theory, we can begin to imagine new possibilities outside of historical capitalism and imperialism. Capitalist imperialism may seem insurmountable but that is only because of our inability to imagine. We can’t imagine liberation because we are unable to conceive of new possibilities.
Samir Amin’s Radical Political Economy
Samir Amin’s legacy provides a lighthouse for those who not only want to understand the world, but fundamentally change it, by combining rigorous scholarship with political commitment and action.
In moments of great uncertainty there is refuge to be found in the work of intellectual titans like Samir Amin. After the sad news of his passing in August 2018 in Paris, aged 86, we began thinking about how best to explore the enduring relevance of his analysis and concepts to make sense of contemporary crises.
The pertinence and analytical heft of Amin’s work is particularly important in the contemporary period marked by the interconnected crises related to COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, the climate emergency, and looming debt crises across the periphery. In the years ahead, confronting these multiple and intertwined crises will require the kind of commitment to combining research with political engagement that Amin demonstrated.
Amin’s ability to weave together thorough analysis of the polarising effects of capitalism with concrete political projects for an international radical left makes his work particularly relevant in our quest to understand capitalism, its particularities across the world, and oppositions to it. There is a younger generation of scholars, of which we are a part, that is particularly hungry for Amin’s perspectives, one that came of age in a time where the universities have been thoroughly marketised and moulded by neoliberal processes, and where intellectual production and debates are not necessarily embedded within social struggles.
What is Samir Amin’s approach to Political Economy?
Amin pushes us to think creatively in structural, temporal, and political ways that often defy disciplinary boundaries. The combination of truly global perspectives with analysis that is finely contextualised within particular geographical locations, and mindful of the complex nature of political conflicts and different class interests, makes his contributions to dependency theory especially rich.
While Amin developed many concrete concepts and shed light on many concrete issues, it is his approach to political economy that is the most inspiring for us and that we believe holds the most promise for driving radical political economy in his spirit forward. His approach entails thinking structurally, thinking temporally, thinking politically, and thinking creatively.
At a time when much of social science has come to be centred around either methodological individualism or methodological nationalism – the notions that individuals and nation states, respectfully, are the most relevant units of analysis – Amin’s attention to global structures, that underpin an international system of exploitation, is a much needed contrast. In Amin’s work, both the structure of the global economy and the structural prejudice of eurocentrism, are key.
Taking the structure of the global economy as a starting point led Amin to explore concepts such as core-periphery relations, imperialism and unequal exchange. He recognised that the global capitalist system is polarising and that the polarisation between the centre and the periphery was a key part of this. Note that Amin went beyond thinking only in core-periphery terms – which dependency theorists are often critiqued for – as he identified a range of classes of importance across both the core and periphery. It is also worth noting that thinking structurally does not mean thinking deterministically. While Amin was ‘capable of a very high level of abstraction’, as Ghosh has written, and some could see his characterisations as sweeping, he was always ready to adapt his categories and understandings as the world changed, and his understanding of how outcomes were shaped was first and foremost dialectical – which led him to critique World Systems Theory for being static and for prioritising global relations over domestic.
In this issue, Fathima Musthaq’s and Ndongo Samba Sylla’s articles apply a structural way of thinking about financial and monetary dependencies. Mushtaq explores how Amin’s work on imperialist rent can be extended to understand financial dependencies and hierarchies in a financialised global economy, while Sylla explores Amin’s approach to the monetary mechanisms and functioning of the banking sectors in peripheral countries which contribute to keeping them underdeveloped, with a specific focus on the CFA Zone. Similarly, Macheda and Nadalini’s investigation into how China was able to integrate itself into the global economy without abandoning its strategy of delinking from imperialism opens up space for further research and theorising about how different strategies for national development can be anti-imperialist.
What’s more, identifying eurocentrism as a structural prejudice allowed Amin to show how social theories disguise the imperialist and racist foundations of the capitalist system. This allows us to see that the Enlightenment values and promise of rationality and universality are actually heavily biased and founded on a colonial and racist project. This is key for understanding why societies cannot develop by imitating the West. Generally, eurocentrism has been taken as an important starting point for scholars who build further on Amin as well as critics. Ndlovu-Gatsheni in the Special Issue, for example, revisits Marxism and decolonisation via the legacy of Amin to re-evaluate Amin’s critical Marxist political economy in the context of epistemology, to unmask racism and the trans-historic expansion of colonial domination.
Thinking temporally was key for Samir Amin’s understanding of the world, and more specifically, thinking in longue durée terms. This is an important entry point for exploring contemporary problems, because it opens the door for analysing how imperialist relations have historically and contemporarily shaped the possibilities for development in the Global South. In this issue, Jayati Ghosh lays out how Amin’s approach to imperialism remains relevant across key axes such as technology, finance, and the search for and effort to control new markets, despite changing global configurations such as the ‘rise’ of the BRICS.
Francisco Pérez’s and Ndongo Samba Sylla’s articles are also particularly good illustrations of how a historical perspective is important for understanding contemporary problems. For example, Pérez’s explanation of the East Asian ‘miracle’ starts from how those countries developed historically and geopolitically. Pérez also demonstrates how China’s contemporary delinking must be understood by starting from their attempt at socialist delinking in 1949, and the complex battle between statist, capitalist, and socialist forces that played out since then. Similarly, Sylla’s article shows how the colonial origins of the CFA is key for understanding how it operates today. Tracing the history of the CFA also makes it painfully clear why defending the monetary status quo for Amin amounts to defending the perpetuation of the old colonial order.
