Connect with us

Ideas

The Morality Debate and the Spirit of Capitalism

16 min read.

Public discourse on morality and individual virtue has long been emphasised. But as JÖRG WIEGRATZ argues, they only tell part of the story of human beings and human society. Indeed, capitalism and its current variant neoliberalism is a moral order that defines the standards of interaction within a neoliberal society.

Published

on

The Morality Debate and the Sprit of Capitalism
Download PDFPrint Article

“It is not from the benevolence (kindness) of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”  – Adam Smith: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

There is a common position in public debates in many contemporary societies – be it in Uganda, Kenya, Germany, the UK or the US – that we live in an age of moral decline and moral crisis. Typically, this is a more or less direct commentary on the global system that shapes all of these societies: capitalism. Well-known public commentators and analysts in these countries, such as Will Hutton in the case of Britain, will declare that current capitalism is morally bankrupt. Hutton writes: “’Modern capitalism’ has arrived at a moral dead end, interested largely in feathering the nests of its leaders while imposing enormous costs on the rest of society and accepting no reciprocal obligations.”

Others refer to capitalism as just plain immoral and evil; or assert that figures such as fraudulent bankers or hard core, ever-profit-maximising speculators, business owners and managers (who lay off thousands of workers, or close entire factories to move to countries with cheaper labour) have lost their moral compass. This is an argument that one comes across regularly when the latest scandals emerge around systemic, high-level, harm-producing fraud and corruption or when heartless profit-making schemes are exposed, with those paying the price for these schemes being the most vulnerable people, including patients, pensioners, children, poor communities or an unsuspecting public.

Often, the terms “greed” or “selfishness” are dropped somewhere in these analyses as well, which implies that the money-minded actors concerned are immoral greedsters. Other words one regularly finds in such texts are “shocking”, “disgusting”, “devil”, “soul-less”, “cold-hearted”, “inhumane”, “indifferent”, and the like, signalling a sort of (expressed) moral unease and outrage about the critiqued actors and practices. In society usually certain economic activities, certain ways of earning a living, of making money by some groups, get categorised as immoral by some other group. And when a society experiences the rise or becoming more publicly visible of certain – say, new, more innovative, blatant, or radical – forms of money-oriented activities or ways of thinking, you will soon find one commentator pulling the analytical card that has “immoral”, or “moral decline” written on it. Representatives of the state (and the political system more broadly), the church, or unions from time to time run this line in one form or another. Of course, when your analysis asserts that morals are at rock bottom, or have been crowded out, then the diagnosis is to inject “more morality”.

Let me then present some examples of this conventional type of reasoning in public debates from the African continent, more specifically South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Nigeria: “Is it that the moral fibre of our society is irrevocably broken…?”; “[Political leaders have] largely lost their moral compass”; “Our freedom of expression had started eroding our moral fabric”; “Poor parenting and moral decay in society are to blame for runaway corruption”; “[There is now] capitalism without a soul … capitalism has lost its moral shine”; “Nigeria is gradually moving into the future with greater number of its youths turning into drugs addicts and becoming morally bankrupt”; “Only immoral leaders would put politics ahead of Nigeria’s fiscal future”; “The loss of moral values threatens our common existence”; “Government will introduce an examinable subject in schools to teach students and pupils ethics in order to rebuild the country’s degenerating moral values and make the citizens appreciate honesty.”; “Rampant criminal activities… have been blamed on lapse in moral values.” And so on and so forth. Our world is full of such statements from public officials, church leaders, artists, scholars and other professional analysts.

Notably, the youth, or groups such as “drug users”, are regularly depicted as having lost their morals. So are categories of people who just go after money, who are just in it for the money, as they say. This debate is, for instance, existent in discussions about young women dating rich and powerful old men or looking for private sponsors/sugar daddies (“transactional sex”); or about the sex-for-university-marks or sex-for-a-job phenomena, be it in Kenya, Uganda, or Nigeria.

This debate came to the fore in Kenya recently when two women, Sharon Otieno and Monica Kimani, were killed mid last year, allegedly because of having sexual affairs with older men. Al Jazeera later ran an extensive special programme headlined: “Why are Africa’s ‘sugar’ relationships in the spotlight?”, and sub-headlined: “Murder in Kenya fuels conversation about partnerships where money and gifts are traded for sex and companionship.” And, the BBC published a long investigative piece about the phenomenon of sugar-baby-daddy/sponsor/blesser, titled “Sex and the Sugar Daddy’” around the same time. Did at least one of the commentators (in traditional or social media) run the moral decline/immorality argument in this particular case too to discuss the behaviour of the women, and the issue of money and sexual relationships?

Lots of observers and analysts seem to agree then that there is a spreading of immorality – especially in the world of business – and a sort of moral regression across modern society, and that this is the issue that needs sorting. In other words, morals are a good thing (and we need as much of them as possible), and something is attacking these morals, making them diminish. Picture a kind of downward spiral, an eroding kind of trend, a society (or particular groups such as “the youth”, or “bankers”) losing their moral values – something gets thinner by the day, something is in decline. The enemy here is immorality, not morality, or say, a specific type of morality. How easy and clear for an analysis – which one can run year in, year out – without even much need for empirical data to support the claims.

Lots of observers and analysts seem to agree that there is a spreading of immorality – especially in the world of business – and a sort of moral regression across modern society, and that this is the issue that needs sorting. In other words, morals are a good thing (and we need as much of them as possible), and something is attacking these morals, making them diminish.

But is this line of argument perhaps not as useful as it seems, as both diagnosis and prescription? Notably, whatever country you look at, very few commentators or scholars, let alone politicians, ever offer an analysis of capitalism and capitalist society as a moral order itself, as a moral system and moral economy with a moral grammar and all sorts of moral-economic milieus and cultures – across economic sectors, professions, locations. And, very few analysts would argue that what so many observers describe and interpret as a case of moral decline, crisis and bankruptcy, is actually a case or phenomenon of moral change in society, and what observers diagnose as a problem of immorality (or absence of morality) is actually a problem of morality, i.e. a problem of particular socially dominant and powerful moral cultures, moral milieus and moral economies in a capitalist society, of the type of moral views, justifications and priorities, of the type of moral actors that this particular social order – and capitalist polity and political economy – tends to bring about.

