Connect with us

Ideas

Monitoring Digital Hate: What the Christchurch Massacre Taught Us About the Limits of Free Speech

12 min read.

In the aftermath of the attacks by a white supremacist on Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinta Ardern, led a campaign to remove hate speech from social media platforms. TRACEY NICHOLLS examines the obstacles facing the campaign and offers some solutions to tackling the “dark web”, which is increasingly becoming the incubator of racist and fascist ideologies.

Published

on

Monitoring Digital Hate: What the Christchurch Massacre Taught Us About the Limits of Free Speech
Download PDFPrint Article

Dateline: CHARLOTTESVILLE (VA), USA, August 11, 2017 – A gathering of self-identified “alt-right” protestors marches through a park in this small college city waving white supremacist and Nazi-affiliated flags, chanting slogans identified with “white power” movements and so-called “Great Replacement” beliefs put forth by Islamophobes (“you will not replace us”) and slogans identified with Nazi ideology (“blood and soil”). In the name of (white) American history, they are protesting the planned removal of a statue of the general who led the army of the Confederate States of America, the Southern separatist movement that took up arms against the American government in the country’s 19th century Civil War (1861-1865). Subsequent protests result in beatings of counter-protestors and one death. Days later, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, notoriously defends the white supremacists by observing that there were “very fine people on both sides.” The organiser of this “Unite the Right” protest is known in Charlottesville for his sustained online harassment campaigns against city councilors who support the removal of racist monuments.

Dateline: CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand, March 15, 2019 – An Australian man living in New Zealand attacks worshippers at two different mosques in the city of Christchurch, killing 51 and wounding many others. He is a proponent of the Islamophobic, anti-immigrant views of a global “white power” network that disseminates its rhetoric of hate and its narrative of an imperiled white race online, via unregulated spaces within “the dark web” and via encrypted social media apps. His attack on Muslim New Zealanders is met with shock and grief within the country, an outpouring of solidarity that is expressed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in her immediate response: “They were New Zealanders. They are us.” Of the shooter, whom she consistently refuses to identify by name, she says, “He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist…He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing. Not even his name.” After the attacks, it becomes clear that he had been announcing his intentions in online forums and had been livestreaming the attack through a Facebook link. New Zealand moved swiftly to criminalise the viewing or sharing of the video of the attack.

Dateline: PARIS, France, May 15, 2019 – Two months after the Christchurch attack, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stands at a lectern in a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron to announce a non-binding agreement dubbed “The Christchurch Call to Action.” The agreement has as its goal the global regulation of violent extremism on the Internet and in social media messaging. Ardern calls upon assembled representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter to lead the way towards an online world that is both free and harm-free by enforcing their existing standards and policies about violent and racist content, improving response times involved in removing such content when it is reported, removing accounts responsible for posting content that violates the platform’s standards, making transparent the algorithms that lead searchers to extremist content, and committing to verifiable and measurable reporting of their regulatory efforts. Affirming that the ability to access the Internet is a benefit for all, she also asserts that people experience serious harm when exposed to terrorist and extremist content online, and that we have a right to be shielded from violent hatred and abuse.

Why is this call different from all other calls? 

What action can we expect in the wake of this call? And what consequences might plausibly flow from that action?

The Internet as a site of racist hate speech and vicious verbal abuse is not a revelation; in recent years, many culture-watchers and technology journalists have documented an increasingly bold and increasingly globalised “community” of white supremacists whose initial – sometimes accidental – radicalisation is reinforced in the echo chambers of this so-called “dark web”, the encrypted social messaging platforms that Ardern identifies as in need of regulation. (I put the word “community” in quotes here because the meaning derived from the word’s Latin root [munis/muneris: the word for gift] makes it a darkly ironic way to describe these bands of people: if community is a gift we share with each other, their gift of poisonous hate is one that damages all those with whom it is shared.

Recognising the danger of these groups, as Ardern does, and seeking to neutralise their effects on our online and in-person worlds is important, even urgent. As Syracuse University professor Whitney Phillips observes: “It’s not that one of our systems is broken; it’s not even that all of our systems are broken…It’s that all of our systems are working…towards the spread of polluted information and the undermining of democratic participation.”

The Internet as a site of racist hate speech and vicious verbal abuse is not a revelation; in recent years, many culture-watchers and technology journalists have documented an increasingly bold and increasingly globalised “community” of white supremacists whose initial – sometimes accidental – radicalisation is reinforced in the echo chambers of this so-called “dark web”…

The consequences of the way these systems are working are now as clear to New Zealanders in the wake of the Christchurch attacks as they have been to Americans, to Kenyans, to Pakistanis, and to Sri Lankans in the wake of their respective experiences of hate-fuelled terrorism. American Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt reminds us that acts of violent hatred always begin with words, words that normalise and seek to justify the genocides, pogroms, and terror attacks to come. If we do not speak out against those words, she notes, we embolden the speakers in their drive to turn defamatory words into deadly actions.