In line with Marx’s famous phrase, interpreting the world is important, but ‘the point, however, is to change it,’ Amin never shied away from admitting that his work was driven by political ambitions to change the world. Indeed, Amin was a socialist from an early age and was concerned with responding to and building emancipatory social movements throughout his life.This was reflected in his life-long organising efforts and activism, across a wide range of platforms and organisations, including the establishment of the Third World Forum in Dakar, where he helped set practical and intellectual agendas for socialist transformation on the continent, the establishment of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), which became an important vehicle of radical social science research and analysis in Africa, and his active engagement in the World Social Forum.
We find such explicit acknowledgement of political commitment especially inspiring and necessary at a time when the economics field in particular likes to cloak itself in deceitfully ‘objective’ language, even though knowledge production in the social sciences is necessarily ideological.
In Amin’s book on Delinking, he provides a tangible and critical assessment of ways to promote autonomous development in the periphery. Far from any call for autarky, delinking entails “the refusal to submit national-development strategy to the imperatives of ‘globalization’” and the promotion of popular and auto-centred development rather than unilaterally adjusting to the demands of the global economic system. Both Pérez’ and Macheda and Nadalini’s articles in this issue, which centre on delinking strategies, demonstrate how social science research is often used for political ends given how Chinese and East Asian delinking strategies are often misunderstood (or miscommunicated) in mainstream narratives about their ‘success’.
Finally, it is important to be creative in the way we apply Amin’s method to understand social phenomena. Amin called himself a ‘creative Marxist’, by which he meant he would start from, rather than to stop at Marx. We find this approach from Amin to be particularly relevant to understand contemporary problems and especially from a Global South perspective. Starting from Marx allows for an understanding of class struggle, exploitation, and the polarising tendencies of capitalism, while going deeper into structural inequalities associated with imperialism, sexism and racism. Amin started this work, but we believe it is relevant to go beyond Amin. Indeed, we find it relevant to start from Amin, not to stop at Amin.
Beyond Samir Amin
Several contributions to this special issue take Amin as a starting point for further exploration and theoretical development. Some also point in the direction of key critiques that have been levelled at Amin’s work, notwithstanding his powerful and incisive theoretical and analytical interventions on how developing economies relate with the North.
For example, although Amin himself did not include gender in his analysis – indeed, his analysis had glaring blind spots related to gender – his analysis can be enriched and extended to include gender hierarchies and a fuller recognition of gender’s place in the mode of production. Catherine Scott’s article is crucial for opening this door to understanding both the limitations to Amin and how gender can be approached from within his framework of analysis. She asks, for example, how gender may be included in analyses of delinking and the importance of discussions about relations in the households when considering how a revolution may occur.
Furthermore, in a historical moment where we cannot speak about autonomous industrialisation without considering ecological destruction, the need to explore how the two are interrelated and both shaped by imperialism is more important than ever. Max Ajl’s article starts from Amin’s theories of ecology to make broader analyses of the currents of ecological dependency that developed out of North African dependency analysis. He shows how Amin’s theoretical framework can be connected to that of Mohamed Dowidar, Fawzy Mansour and Slaheddine el-Amami and their advancement of the case for smallholder-centred national development. Given the urgent need to tackle climate change, its imperial characteristics, and the uneven geographical impacts of the destruction it causes, Amin’s framework serves as a useful starting point for thinking about ecological unequal exchange. As Ajl writes, ‘If Amin could not see the entirety of the necessary developmental path, he still illuminated its borders with a brilliant radiance…’.
What’s more, given the partial retreat and limited autonomy of the peripheral state in the context of the increasing power of international finance, Amin’s view of the state’s power to delink and stimulate auto-centric industrialisation must be scrutinised. We appreciate Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s contribution here, as he takes Amin as a point of departure while also somewhat diverging from Amin’s political orientation towards the nation state. He points to Amin’s commitment to a polycentric world as a departure point towards de-imperialisation, deracialisation, depatriarchisation, decorporatisation, detribalisation and democratisation, where the core is the internationalism of people, not of states. This is important in light of critiques of Amin’s conceptualisation of delinking as a process that holds the state as the locus of change.
Meanwhile, Fathima Mushtaq creatively adapts Amin’s categories to a financialised global economy, as she explores how imperialist rent is not limited to labour arbitrage but also includes financial arbitrage. Her article thus provides “an updated understanding of dependency in the context of financialisation,” as she centres financial factors to demonstrate how they contribute to reproducing global inequalities and the periphery’s subordinate position. This is of particular relevance given the important role that capital flows, interest rates, and exchange rates play in reproducing subordinate relations today.
What’s more, Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s work on decoloniality shows the need for decolonial knowledge production in order to break with eurocentric approaches, which is especially important given that Amin’s work on Eurocentrism has itself been criticised for demonstrating economic reductionism. This is yet another area where we believe Amin opens the door for important reflections and debates about how racism, eurocentrism, and capitalism are intertwined, but that we must move beyond his initial reflections to broaden the debates about how racism and imperialism shape society.
We hope this Special Issue will inspire more scholars and activists to engage with Amin’s ideas and also explore their relevance for emerging social and political problems. Amin’s methods of inquiry provide avenues towards doing research that transverses disciplinary boundaries and that aims to interrogate the social world as a whole. Notwithstanding important critiques of Amin’s work, the articles in this issue engage with his core concepts and demonstrate both their potency and how they can be creatively expanded and built upon. Amin’s legacy provides a lighthouse for those who not only want to understand the world, but fundamentally change it, by combining rigorous scholarship with political commitment and action.
The full Special Issue can be accessed for free until the end of March here.
This article was first published by ROAPE.
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