That said, to get a different analysis and debate concerning morals in today’s society, to move beyond the moral decline thesis and other conventional takes on the matter, three analytical insights or analytical starting points are crucial: capitalism is a moral order; the so-called bad/immoral actors are moral actors too; what is happening in front of our eyes can be treated analytically as cases of moral change, not moral decline or moral bankruptcy.

Capitalism is a moral order

One of the reasons for the popularity of the moral-decline/immorality argument is a particular understanding of morals that is apparently widespread in public discourse. According to this line of reasoning, morals are about being pro-social i.e. being good to other human beings; supporting others to flourish; being altruistic, caring, helpful, honest, selfless; foregoing one’s self-interest; not acting on the basis of self-interest; and so on. If one starts with such a notion of morals, then, of course, one might think that fraudsters or the super-rich are immoral or that our world is in moral decline – look at all the fraud, corruption, deception, violence, inequality, egotism, and narcissism in human affairs. And if you look through these analytical lenses at the history of humanity – i.e. at the actual practices of human beings and the explicit or implicit logics underpinning them – then you might indeed declare a large chunk of what humans do, of human history, as simply “immoral”, i.e. as immoral practice of immoral actors, as immoral decisions, immoral rulers, immoral government, immoral societies and so on.

Human history then in many (not all) aspects looks like a story of moral decline, moral crisis, moral bankruptcy, going on for centuries. Humans inflicting misery and suffering on others, destroying families, villages, cities and countries; using, exploiting and humiliating each other – and destroying the environment and extinguishing species – because of this decline or absence of morals. In other words, all these practices – and respective repercussions for the well-being of others affected by them – exist because of other factors than (i.e. everything but) our morals. They exist not because of the presence of (particular) morals, i.e. not because of the dominance of specific morals over others in society. If you are a morality analyst that adopts this conventional angle – morals are about being pro-social – you can ignore that big chunk of our human history, because all this immoral or amoral stuff has nothing to do with our morals, and our moral order and moral culture more broadly, and the political, economic, social and psychological factors and conditions that bring these about. To study human morals, it is sufficient then to focus on fair trade, altruism, charity, solidarity, and the like, i.e. the pro-social practices; that is where the music plays.

However, you might take a different, more open, flexible understanding of morals that allows you to, analytically speaking, see morals and moral culture de facto everywhere where humans relate and interact with each other and thus matters of their well-being – and related matters of (in)justice, (un-)fairness, (in-)decency, (in-)authenticity etc. – come into play, are affected, are at stake, or are negotiated. This take would allow researching, seeing, discussing and critiquing the moral underpinning of the entire spectrum of social practices from good” to “bad”. It would see (as some movies and TV series do) the prime sites of fraud, corruption, boardroom sell-outs, violence, humiliation, oppression, and exploitation as moral sites as well, as sites where moral codes, views and priorities operate too just as in the boardroom of the altruists (though arguably different sort of morals). How is that possible, you wonder, to find morals where they are supposedly absent, where people operate who have lost, as we heard, their moral compasses? It really depends on the definition and take on morals one applies.

But note: when I talk of moral order I don’t necessarily mean a “good” (just, humane, fair, socially progressive) order. Instead, moral order or moral culture here refers, amongst others, to an order that has a wide range of existent – dominant and non-dominant, complementing, conflicting and competing – moral norms, interpretations, views, beliefs, claims, demands, tensions, contradictions, discourses, imaginations, and so on regarding matters of good/bad, right/wrong, acceptable/unacceptable, legitimate/illegitimate, and so on in social relations and practices, including in the economy. And, in this sense, capitalism, and its different variants from colonial to neoliberal capitalism, is (and has always been) a moral order, culture, system too; with a wide range of moral milieus and moral economies, with a wide mix of notions of right/wrong, good/bad, acceptable/unacceptable, praiseworthy/blameworthy, with various patterns and distributions of benefit and harm, of flourishing and suffering.

Morals don’t necessarily mean or imply pro-social practice (i.e. a practice that fosters the flourishing of others, is honest etc.). As human history and research shows, there are operational, actually-existing, on-the-ground morals in particular social settings that prescribe or advance that it is acceptable, right, good, and necessary to defraud (or intimidate, threaten, evict, exploit, enslave, etc.) and thus harm another human being or social group, for particular reasons. Professionals who work or have worked in fraud-invested companies or organisations at times say – once they face a judge, investigator, or reporter, or blow the whistle – that fraud was the culture in the place, i.e. that it is/was the tacit or explicit moral culture in the organisation or team to deceive, cook the books, take short cuts, short-change vulnerable customers, and so on so as to meet revenue and profit targets, beat competitors, get bonuses, and keep the job (and thus make family/region/nation proud, send the kids to good schools, save for the future and old age, look after extended family, etc.).

Morals don’t necessarily mean or imply pro-social practice (i.e. a practice that fosters the flourishing of others, is honest etc.). As human history and research shows, there are operational, actually-existing, on-the-ground morals in particular social settings that prescribe or advance that it is acceptable, right, good, and necessary to defraud (or intimidate, threaten, evict, exploit, enslave, etc.) and thus harm another human being or social group, for particular reasons.

That said, let’s look at this alternative definition or take on morals in more detail then: Morals, including morals on the ground, as expressed in actual practice, can be understood as being in many ways about how we treat one another (for instance in the economy) and how we deal with matters of (in)justice, (un)fairnesss, (dis)honesty/authenticity, solidarity, etc. in this context. Morals are about what is regarded as acceptable or unacceptable, as right/wrong, good/bad, proper/improper, legitimate/illegitimate, or praiseworthy/blameworthy. As you can perhaps sense already, in society, in a local market place, in a factory or in an office there are all sorts of views about what constitutes acceptable practice, what or who is moral and immoral, and so on. And you can bet that the ruling classes (the powerful, the dominant, the oppressors and exploiters) in any place have a somewhat different view regarding what is right, good, proper and acceptable than the subaltern classes (the oppressed, exploited, humiliated, beaten-up people). In other words, what different social actors regard as proper or acceptable depends on the actor’s power, position in society and economy, experiences in and perspective on life and society, and so on. All this is far more open to people’s views and interpretations – hence diverse, variable and changing – than the many voices in public debates want us to believe.