So the action called for at Ardern and Macron’s Christchurch summit is warranted. Will it happen? Will the nations who have the ability to exert moral pressure on the companies that created and profit from these online platforms actually force a change in how white supremacist rhetoric is dealt with? Karen Kornbluh, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, who is quoted in Audrey Wilson’s May 15 Foreign Policy Morning Brief, thinks that “the best case scenario [for] the Call to Action provides the political pressure and support for platforms to increase vigilance in enforcing their terms of service against violent white supremacist networks.”

The problem with reliance on political pressure to change cultural policies driven by economic incentives and reinforced by jurisdictional divides is that when the pressure fades, the behaviour we want changed re-emerges. This has certainly been the case in prior efforts to alter Facebook’s inconsistent oversight of its users. Back in 2015, for instance, Germany’s then Federal Minister of Justice and Consumer Protection, Heiko Maas, filed a written complaint with Facebook about its practice of ignoring its own stated standards and policies for dealing with racist posts. Maas pointed out the speed with which Facebook removes photographs (like those posted by breast cancer and mastectomy survivors who seek to destigmatise their bodies) as violations of the platform’s community standards, and the corresponding inattention to user complaints about racist hate speech. A Foreign Policy analysis of Maas’s complaint letter reports that it led to an agreement between German officials and representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter – the very same companies who sent representatives to Ardern and Macron’s Christchurch summit –on a voluntary code of conduct that included a commitment to more timely removal of hate-filled content. That was in 2015; in Maas’s view, Facebook has subsequently failed to honour the agreement.

The problem with reliance on political pressure to change cultural policies driven by economic incentives and reinforced by jurisdictional divides is that when the pressure fades, the behaviour we want changed re-emerges. This has certainly been the case in prior efforts to alter Facebook’s inconsistent oversight of its users.

Even at the international/multi-national level at which Ardern’s call is framed, it is not clear how much capability there is to reform the discursive violence inflicted on us by white supremacist digital hate cultures. Audrey Wilson’s May 15 Foreign Policy Morning Brief reports that in the wake of his own visit to the Christchurch mosques that were the scene of white supremacist terror, UN Secretary-General António Guterres committed himself to combatting hate speech.

However, in a talk at the United Nations University in Shibuya (Tokyo) on March 26, 2019, Mike Smith, former Executive Director of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, was pessimistic about the possibilities for monitoring sites on which people like the Christchurch killer engage in their mutual radicalisation. One could argue with some plausibility that the “soft power” of moral authority, widely acknowledged as one of the UN’s key strengths, should be used to speak out against hate and terror lest its silence on the matter foster a sense of impotence on the part of the international community. However, as Smith made clear, that level of monitoring on the part of international institutions (or national ones for that matter) is not feasible, even assuming there is no other claim on the resources that would be required. The only workable way to implement monitoring of online hate groups is for the tech companies to be doing it themselves and, as Ardern asked for in her Christchurch Call, to be reporting regularly on their efforts to international and national agencies.

What could possibly go wrong?

In considering the question of whether the Christchurch Call does, or can, mark the moment when the world begins to take white supremacist hate speech seriously, we need to consider what we are dealing with in that speech, in that “community”. One American think-piece published in the days following the Christchurch attacks observed that “[r]acism is America’s native form of fascism”, and I think it might be instructive to take that claim seriously. Frequently a carelessly-used and controversial epithet, fascism has been broadly defined as a political worldview in which some of a nation’s people have been given status as persons, as citizens, as lives that matter in a moral hierarchy, and others have had that status denied to them.

Seeing racism as a variant of fascism gives us the resources to understand why online white supremacist hate speech is such an intractable problem. Essayist Natasha Lennard, a theorist of the Occupy movement that erupted in the United States in 2011, insists that “fascism is not a position that is reasoned into; it is a set of perverted desires and tendencies that cannot be broken with reason alone.” Instead, she argues that fascism—which she defines as “far-right, racist nationalism”—must be fought militantly: white supremacists must be exposed, and the inadequately regulated online spaces where their views are promulgated must be shut down. A similar no-tolerance approach to the more mainstream sympathiser sites where these views are legitimised is also warranted as part of anti-fascist (antifa) organising, she thinks. The goal of those who oppose fascism, racism, and white supremacy must be to vociferously reject these views as utterly unacceptable.

The kind of intransigent approach Lennard advocates is precisely the posture that the companies providing these online platforms are so ill-equipped and unwilling to adopt. As Foreign Policy writers Christina Larson and Bharath Ganesh both make clear, social media platforms like Facebook have long cloaked themselves in a rhetoric of utopian connectedness and free speech. Absence of regulation has been pitched to users as the precondition of popular empowerment.

Ganesh points out that there is a real disparity of treatment in the ways online platforms deal with extremist speech: where German minister Heiko Maas charged that Facebook censors photographs involving nudity and leaves hate speech to flourish, Ganesh qualifies that only some speech is left unregulated. Extremist white supremacist hate speech is routinely ignored or approached with caution and with charitable concern for the poster’s rights of expression, but extremist jihadi speech is monitored, removed, and blocked. “There is a widespread consensus that the free speech implications of such shutdowns are dwarfed by the need to keep jihadi ideology out of the public sphere,” Ganesh explains. But, “right-wing extremism, white supremacy, and white nationalism…are defended on free speech grounds.”

In part, this is precisely because of the existence of more mainstream sympathiser sites (such as Breitbart, Fox, InfoWars) that ally themselves with right-wing politicians and voters, and defend white supremacists through “dog whistles” (key words and phrases that are meaningful to members of an in-group and innocuous to those on the outside), such that, as Ganesh puts it, this particular “digital hate culture…now exists in a gray area between legitimacy and extremism”. Fearing backlashes, howls of protest about censorship, and reduced revenue streams if users migrate out of their platforms, social media companies have consistently chosen to prioritise these users over the less powerful, less mobilised minority cultures who are undermined by digital hate.

Extremist white supremacist hate speech is routinely ignored or approached with caution and with charitable concern for the poster’s rights of expression, but extremist jihadi speech is monitored, removed, and blocked.

In light of this self-serving refusal to apply their own community standards even-handedly, what we are likely to see from social media platforms in response to the Christchurch Call is more legitimising of white supremacy rhetoric that is increasingly entering the mainstream of American discourse, and more policing of already marginalized viewpoints and voices. The most likely result is of their caretaking of this current situation is proliferation of the inconsistent censorship Ganesh identifies, and extension of that censorship to the very groups and users who might be calling out white supremacy. One example of this censorship of anti-racism predating the Christchurch Call involved a group of feminist activists calling themselves “Resisters,” who created an event page on Facebook to promote a 2018 anti-racism rally they planned for the anniversary of the Unite the Right hate rally in Charlottesville. Facebook removed the page on the grounds that it bore a resemblance to fake accounts they believed to be part of Russian disinformation efforts aimed at influencing the 2018 US mid-term elections.

What then must we do? 

“The real problem is how to police digital hate culture as a whole and to develop the political consensus needed to disrupt it,” Ganesh tells us. In his view, the central question of this debate about online hate is: “Does the entitlement to free speech outweigh the harms that hateful speech and extreme ideologies cause on their targets?” That question is also posed in the Christchurch Call, and in abstraction it is a difficult one. People committed to freedom and to flourishing social worlds want both the right to express themselves and protections against the violence and dehumanisation that hate speech enacts.

Practically speaking, however, we often can draw lines that delineate hate speech from speech that needs to be protected by guarantees of right of expression (often, views from marginalised communities). Ganesh cites Section 130 of the German Criminal Code as an example: in free, democratic Germany, it is nonetheless a criminal offense to engage in anti-Semitic hate speech and Holocaust denial. The point of this legal prohibition is to disrupt efforts to attack the dignity of marginalised individuals and cultures, which is, Ganesh contends, “what digital hate culture is designed to do.” If our legal remedies begin – as the Christchurch Call asks all remedies to – with basic human rights and basic human dignity as their central concerns, they will not, he thinks, contravene our entitlement to express ourselves.

“The real problem is how to police digital hate culture as a whole and to develop the political consensus needed to disrupt it,” Ganesh tells us. In his view, the central question of this debate about online hate is: “Does the entitlement to free speech outweigh the harms that hateful speech and extreme ideologies cause on their targets?”

Those who fear that any attempt to delineate speech undeserving of protection will slide down a slippery slope into censorship often turn for support to nineteenth-century British philosopher John Stewart Mill’s impassioned argument for the necessity of robustly free speech in his 1859 work On Liberty. However, Mill’s motivation for that argument was his belief that freedom of expression is a key component of human dignity. Free speech does have limits, even for Mill; he articulates those limits in arguably his most famous contribution to Western political theory: the harm principle, which says that limits on an individual’s freedom are only justified to the extent that they prevent harm to others.

Recognising that words have the capacity to trigger action, Mill acknowledges that a society cannot tolerate as protected speech a polemic to an angry mob outside the house of a corn dealer in which one charges the corn dealer with profiteering at the expense of hungry children and calls for death to corn dealers. Building on this view that incitement to reasonably foreseeable harm or violence warrants restrictions on speech, even the United States, with its expansive constitutional protections for speech, has enshrined limitations. (One cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theatre, for instance.)