One of the shortest and cleanest formulations of this aspect is one by Monika Keller: moral norms are “standards of interaction concerning others’ welfare”. In this phrasing of what morals are, the emphasis is on how we treat each other (and thus affect the lives of those involved), and what is regarded as normal or acceptable in this regard. Using this angle, the pro-social element (being altruistic, solidaristic etc.) is not a necessary part of the understanding of “morals” anymore. The morals in place could be: your welfare doesn’t matter (too much; or not as much as our welfare anyway), because of x (you are…; we are…; the situation…), hence, we (are justified to) treat you in a particular way (exploit, defraud, torture, kill etc.). Morals are thus also about what are acceptable levels of interpersonal or social harm in various settings, from the battlefields in business to those in wars. With this analytical starting point, one can now begin to search for, analyse, and understand (as well as critique) morals – and moral orders, cultures, climates and economies more broadly – that underpin – i.e. render (sufficiently) acceptable, proper, right, normal, necessary – exploitation, fraud, intimidation, humiliation, violence and trafficking in the economy, or the practice of leaving people who seek refuge/survival/a better life in Europe to drown in the Mediterranean. The analytical and political question then is: what are respective moral climates and moral codes, and what/who (re-) produces them, and why?

That said, from an analytical perspective we can now relate for instance fraud to morals, i.e. to standards of interaction concerning fellow human beings (and their lives and well-being, and related interests) in a specific time-place context. This “standard”, for at least some actors in their respective social settings, could be that under condition x, it is okay, necessary, proper, right, or good to defraud another human being, social group or class, because of z. Or, in case of corruption-infested road construction projects, the standard of those directly or indirectly advancing the deal could be something in the direction of: it’s okay to get some good money (for purpose x, y, z), at the expense of future victims of road accidents due to the resulting poor roads (because part of the money meant for building material etc. was siphoned off). And this shared notion, understanding, norm or “standard” – this action justification – is of course a social phenomenon, i.e. is socially constituted: (re)produced over time by something and someone (beyond the individual fraudster, or group of fraudsters), including global, national and local politics, political economy, religion, you name it. Remember, norms (including moral norms) are “socially constituted action justifications”.
So, the point is to recognise that whatever the social practice in the economy, there is some sort of moral grammar – a notion of how to treat others, what is regarded as acceptable/unacceptable – underpinning it. And these views, understandings and justifications – how to treat others in economic sites ranging from agricultural fields to markets, factories, bank branches, domestic homes and so on – do not fall from the sky but are a product of society, including its history, class and power structure, and its mode of production, as well as, for instance, the global political economy that impacts this society.

We have now arrived at an analytical point where we can shift gear: instead of mainly thinking about whose morals are right and wrong (from whatever political, philosophical standpoint), or what is moral/immoral, other questions to grapple with emerge: what are these specific morals in specific settings that bring about a certain social practice (that conventional analysis declares as immoral, inhumane etc.) and where do these morals come from, what/who (re)produces them, what has it to do with politics and capitalism, and so on. And: how do morals change over time, and why?

With this sort of take on morals, one can now understand better, and claim scientifically, that a particular set of morals (whether as an analyst one likes them or not) are actually present in the cases that much of public debate and commentators declare as immoral, amoral, or inhumane: from the cases of fraud, greed, exploitation, humiliation and intimidation in our high-stakes economies (where people relate and interact in order to make a living, survive, keep the job, ensure the bonus, escape poverty, get wealthy, strike riches etc.) to a capitalist economy, culture and society as a whole.

Of course, philosophers of war have for long run the line of argument that under specific conditions, for particular reasons (to protect/advance one’s country, king, god, etc.), it is good, necessary, legitimate, proper, or just to kill another human being, to kill (or imprison, torture etc.) others by the hundreds or thousands i.e. to harm others, to lower their welfare levels, to limit their flourishing. If war was one context and site where some scholars could construct an argument about the morals of harming others (aka, Just War) – which was of course not just a desk-based argument but somewhat reflected aspects of the historical situation on the ground where this war-is-moral was one of the existent morals at the time (arguably advanced, then as now, especially by rulers, and profiteers of war) – then the morals-of-harming-others analysis can be extended to other social sites, contexts and actor groups i.e. beyond war, soldiers, generals (or nowadays drone operators), enemies in the battlefield and so on.

Then there is an open analytical pathway, i.e. hope that the scholarly oddity – that we hardly study, let alone gather qualitative data on the morals that underpin the entire spectrum of human action (from so-called “good” to “bad” actions), across history – could be addressed, and perhaps amended over time. The oddity that there is so little theory and data on the moral underpinnings of a lot of social practices that humans in the millions and billions have very consistently, for a very long time, shown and opted for in their engagement with each other when matters of livelihood, poverty, survival, wealth, power, prestige, status, privilege, career and so on are on the line: these humans have deceived, exploited, intimidated, bought-off, bullied, defrauded, killed (with ever more effective weaponry), as well as conquered, colonised, enslaved, burned-the-place, and eradicated alternative, resisting, non-compliant cultures. Given the size, significance and importance of the phenomena of concern, it is odd that the (e.g. qualitative) data set about these aspects of the macro and micro moral climates, worlds and milieus of earning a living, of profit-making, of striking riches, of accumulation, of outcompeting others, you name it, is so astonishingly small.