While laws – and responsible oversight by social media platforms, if ever that can be mandated in ways they will adhere to – can structure the playing field, they cannot determine the actions of the players. For that necessary change, we must look to our own behaviours and attitudes and how each of us might play our role in reinforcing social norms. In a post-Christchurch attacks interview, American anti-racist educator Tim Wise advises people: “Pick a side. Make sure that every person in your life knows what side that is. Make sure your neighbors know. Make sure the other parents where your kids go to school know what side you are on. Make sure your classmates know. Make sure that your family knows what side you are on. Come out and make it clear that fighting racism and fascism are central to everything that you believe.”

We must, I think, resist the temptation of the easy neoliberal “solution,” the fiction that small numbers of committed individuals can neutralise a normalised culture of hate. But there is a germ of insight in Wise’s prescription. Yes, we need a better legal climate, one that levies real penalties on social media platforms that fail to monitor the content they make available in our lives; yes, we need more responsible social media companies and Internet site moderators; and we also need to all do what we can to make sure that the people who are listening to each of us are hearing messages that contribute to a healthy and caring social world.

One thing I learned from the 2014 online frenzy of misogynist hate known as “GamerGate” (the campaign of invective and abuse organised against women in the video game industry) was that a small number of committed individuals can produce a normalised culture of hate. Another thing I learned was that many of the casual reproducers of that organised hate are not fully culpable actors; they have been drawn into something they think they understand but when they can be made to see how harmful it is, they will renounce it. I do think Natasha Lennard is right about the futility of trying to appeal to people who have chosen hate or fascism, but there are many others on the fringes who can be influenced away from those ideas. They need to be surrounded by people in their (online and offline) lives who are speaking the language of anti-racism, feminism, multicultural inclusion, and the equal right to dignity of all human beings.

One thing I learned from the 2014 online frenzy of misogynist hate known as “GamerGate” was that a small number of committed individuals can produce a normalised culture of hate.

If online hate has IRL (in real life) ramifications, then IRL influencing might be a way to save or reclaim some otherwise radicalised young people, and also a way to assert pressure on the social media platforms to “walk their talk” of wanting a more connected community. The Christchurch Call cannot, in and of itself, drive out the poison of white supremacist hate. But it can, perhaps, inspire us to make our communities (the gifts we share with each other) gifts worth receiving.

Avatar
By

Tracey Nicholls is a lecturer at the Graduate School of International Peace Studies, Soka University, Japan.

Ideas

Moving Beyond Africapitalists and Economic Messiahs: Redefining African Entrepreneurship

By seeking to transform postcolonial Africans into entrepreneurs, neoliberal economic interventions misread Africa’s past. One outcome of this has been a profound transformation in the very vocabulary we use to designate some Africans as entrepreneurs. In the end, the innovative ingenuity of Africans in many entrepreneurial fields is either denied or sensationalised by those who purport to speak for and about African entrepreneurs.

Published

on

Moving Beyond Africapitalists and Economic Messiahs: Redefining African Entrepreneurship
Download PDFPrint Article

In the last three decades, scholarly interest on entrepreneurship has exploded outside the traditional quantitative disciplines of economics and business studies. This is traceable to the global ascent of neoliberal capitalism, which has drawn remote corners of the world into global webs of capital and substituted self-help entrepreneurship with state-directed ameliorative economic projects. Humanists and qualitative social scientists have brought much-needed critical perspectives to bear on the study of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship.

One of the legacies of this humanisation of entrepreneurship studies is the extension of the observational and analytical lens to the Global South, a region of the world simultaneously regarded as a place dominated by a poverty-incubating pre-capitalist economic ethos and as a fertile ground for recruiting new entrepreneurs. The emphasis on producing indigenous entrepreneurs emanates from an assumption that Africa lacks capitalism and capitalist relations of production, an assumption that Horman Chitonge debunks. There is also a need to deconstruct paradigmatic understandings of not just capitalism but also of entrepreneurship, the supposed means to capitalism in Africa.

Africa has been at the centre of two cross-cutting processes: one focused on the alleged prevalence of pre-capitalist or socialistic poverty, the other on producing entrepreneurs to combat that poverty. The escalation of poverty in Africa from the 1980s, itself partly a product of neoliberal reforms, ironically opened the door to the neoliberal veneration of entrepreneurship as a remedy for mass poverty. Many anti-poverty interventions in Africa today seek to remake Africans into rural and urban entrepreneurs through instruments such as microfinance, revolving credit, and cooperative lending.

Economic messiahs

The proliferation of entrepreneurial projects in Africa in the neoliberal moment inspired unprecedented Africanist scholarly interest in entrepreneurship, enterprise, innovation, African capitalism (or Africapitalism) and the culture of self-help. As new groups of entrepreneurs emerged on the continent and engaged in a variety of capitalist, wealth-creating activities, Africanist scholars from a variety of fields began to develop new vocabularies and concepts to explain this entrepreneurial wave. This scholarly corpus has been illuminating, but it has also been plagued by conceptual imprecision and confusion.

Africa has been at the centre of two cross-cutting processes: one focused on the alleged prevalence of pre-capitalist or socialistic poverty, the other on producing entrepreneurs to combat that poverty.

The problem, as I want to show in this reflection, was that the Africanist entrepreneurial perspective that emerged had blind spots imposed by dominant formulations developed to understand entrepreneurial cultures in Euro-American contexts. There are two other inter-related problems. One is a failure to develop an analytical toolkit that accommodates the capacious and amorphous entrepreneurial lives of Africans who were pigeonholed into the new neoliberal category of the entrepreneur. The second is a failure to adequately critique the exuberant, self-assured discourse of entrepreneurs as economic messiahs and replacements for the economic responsibilities of the dysfunctional African state.

The first problem turns on the deployment of notions and definitions derived from the dominant Schumpeterian perspective on entrepreneurship. Joseph Schumpeter’s major contribution to the study of entrepreneurship lies in going beyond understanding the entrepreneur as one who had the skill to “combine the factors of production” and situating the entrepreneur in a more ambitious project of disrupting the process of value-creation. Schumpeter saw the entrepreneur not just in personal terms but also in terms of corporate agency, of the aggregate transformative impact of multiple, simultaneous, or successive entrepreneurial initiatives. Unlike other theorists, Schumpeter saw the entrepreneur not as a manager but as a catalyst, an innovator. Clearly, the empirical setting of Schumpeter’s theorisation is a European industrial one, giving his postulations a decidedly Eurocentric flavour.

The Schumpeterian paradigm applies to the innovatively disruptive capacities of some contemporary African industrial entrepreneurs. However, this explanatory model is problematic when called upon to illuminate the activities and priorities of other African entrepreneurs outside the capitalist industrial matrix. The Schumpeterian explanation does not know what to do with Africans whose enterprise consists not of the familiar portfolios of our modern capitalist imagination but rather of an eclectic corpus of holdings embracing the social, political, artisanal, and economic realms.

In trying to understand African entrepreneurs in all their diversity, we have hamstrung our own conceptual liberty and boxed ourselves into an analytical corner. The effort to comprehend African entrepreneurial modalities has suffered as a result. Our love of neat, hard categories and vocational identifiers have stifled our ability to appreciate the full range of African entrepreneurship. As a historian, my frame of reference is the African past and that is where I’d like to go to develop this contention.

Entrepreneurship in precolonial Africa

In precolonial Africa, entrepreneurship was not a narrow, bounded vocation. Instead, entrepreneurship manifested in particular ways of doing things, and in any organised activity that promised personal or communal rewards. In this capacious definitional universe, enterprising warriors were entrepreneurs. They transformed the art of warfare from a regimented, sporadic activity to one with its own routines and protocols. Historian Uyilawa Usualele’s chapter in my edited volume, Entrepreneurship in Africa, rightly argues for a recognition of the entrepreneurial ingenuity of Benin warlords, spiritual consultants, priests, and religious purveyors whose repertoire included the professionalisation and deft organisation of multiple social vocations. Their sophisticated endeavour, as Uyilawa demonstrates, entailed the adoption of business management principles that we today associate with entrepreneurs.

In trying to understand African entrepreneurs in all their diversity, we have hamstrung our own conceptual liberty and boxed ourselves into an analytical corner. The effort to comprehend African entrepreneurial modalities has suffered as a result.

Warrior guilds, whether in precolonial Ibadan, Asante, Dahomey, Buganda or Zulu, were sites of entrepreneurship. When systematised and conceptualised as a professional business venture, as it was in many precolonial African kingdoms, warring involved planning, management, delegation, tasks, goals, deliverables, compensation, the creation of value in the form of war spoils, the distribution of dividends, and reinvestment in processes that improved war making.

War making entailed post-operational accounting, the calculation of profits, and periodic stocktaking — in other words, elaborate formal and informal bookkeeping. It was a business, and the guilds, warrior cults, and military training programmes of precolonial African kingdoms were business schools of sorts. Many of today’s warlords are also conflict entrepreneurs, leveraging war as opportunities for profit.

I have chosen this unlikely example to illustrate my point that in Africa entrepreneurial pursuits were not and are still not wholly shaped by the narrow permutations of combining the forces of production — capital, labour, and knowledge — to produce a profit. The profit motive is not always central to entrepreneurial pursuits in the African context, although profit is an expected outcome of entrepreneurial acts. Furthermore, where present and clearly discernible as the primary catalyst in an enterprise, profit is articulated in less narrow terms than is posited in the economistic definitions of classical and neoliberal economic thought.

Historically, African entrepreneurs occupied multiple positions and professions in society; entrepreneurship was only one of several elements that defined them. Moreover, their entrepreneurial lives often existed in symbiosis with the demands, responsibilities, and ethics of the wider culture.