Anyway, once one can hold this analytical point (regarding such a take on morals), one can engage with more unconventional analyses in order to learn something about the entire spectrum of moral orders and morals of human beings. For example, some scientists have explored moral systems and moral subjectivities related to “bad stuff” and “bad actors” outside the economy: cases here range from the mentioned soldiers and generals in war, to mass murders, terrorists, neighbours-as-killers in heightened social conflicts (in Rwanda, for example), Nazis and Nazi Germany, and so on. And some scholars have looked at the “moral worlds” of state institutions too, including police, courts, prison, social services, and mental health facilities, i.e. what some would regard as “bad” actors and practices. But this literature – especially the former that explores morals that prescribe significantly (and routinely) harming others – is generally not used in the scholarship, let alone in our public debates, about the moral order and dynamics in a capitalist economy and society.

Many positions in our public debates about morals in contemporary society are, in my view, so sterile, so stuck, so analytically flat, because they do not allow us to talk about, and thus understand, the social constitution, including the politics, of these sorts of morals: the morals of the small and large “wrong-doers”, such as the fraudulent (and/or “greedy”) bankers, insurers, industrialists, traders, speculators, tycoons, doctors, lawyers, or politicians, and the moral climate in the organisations and sectors they work and operate in. The debates, as outlined earlier, mostly say: immorality (or, out-of-hand greed, self-interest etc.) is the issue and problem at hand – and this can be cured by more morals, including an injecting of more morals into capitalist corporations and sectors. This closes off any engagement and debate with what is in my view the real issue: morals (of treating others, of making money etc., including deceiving, defrauding, taking advantage of, exploiting, and harming others) and moral order in a society shaped by capitalism.

Many positions in our public debates about morals in contemporary society are, in my view, so sterile, so stuck, so analytically flat, because they do not allow us to talk about, and thus understand, the social constitution, including the politics, of these sorts of morals: the morals of the small and large “wrong-doers”, such as the fraudulent (and/or “greedy”) bankers, insurers, industrialists, traders, doctors, lawyers, or politicians, and the moral climate in the organisations and sectors they work and operate in.

One more important point: morals – notions of what is acceptable, legitimate, normal, okay or necessary practice – are (i) political i.e. shaped by political and political-economic context, and thus matters of power and conflict, and (ii) co-constituted in a social process by a variety of social actors with different – and often competing and conflicting – moral views and priorities, and of course different and competing economic and political interests. There are always power structures and processes as well as social conflicts (regarding what is right/wrong, acceptable/unacceptable, legit/illegitimate) that underpin any dominant moral order, or specific aspects of that order. As an example: the absence of an effective minimum wage for decades now is a key characteristic of the moral order in neoliberal Uganda, backed, at the minimum, by a range of powerful actors and their moral views and priorities regarding right, good and acceptable and related political and economic interests.

Most public analysts that I read or listened to in our media over the years never really bothered to deeply analyse this collective nature of our actually existing morals in the economy. For instance, what are the societal processes and structures – and interplay of actors – that produce fraudulent bankers and fraud-invested banks? Crucially, economic activity takes place in an uneven landscape of power and resources in which social actors contest and negotiate over the boundaries of acceptable action. In other words, the moral order, the moral climate in the economy, or in specific sectors (say, maize production and trade in Kenya) is deeply shaped by politics and the political economy. What turns out to be the dominant practice, the dominant norm – i.e. the way things are done – is thus a “function” of power, or more specifically, of power structures and relations in a capitalist society. That basic insight makes the phenomenon and analysis of moral order so political; again, something most public commentators don’t recognise or make much of. So next time you are “shocked” about the practices and “immorality” of tycoons, bankers or managers, check out what their morals are and what they have to do with power.

To close the discussion of this point: according to theoretical and empirical scholarship, the current variant of capitalism, neoliberalism, is associated with or puts emphasis on morals that endorse matters, such as self-interest, individualism (with a focus on individual choice, gain and material success), personal enjoyment and achievement, self-actualisation, a focus on transactions and money, wealth accumulation, consumption, opportunism, cunning, low other-regard and empathy, low regard for the common good, and so on. Does some of this sound familiar when you look at your society, your town, your community? Of course, there is more to neoliberal moral order and neoliberal moral economy than I can outline here but these are some of the issues to start with.

Conclusion

Those who study and emphasise pro-social morals are not wrong, but they only tell a part of the story of the morals of human beings and human society. The economy (or polity for that matter) of your country is full of and overflowing with morals (not all “good” ones, I give you that, but morals still), with millions of actors with morals and moral compasses; even the notorious, hard core fraudster has a compass, a particularly skewed one perhaps but a compass it still is. Try to go through everyday reality and observe fellow human beings and their practices through this lens for a day or two. You might find it insightful.

Support The Elephant.

The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.

Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.

By

Dr. Jörg Wiegratz is a Lecturer in Political Economy of Global Development at the School of Politics and International Studies (POLIS), University of Leeds

Ideas

The Art of War by Other Means: Books as Propaganda

Louis Allday writes how book publishing from the 1960s became an important weapon of strategic propaganda by the CIA and other intelligence agencies. The new website Liberated Texts aims to provide a platform for reviews of works of ongoing relevance that have been suppressed or misinterpreted in the mainstream since their release. Allday argues that books remain powerful tools that have the ability to fundamentally transform one’s worldview.

Published

on

The Art of War by Other Means: Books as Propaganda
Download PDFPrint Article

‘Brecht said, “hungry man reach for the book.” Why? Because to get rid of hunger, you have to get rid of the system that produces hunger, and to get rid of that system you must understand it and you can only do that by reaching for the book.’ ~ Prabhat Patnaik

In November 1965, the Deputy Director of the CIA was sent an in-house book review by the curator of the Agency’s Historical Intelligence Collection. Its subject was Kwame Nkrumah’s seminal work, Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialismfirst published in London earlier that year. The review largely focussed on “The Mechanisms of Neo-Colonialism”, the chapter in Nkrumah’s book that was said to have most “caught the eye of the press” and was “of greatest interest to the CIA”.

Within the book, Nkrumah analyses in detail the techniques through which modern imperialist powers achieved the objectives they had previously accomplished through overt colonialism and identifies the United States as the worst offender in this regard. In doing so, Nkrumah named names and drew attention to the neo-colonial role of, among others, the CIA, US Peace Corps, USIA and USAID. The tenor of the review is largely neutral, but the author’s concern with both the book’s contents and Nkrumah as a figure more broadly are not hard to discern beneath its superficially objective tone. It concludes by reporting that copies of the book had been sent to a number of CIA departments including the African Division of the Deputy Directorate for Plans (DDP), the Agency’s clandestine service and covert action arm, for study and “whatever action these components consider advisable”.