Given this reality of multiple entrepreneurial trajectories and entwinements, it is perhaps more productive to speak of “entrepreneurial Africans” than of “African entrepreneurs”, a formulation at odds with the restrictive definitional criteria in normative capitalist thought. The term African entrepreneurs assumes a consistent, permanent occupational identity of people whose lives were consumed and defined solely by their entrepreneurial engagements. Entrepreneurial Africans advances a premise of entrepreneurial possibilities in multiple endeavours and professions.

Historically, African entrepreneurs occupied multiple positions and professions in society; entrepreneurship was only one of several elements that defined them. Moreover, their entrepreneurial lives often existed in symbiosis with the demands, responsibilities, and ethics of the wider culture.

This complex picture is further compounded by the existence of several “non-capitalist” systems of production, as well as the prevalence of hybrid practices in which self-interested capitalist rationalities coexisted with an ethos of value and reward. If the Schumpeterian model and its derivatives are applied uncritically to African entrepreneurial formations, they raise the question of whether, for instance, entrepreneurs could emerge and thrive outside capitalist relations in a communal African economic setting and, if so, whether the relationship between capitalism and entrepreneurship, which we have long taken for granted, can be sustained in the African context. This question is important because it alerts Africanist scholars of personal and group economies to what they might lose, what analytical opportunities they might miss, and what complexities and realities they might occlude or misread when they accord overarching analytical finality to concepts developed in other places and circumstances and deployed to explain African conditions. Elisio Macamo insightfully makes a similar argument in regard to the concept of capitalism and its conceptual work in African social science scholarship.

The entrepreneurial independence that, even if only rhetorically, marked the evolution of capitalism in Europe, defined the Euro-American industrial experience, and catalysed the emergence of a distinct entrepreneurial class in that context contrasts with the African entrepreneurial historical landscape. In precolonial times, African entrepreneurs operated at the intersection of profit and power, commerce and culture. Profitmaking was coextensive with social obligations. Entrepreneurs were mindful of societal expectations on them. Society, in turn, recognised that entrepreneurs had special gifts that had to be nurtured and liberated from the sociopolitical routines of daily life. Entrepreneurial pursuits were for-profit endeavours for the most part but profits and service to society were coterminous, as chapters by Gloria ChukuMarta MussoMartin Shanguhyia, and Chambi Chachage in the aforementioned Entrepreneurship in Africa volume demonstrate.

Political power holders cultivated entrepreneurs and were entrepreneurs in their own right. Entrepreneurs, on their part, accessed the protective, logistical, and spiritual resources deposited in the political realm. Ultimately, the idea that individual profitmaking could and should coexist with the provision of societal benefit and that entrepreneurial projects should catalyse society’s economic potentials was an unwritten but well understood rule of commerce. Entrepreneurship, which was mobile and malleable, was the defining character of precolonial African political economy.

To speak of a political economy of entrepreneurship or an entrepreneurial political economy is to signal a uniquely African iteration of entrepreneurship in which the political and mercantile realms were and are in conversation and cooperation. The case of the precolonial Wangara mercantile network in West Africa is an example of the entwinement of value creation and political power. There is clearly a contemporary continuity to this reality. The most consequential and successful African entrepreneurs of today, such as Aliko Dangote, Strive Masiyiwa, Patrice Motsepe, Tony Elumelu, and others have direct or indirect tentacles in the realm of power and politics. Their business empires relate with host governments and political formations in ways that would offend contrived, self-righteous, and hypocritical business sensibilities in the West. Text-bookish neoliberal Western formulations proclaim the autonomies of the business and political spheres, but these autonomous zones do not exist in the West, as many corporate and political corruption scandals have revealed. Although open to perversion and corruption, in their most productive manifestations, African entrepreneurial cultures that recognise the field of play between economics and politics stand in distinction from the neoliberal obsession with the idea of separating business and politics or protecting entrepreneurs from the alleged meddling and market distortions of political actors.

African scholars, businesspeople, and policymakers in search of an African business ethos will do well to consider this African historical partnership between profit and people.

Globalised capital that empowers and privileges

My second point concerns the limit of entrepreneurship, which needs to be stressed to counterbalance the narrative of multipurpose amelioration that has developed around African entrepreneurship. We live in a neoliberal moment in which entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs are celebrated as potent economic agents and catalysts for poverty reduction and economic growth. Whether entrepreneurs deserve this outsized reputation in our interconnected and interdependent economic ecosystem is a legitimate question. When we talk glibly, and with scholarly certitude, about the capacity of entrepreneurship to lift Africans out of poverty, we are ignoring the structural elements of globalised capital that empower and privilege some while impoverishing and dispossessing others. We are ignoring the ways that global capitalist configurations undercut and complicate entrepreneurial possibilities and opportunities in Africa.

The conceptual impact of Africa’s long encounter with neoliberalism on discourses of African entrepreneurship is profound. The nexus of neoliberalism and entrepreneurship is not far-fetched. The neoliberal economic regime imposed on African economies by the Bretton Woods institutions in the 1980s and 1990s dictated an economic paradigm shift for African countries, one that redefined the relationships, obligations, and responsibilities between states and their citizens. One of the most remarkable outcomes of this shift has been the increasing dominance of the figure of the entrepreneur. A corollary development has been the substitution of entrepreneurial self-help for redistributive, reconstructive, and structural economic reforms.

When we talk glibly, and with scholarly certitude, about the capacity of entrepreneurship to lift Africans out of poverty, we are ignoring the structural elements of globalised capital that empower and privilege some while impoverishing and dispossessing others.

This lionisation of the entrepreneur is a symptom of a deeper rhetorical, philosophical, and policy gesture in the direction of producing citizen-entrepreneurs who pursue thrift and profits, creatively take charge of their own welfare, innovatively add value to the economy, and thus relieving the state of financial obligations. Neoliberal attempts to engineer into existence ideal entrepreneurial citizens that are self-reliant and removed from the nodes of state obligation were authorised by a new fetish of personal economic responsibility. These interventions absolved the African state of its developmental responsibilities, demanding that poor Africans pull themselves out of poverty by their own entrepreneurial bootstraps.

Neoliberal fetishisation of African entrepreneurship

By seeking to transform postcolonial Africans into entrepreneurs, neoliberal economic interventions misread Africa’s past as one in which Africans were pampered by states and as a result ceased to create value through entrepreneurial activity. In truth, there was never such a cessation of entrepreneurial ingenuity in African communities. Nor did states, despite their paternalistic rhetoric and claims, provide robust welfare protections to citizens. Neoliberal entrepreneurial initiatives were cast against a foundational ignorance of the fact that value creation in most African societies is an organic social endeavor and not the intensely individualised enterprise intelligible to neoclassical and neoliberal frames of analysis. Birthed in this original misunderstanding of Africa, the political economy of neoliberalism has entrenched the entrepreneurial figure venerated by International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank policy documents as the discursive referent in studies of African economic revival. One outcome has been a profound transformation in the very vocabulary we use to designate some Africans as entrepreneurs and to withhold that designation from others.

The damage done by the neoliberal fetishisation of African entrepreneurship is both discursive and practical. Important as entrepreneurs are to the present and future of Africa, all Africans cannot become entrepreneurs, at least not in the neoliberal sense of the word. This sober recognition, which is missing from most external economic reform prescriptions, ought to be a serious preoccupation of Africanist scholars of entrepreneurship. It is the task of Africanists who study capitalism, business, and entrepreneurship in Africa to modulate and critique the exaggerated instrumentalities of African entrepreneurship. This task is necessary to balance the analytical books because we have created a zero sum analytical calculus in which talking more about entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial catalysts results in less talk about structural inequalities inherent in the global capitalist system into which Africans, to varying degrees, have long been integrated.

I want to conclude this reflection with a proposal wrapped in a critique. There is a need to develop a new mode of African scholarship on business and enterprise. This proposed new field of qualitative African business and entrepreneurial studies must necessarily adopt a relaxed analytical framework capable of exploring complex economic lives in ways that traditional scholarship in African economic history – with its neat dichotomies between worker and merchant, king and commoner, bourgeoisie and peasant – is incapable of doing. This kind of study should be able to analyse African entrepreneurial lives that cross class divides and socioeconomic categories.

Traditional debates in the field of African economic history have rarely acknowledged, let alone theorised, the entrepreneurial ingenuity of Africans in a sustained way and in terms independent of other categories of analysis. This erasure is particularly common in the field of colonial economic history. Neoclassical and neoliberal scholars of modern African economic history overstate the instrumental agency of African entrepreneurs. On the opposite side, neo-Marxist and dependency theorists shun or dismiss entrepreneurs as a petit bourgeoisie class undermining the revolutionary struggles of workers and peasants. By lionising or diminishing the figure of the African entrepreneur, the dominant schools of African economic history orphaned the African entrepreneur into a strange category where s/he is either overburdened with the task of saving dysfunctional economies or tossed aside as an economic saboteur.

In the end, the innovative ingenuity of Africans in many entrepreneurial fields is either denied or sensationalised by those who purport to speak for and about African entrepreneurs. What is lacking are stories of African entrepreneurship told by entrepreneurs themselves. We need African entrepreneurial stories curated by the entrepreneurs themselves or at least informed by their perspectives, their self-representation, and their understanding of their own struggles, aspirations, and visions. These stories have to go beyond “How I Made It” memoirs and autobiographies of entrepreneurial success and hagiographic scholarly narratives of problem-solving, self-redeeming African entrepreneurs.

Finally, the question of how we are telling the African entrepreneurship story is as important as who is telling it. The current triumphalist and hyperbolic tone of the conversation has produced a restrictive exercise in navel-gazing. It has also led to an explosion of self-validating, self-fulfilling rhetoric, in which the concept of entrepreneurship is not only advanced as a fail-safe substitute for the idea of the African developmental state posited compellingly by the late Thandika Mkandawire and others but is also used as a stand-in for more substantive debates about external and internal structural constraints on African development.