Only three months later, in February 1966, Nkrumah was deposed as President of Ghana in a coup that was engineered by the Agency. The late June Milne, Nkrumah’s editor, literary executor and long-time confidante, believed that because Neo-Colonialism had demonstrated the workings of international finance capital in Africa in such detail, the exposure its publication constituted was “just too much… the last straw” and led directly to the decision to depose Nkrumah in a coup.

Milne’s speculation is well-founded, not only because of the undeniably explosive content of Nkrumah’s book, but because senior figures within the CIA were already well aware of the dangers of such material to US interests. In the words of its Covert Operations Director in 1961:

Books differ from all other propaganda media, primarily because one single book can significantly change the reader’s attitude and action to an extent unmatched by the impact of any other single medium… this is, of course, not true of all books at all times and with all readers – but it is true significantly often enough to make books the most important weapon of strategic (long-range) propaganda.

As such, the Agency acted accordingly and developed an extraordinary level of control and influence within the publishing industry. Details of the extent of this reach were revealed to the public in 1975 by the Church Committee, a US Senate investigation into the activities of a number of US intelligence agencies, including the CIA. The most well-known revelations of this committee include details of the now infamous CIA-run programmes MKULTRA, COINTELPRO, Family Jewels and Operation Mockingbird. Less well known are the details it contains on the Agency’s clandestine control over book publishing and distribution which, as per the committee’s findings, enabled it to:

(a) Get books published or distributed abroad without revealing any U.S. influence, by covertly subsidizing foreign publications or booksellers.

(b) Get books published which should not be “contaminated” by any overt tie-in with the U.S. government, especially if the position of the author is “delicate.”

(c) Get books published for operational reasons, regardless of commercial viability.

(d) Initiate and subsidize indigenous national or international organizations for book publishing or distributing purposes.

(e) Stimulate the writing of politically significant books by unknown foreign authors-either by directly subsidizing the author, if covert contact is feasible, or indirectly, through literary agents or publishers.

Utilising this immense influence, before the end of 1967, well over 1,000 books had been produced, subsidized or sponsored by the Agency. Of these works, 25 percent were written in English, with the remainder in a number of different languages published around the world. Sometimes these books were published by organisations backed by the CIA without the author’s knowledge, while others involved direct collaboration between the Agency and the writer.

Frequently, books were published in order to bolster the US imperialist narrative about enemy states, for example, the Agency produced a number of works about China that were intended specifically to combat the “sympathetic view of the emerging China as presented by Edgar Snow”. As the committee’s official report stated, an American who read one of those books, purportedly authored by a Chinese defector, “would not know that his thoughts and opinions about China are possibly being shaped by an agency of the United States Government”. The Agency’s concern extended to book reviews which it utilised to refute the attacks of critics and promote works that it had sponsored. On at least one occasion, a book produced by the CIA was then reviewed in the New York Times by another writer also contracted by the Agency.

In the time that has passed since the revelations of the Church Committee, technological developments have transformed the way in which people consume information globally. The internet has become a new battle ground of propaganda and has been subject to comparable levels of infiltration and manipulation by the CIA and other intelligence agencies. The idea that books remain the most important weapon of strategic propaganda, as determined by the CIA in 1961, would now be contested by many.

However, the terrain of contemporary publishing implies that US intelligence agencies have not ceased to be concerned with the power and influence of books as objects of propaganda. Take one example, since the US’ proxy war against Syria began a decade ago, a raft of books supporting the imperialist narrative have been published, many of them by ostensibly radical and leftist publishers. In many cases, these books are then endorsed and reviewed by an affiliated network of magazines and podcasts, while other works that go against the hegemonic narrative are reviewed negatively or simply ignored entirely.

It is with this historical context and lamentable present reality in mind that the website Liberated Texts was recently established. The site aims to provide a platform for reviews of works of ongoing relevance that have been forgotten, underappreciated, suppressed or misinterpreted in the cultural mainstream since their release. Of course, not all of the works reviewed on the site will have been subject to overt suppression or silencing by imperialist intelligence agencies – the reasons why books that go against prevailing ideas usually do not receive the attention and readership they deserve are countless – but all remain relevant and deserve a wider readership. The same is true of works that do not get translated into English for political reasons, such as the late Domenico Losurdo’s study of Stalin, which his English language publishers, Verso Books, have refused to translate and publish in spite of repeated requests for them to do so.

The life stories of prominent revolutionaries and thinkers are littered with references to how reading individual books or authors changed the trajectory of their life, and notwithstanding the dramatic shift in the educational and media landscape that has taken place in the decades since the publication of Neo-Colonialism, books remain powerful tools that have the ability to fundamentally transform one’s worldview.

Liberated Texts seeks to provide a home for all those people who still believe that to be the case and want to write about books they feel passionate about and believe – whether they were published 100 years ago or in the last few years – remain relevant to the issues of the present moment and deserve to be read and discussed more widely.

This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

Continue Reading

Ideas

Decolonising Knowledge in the Medium of a Monolithic Language

Economic neologisms in the English language project an air of neutrality but in fact have no basis in the socio-economic realities of developing countries.

Published

on

Decolonising Knowledge in the Medium of a Monolithic Language
Download PDFPrint Article

If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

Matters of form, usually viewed as ornament, are commonly in fact matters of argument.
Deirdre N. McCloskey

This short article explores the construction of Economic Neologisms in English and their global impact on shaping implicit and explicit policies in countries around the world. I focus on how economic neologisms in the English language project an air of neutrality but in fact have no basis in the socio-economic realities of developing countries. This is demonstrated through explaining the role of English as an organised system of thought, the nature of academic English in economics and its influence on developing countries, a recent example of the use of Value of Statistical Life (VSL) in Pakistan based on a misguided comparison with the US, and the limitations of interpreting other languages in English.

English as an organised system of thought

One of the great successes of empire, binding its economic and cultural usurpation of the colonies, was the proliferation of English as a global language and as the only “official” language of the world. The strength of this legacy has defied time; the diverse geographies, languages and cultures of India are more strongly overcome by the use of English today than by any local language, signifying how English, as the language of the colonial state, took precedence over the many languages of India.

Although the Francophone sphere has remained a well-preserved niche, this enclave is no match for the global stamp of English. Outside the colonies, English has very much overshadowed the regionalism of the European Union (EU). International organisations such as the UN, the IMF and the World Bank continue to lean towards the ascendency of English, in spite of their charters of multiple languages. The rise of the Chinese language as a formidable opponent is uncertain.

As the most dominant currency, English is not particular to race, but cuts across class and geography. Its exclusiveness is not so much in the basics of the spoken word but in the intricacies of how it fuels knowledge. People across countries can communicate on some basic level using minimal English, but the source of its inaccessibility lies in the dense articulation of the language as a specialised realm of knowledge production. This is not straightforward, since many academics from developed countries do not use English as a first language; on the other hand, many in developing countries have learned it from their earliest years of education. Nonetheless, a distinction emerges in the use of English, not simply as a language of communication but as an organised system of thought. The empire’s proliferation of language reproduced a structure of socialisation, which streamlined a linear set of ideas as opposed to embracing diverse and alternative systems of thought.

The Russian linguist V.N Voloshinov, explored the origins of language as an inherently social phenomenon, and saw language as the most efficient medium of capturing the dynamics of material changes. He described the “word” as the most sensitive index of social changes.” Importantly, for Voloshinov, the significance of words was not just limited to their representational role of capturing change but went beyond the symbolism, enabling a transformation, which added new dimensions and layers to a word’s original meaning.

‘‘[l]ooked at from the angle of our concerns, the essence of this problem comes down to how actual existence . . . determines the sign and how the sign reflects and refracts existence in its process of generation”

Voloshinov aimed to develop a theory of linkages between structure and agency in the framework of particular semantic frameworks. His emphasis here is on how signs are influenced; refracting the material and social existence of a phenomenon. The socialised impact of English, as an imperial language lies not simply in what it signifies but also in what forms its refractions take on. Patois and Pidgin English are some particular linguistic examples. Additionally, English has also been instrumental in exporting Anglo-American soft power to developing countries. This is visible especially in the formation and the role of media in developing countries. These derivative languages and effectively hollowed cultural influences are accompanied by the shaping of the global academic landscape, with English as the monopolistic medium for exploring knowledge. The consumption of the English language precedes consumption in any sphere of knowledge. In economics, the refractive role of English lies in how it shapes ideas and economic policies.

The medium is the message

As a conduit of pedagogy, the English language has a history of not simply conveying the message but actively creating it. Concepts like “western enlightenment”, “scientific rationality” of the market and a consequent linear vision of growth, encompass a message of neutrality because the language embeds an exclusivity, canonising a singular system of thought. This canonisation is fuelled by ideologies, which seek homogenisation across geographies; the “Washington Consensus”, for instance, was exported beyond Washington but never as a consensus. In addition, compared to other social sciences, economic concepts and neologisms carry the potential of shaping the entire direction of scholarship. A brief look at any basic course in the history of economic thought verifies this.

The ascendency of neoclassical economics and its impact in transforming the entire discipline to become an imitation of natural sciences had a reductive impact on the scope of economics as a social science. For Philip Mirowski, the pursuit of projecting economics as a “science”, borrowing metaphors from physics and resorting to mathematical formalism, is rooted in the Western tradition of economics. By imitating natural sciences and giving a central value to empiricism, neoclassical economics transforms how metaphors operate. This is evident in metaphors, which constitute the conceptual basis and pedagogy of economics using natural laws but ultimately bearing little resemblance to the social processes, which constitute an economy. Statistical rigour and mathematical proofs thus often take a life of their own by validating a seemingly value-free concept.

As a conduit of pedagogy, the English language has a history of not simply conveying the message but actively creating it.

If economics is considered as a repository of selectivity as well as of careful omissions, the responsibility of exploring the structure of metanarrative behind the curated message is a constant struggle for those outside this thought system. Other languages are inserted in the English language as loan words, strictly tied to culture (such as the Chinese concept of Guanxi or the Japanese business philosophy Kaizen). Words also sneak into English through a shared history of colonial/imperial experiences.  However, “foreign languages” have no power to determine economic methods or produce similar neologisms. Economic concepts in English on the other hand are canonised, refracted and socialised as the most objective and rational ways of determining other concepts such as efficiency, growth and ultimately, ways of living life. The usage of the Value of Statistical Life (VSL) in context to the COVID-19 pandemic and its internationalisation as a “global policy” tool is of relevance here.

Interrogating the universality of economic neologisms: the value of statistical life (VSL)

The Value of a Statistical Life (VSL)  is normally used to monetise fatality risks in cost-benefit analyses and reflects the amount of money that a society is willing to pay for the reduction in the probability of the loss of a human life. This human life is generally, a statistical, hypothetical person on a population-average basis and refers to the hypothetical victim of a circumstance or of a policy or the lack thereof, and fully discounts class, ethnicity, nationality, religion or other characteristics that such a person may or may not have. It is designed as an objective, value-neutral concept to be applicable in contexts, where cost-benefit analysis would enable a synthesis or reach an objective resolution, to an empirical evaluation of saving lives.

As a statistical measure of predicting fatality risks, VSL, like Ogden tables, etc., is a construct and subject to the broader operations of how an economy is structured. This method of assessing risks to human lives is ultimately a valuation exercise and the underlying ethical concerns are tied to how capitalist systems perceive value and public utility. This is important since the construction and adoption of VSL in the US has a complex history, rooted in its origins in the Cold War.

These considerations remain unexplored, especially in the internationalisation of the concept. For example, VSL for climate change, calibrated to different contexts of developing countries, is in widespread use. These calculations do not address the fact that climate change in developing countries has been primarily led by accumulative patterns initialised and deepened by developed countries, rooted in the history of colonialism. For those arguing for a long-standing case of climate reparations, such applications of VSL to developing countries would be akin to technical fixes that pay no attention to history. Tailoring the VSL to country-contexts also raises questions about the criteria of implementing VSL based on mitigating fatality risk. Although VSL has its origins in the Cold War, it has not emerged as a basis for measuring the fatality risks of soldiers or casualties in recent conflicts, for instance in the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan and the invasion in Iraq.  Needless to say, in situations which are invariably related to the opportunity cost to human life, VSL is an objectionable measure.

“Foreign languages” have no power to determine economic methods or produce similar neologisms.

However, the current Covid-19 pandemic has revived the appeal of using economic modelling based on VSL. In a recent paper, Zachary Barnett-Howell and Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak used VSL to advocate social distancing policies in some “developed” countries as opposed to others, in the developing world. Pakistan was one of those countries cited in the paper. The Government of Pakistan eased its lockdown on 9 May 2020, with the Planning Minister invoking this paper among other reasons to support the government’s policy stance. As a result of the ease of the lockdown, the infection count in Pakistan increased from 36,000 (April-May 2020) to 165,062 (June 2020).  A full account of the paper, its critique and the situation in Pakistan has already been covered succinctly by Khurram Hussain and also debated by academics and activists here (in Urdu language). Without repeating the details of their critique, I summarise the bases for the largely erroneous use of VSL in this case, as follows.

Barnet-Howell and Mobarak’s estimated country-specific costs of mortality and use of VSL is based on another paper by W. Kip Viscusi and Clayton Masterman. The latter employed an analysis of data from the US Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) to value VSL, “to avoid hypothetical bias”. Referring to low to upper-middle income countries as “economies” as opposed to upper income “countries” Viscusi and Masterman conclude from a base US VSL of US$9.6 million, that different countries value human life differently. Following this paper, Barnet-Howell and Mobarak used this US VSL of US$9.6 million, to then discuss essentially Covid-19 policy recommendations, employing the VSL figures suggested for different developing countries.

A first problem with this analysis is that this value does not in any way reflect the value that the US society places on a human life vis-à-vis the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, it is actually a representation of hypothetical costs to US policy makers and businesses, of making marginal improvements and mitigations to all those risks, be they in the workplace or by the quality of civic infrastructure and so on, which affect human life.  Aside from issues of monopoly pricing across the wider economy, the US has the most artificially inflated healthcare costs in the world. It would follow that VSL (if indeed a normal good as Barnett-Howell & Mobarak seem to be insinuating) would thus be equally over-valuated.

For those arguing for a long-standing case of climate reparations, such applications of VSL to developing countries would be akin to technical fixes that pay no attention to history.

This situation is not true of other countries including emerging economies, in which different systems of goods and services pricings persist. Using this highly (and artificially) overvaluated US base VSL as a concrete foundation for “upper income countries” as the basis for an extrapolated comparison is thus unjustified.  Alongside having amongst the highest global rates of infection and deaths, the United States also has one of the highest unemployment rates, and attendant social unrest, as a result of the pandemic. If anything, the Covid-19 pandemic shows that life in the US has become exceedingly cheap, and indeed far cheaper than one would have imagined merely a decade ago. The application of VSL in this manner assumes that monopoly pricing in the US is somehow a base condition by which to measure the rest of the world. Such attempts at valuation only serve to insinuate a global marketplace for human lives, almost imperialistically conforming to the norms of the American market and economy.

Interpreting methods

Methodological problems are often also problems of unchallenged ideas. Economic ideas, concepts and textbooks in English are translated and absorbed globally, in effect strengthening the canon as opposed to opening the space for careful examination. Translations are not interpretations. Describing the third world literature’s feeble attempts at expanding text in other languages, Aijaz Ahmad reminds us that a “mere aggregation of texts and individuals does not give rise to the construction of a counter-cannon . . . for the latter to arise there has to be the cement of a powerful ideology.”

Attempts at counter-ideology are made more complex by the fact that knowledge production in English reproduces the erasure of knowledge production in other languages; many academics writing in English in fact lose formal writing and speaking skills in their native languages.

For these reasons, decolonising knowledge in economics is a complex process since it entails excavating alternatives, which demands a reimagination of possibilities and limits. Being truly multilingual would mean equal attention to all languages. Separating the objectivity of the language from its message and pluralising and empowering pedagogical practices in other languages is a start.

This article was originally published by D-Econ. Diversifying and Decolonising Economics (D-Econ) is a network of students and scholars working to diversify and decolonise economics.
Continue Reading

Ideas

Equality, Family and Unpaid Domestic Work: Kenyan High Court Ruling

The judgment of the Kenyan High Court joins a global constitutional conversation of how institutional inequalities within the family may be judicially redressed.

Published

on

Equality, Family and Unpaid Domestic Work: Kenyan High Court Ruling
Download PDFPrint Article

In an interesting judgment delivered earlier this month, the High Court of Kenya at Nakuru held that the housework and care-work performed by a female spouse (the plaintiff) entitled her to an equal share of the matrimonial property at the time of the dissolution of marriage. The facts of MW v AN were that the parties were married in 1990, separated in 2003, and divorced in 2011. The dispute centred on the fate of a house constructed at Nakuru. While the house was registered in the name of the male spouse (the defendant), the plaintiff argued that she had taken out extensive loans to finance the purchase of the land and the construction of the house. Moreover, despite having a job herself, she had been the sole caregiver in the family. The defendant, for his part, argued that not only had he bought the plot on his own, but had also been providing financial contributions towards the upkeep of his wife.

The High Court of Kenya at Nakuru held that the housework and care-work performed by a female spouse (the plaintiff) entitled her to an equal share of the matrimonial property at the time of the dissolution of marriage.

Justice Mumbua Matheka observed that Section 6(7) of the Matrimonial Property Act of 2013, matrimonial property “vests in the spouses according to the contribution of either spouse towards its question, and shall be divided between the spouses if they divorce or their marriage is otherwise dissolved.” In Echaria v Echaria, it had been held by the Court of Appeal that where there was a “substantial but unascertainable contribution” by both parties, a default rule of equal division would apply. The question, of course, turned upon the meaning of the word “contribution”.

In this context, Justice Matheka observed that “contribution” would have to include not only tangible financial contribution, but also the “unseen” contribution of housework and care-work. In paragraph 38, she observed:

This other part of mothering, housekeeping and taking care of the family is more often than not not given any value when it comes to sharing matrimonial property. It is easy for the spouse working away from home and sending money to lay claim to the whole property purchased and developed with that money by the spouse staying at home and taking care of the children and the family. That spouse will be heard to say that the other one was not employed so they contributed nothing. That can no longer be a tenable argument as it is a fact that stay at home parents and in particular women because of our cultural connotations do much more work (house wives) due to the nature of the job . . . hence for a woman in employment who has to balance child bearing and rearing this contribution must be considered. How do we put monetary value to that process where a woman bears the pregnancy, gives birth, and takes care of the babies and where after divorce or separation she takes care of the children single handedly without any help from the father of the children. . . . Should this court take this into consideration when distributing matrimonial property where the husband as in this case is left in the matrimonial home where the wife rents a house to provide shelter for herself and the children? I think it should count, especially where the husband has not supported the raising of the children, has not borne his share of parental responsibility.

Furthermore, this would have to be determined by evidence:

It is time that parties took time to give evidence, sufficient enough to support the value to be placed on the less obvious contribution. It is unfair and unjust for one party to be busy just making their money (the ‘seen’ income) while the other is doing two or three other jobs in the family whose income is ‘unseen’ and then claim this other one did nothing. This attitude is so entrenched we still hear women especially who are housewives say: sifanyi kazi (literally I do not do any work) simply because they do not leave the home to go earn money elsewhere.

Consequently, Justice Matheka held that notwithstanding the fact that the matrimonial property was registered in the name of the husband, the maximum “equality is equity” would apply, and that consequently “the property be valued, sold and each party have 1⁄2 share of the proceeds of the sale.”

Justice Matheka’s judgement is important because of the explicit recognition it gives to “unseen” and unpaid housework, within the context of domestic relationships; as has been well established by now, across the world and across societies, within the institution of the family, the burden of such work is gendered in nature (see, e.g., The Second Shift) – and often, unseen and unpaid domestic work by the female spouse is what “frees up” the male spouse to enter the labour market and engage in the kind of financially remunerative work that, ultimately, results in (for example) matrimonial property being bought with “his” money, and therefore registered in his name. Thus, departures from traditional notions of property are essential in order to do justice in and within the institution of the family.

It is important to contextualise this judgment, both within the framework of Kenyan and comparative law. In Kenya, the default position used to be (as in many other countries) that only financial contributions were to be taken into account in calculating respective shares in the matrimonial property upon dissolution of marriage. Explicitly seeking to change this, the Kenyan Constitution of 2010 contained Article 45(3), which – borrowed from CEDAW – states that, “Parties to a marriage are entitled to equal rights at the time of marriage, during the marriage and at the dissolution of the marriage.” In her book, Equality in Kenya’s 2010 Constitution (2021), Dr Victoria Miyandazi notes that the intention behind Article 45 was, inter alia, to address “harmful practices such as . . . unequal claims to matrimonial property upon divorce.” In Agnes Nanjala Williams vs Jacob Petrus Nicholas Vandergoes, the Court of Appeal directly applied Article 45 between two private parties to mandate an equal division of assets between the spouses, even in the absence of a statutory framework (“horizontal application of rights”).

Justice Matheka’s judgement is important because of the explicit recognition it gives to “unseen” and unpaid housework.

This position, however, was arguably overruled by the Matrimonial Property Act of 2013, which required judges to take into account the relative contributions of the spouses (as indicated above), but also explicitly specified that the word “contributions” included “domestic work, childcare, and companionship.” The Matrimonial Property Act was challenged by the Federation of Woman Lawyers on the basis that the displacement of the 50 per cent rule in favour of “non-monetary contributions” would restore the gendered inequality within marriage, based on the difficulty of calculating non-monetary contributions. This challenge, however, was rejected by the court.

In that context, the judgment in MW v AN is important, as it essentially restores the position of the default equality rule where there is evidence of “non-monetary contribution”, and allays fears that judiciaries that might not have entirely broken out of patriarchal norms will use the vagueness of the statutory clause to devalue housework or care-work.

Furthermore, this is a position that has been advanced by progressive courts across the world. Perhaps the most outstanding example is New Zealand, where the Property Relations Act of 1976 established a presumption of equal sharing at the time of dissolution, and specifically provided that financial contribution was not to be treated as weightier than non-financial contribution. In numerous judgments interpreting the Property Relations Act, the New Zealand courts have interpreted it with a view towards fulfilling the statutory purpose of achieving the “equal status of women in society”, holding, for example, that wherever the provisions of the Act were ambiguous, the default presumption would be in favour of the property being matrimonial/joint (and therefore, subject to equal division).

The judgment in MW v AN is important, as it essentially restores the position of the default equality rule where there is evidence of “non-monetary contribution”.

Indeed, Justice Matheka’s language is also remarkably similar to a 1992 judgment of the Colombian Constitutional Court. In Sentencia No. T-494/1992, the Constitutional Court was considering the eviction of a widow from the matrimonial home; the widow’s non-monetary contributions had not been taken into account in determining whether or not she had a legal interest in the home. The Constitutional Court noted that such a position would have the effect of “invisiblising” domestic work, and deepening inequalities within social relations. The court went on to question the “artificial” distinction between “productive” and “non-productive work”, and noted that refusal to factor in unpaid domestic work would violate the Colombian Constitution’s guarantee of equality and non-discrimination.

The judgment of the Kenyan High Court, thus, joins a global constitutional conversation of how institutional inequalities within the family may be judicially redressed; and it also, I submit, advances the goals of Article 45(3) – itself a fascinating constitutional provision. For these reasons, it deserves careful study by students of comparative constitutional law.

Continue Reading

Trending