This article was first published by Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE).

Continue Reading

Ideas

The Shape of Our Post-COVID Future

The Kenyan government’s sledgehammer response to the coronavirus pandemic has exposed a kind of schizophrenia in the country’s governance that our precarious economy cannot sustain. We might not have to wait until the next election to discover the elastic limit of the people’s tolerance of impunity.

Published

on

The Shape of Our Post-COVID Future
Download PDFPrint Article

When illustrating my graphic novel, Art of Unlearning, in 2017, I found two images especially useful in understanding and communicating how our responses to crises shape us, both personally and collectively. The two images that represented two distinct styles of social organisation cutting across diverse cultures and belief systems are fractal structures and pyramid structures. These structures are visible even in this most formidable of crises.

Illustrations
Fractals are patterns that are characterised by self-similarity at every scale of observation. Every individual member of a fractal pattern is harmonious with the pattern as a whole. Fractals are the most common patterns in the natural world and can be found in the self-replicating growth patterns of romanesco broccoli, spider webs, schools of fish, swarms of birds, galaxies, lightning bolts, rivers, veins, trees, lungs and, of course, viruses. These patterns seek harmony. Leaders, such as New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, reflected such a pattern when she recognised the healthcare crisis and mobilised the trust and informed cooperation of citizens to prevent the spread of coronavirus without violating human rights.

Pyramids, on the other hand, are artificial shapes made of three straight lines and rarely occur in nature without human intervention. Favoured for their stability relative to gravity, they are some of the largest and oldest surviving human structures all around the globe, but are nevertheless young when compared to the estimated five billion years that life has existed on our planet. Pyramids are a fitting symbol of mankind’s recent destructive hegemony over planet Earth. In responding to the coronavirus pandemic, a pyramid formation concentrates decision making power in a few hands because it cannot rely on the voluntary participation of the affected population at the bottom of the pyramid. An example is the Kenyan government’s sledgehammer response to the coronavirus pandemic that has predictably resulted in gross human rights violations.

Exposing a pyramid scheme

A colourless summary of Kenya’s history is that it is the story of a people struggling to wake up from the brutal nightmare of pyramids imposed by foreign conquerors, but all too often succeeding only in repopulating the same stable structure with an even more mendacious elite until – finally – tiny rays of hope emerge, such as a new constitution and devolution of governance from an autocratic centre. These rays of hope have introduced marginalised parts of the country to a government they had only heard of, but rarely seen.

Over the last seven years, reactionary forces in favour of reconsolidating executive power have captured the state and even subsumed opposition leadership. But where both protests and elections have failed to loosen the chokehold of Jubilee’s centralised kleptocracy, a mindless pathogen has offered the most formidable challenge to its narrative. Compared with HIV/AIDS (which was a disease saddled with moralistic baggage and stigma) the relative “innocence” of coronavirus transmission through ephemeral contact between strangers has made it a much less corruptible stress test of Kenya’s public health systems.

Without a public healthcare system to support the estimated 83 per cent of Kenyans subsisting on daily earnings as informal traders or workers, and with no defence against a virus that is unforgiving of poor sanitation, the absence of a massive outbreak in Kenya to date is a miracle. Kenya has one of the steepest pyramids in the world, and this architecture is the root cause of the corruption and inequality that is only half-heartedly tinkered with.

A good faith redress of these deficiencies has been rendered impossible by a conspiracy between Kenya’s mainstream media and primitive elites (PEs) – as Darius Okolla aptly calls them – that suffocate public discourse with an eternal soap opera that is divorced from the lives of ordinary Kenyans. The coronavirus is a temporary short circuit to this deluge of distraction force fed to the public in the name of news. The stunning impact of this short circuit remains unmistakable, even as the media defaults to its diet of superficial tribalised trivia about Jubilee in-fighting.

Kenya has one of the steepest pyramids in the world, and this architecture is the root cause of the corruption and inequality that is only half-heartedly tinkered with.

What the virus has exposed is a kind of schizophrenia in Kenya’s governance that is not academic. On one end of the schizophrenic spectrum is a warm veneer of civility conveyed in the PR savvy personality of Health CS Mutahi Kagwe. On the other extreme, is the cold state machinery behind the PR that ended the life of 13-year-old Yassin Hussein Moyo in his own home with a stray bullet, and brutalised commuters in Likoni, risking further spread of coronavirus. One might be forgiven for asking whether we are trying to heal the patient or pull the plug. Inured to criticism, the Jubilee administration has proceeded to transform what began as a healthcare crisis into a militarised feeding frenzy. Ensconced in private luxury, which until recently included trips abroad for medical treatment, the PEs have been hitherto insulated from the pain of a disemboweled public health system. No more.

Now that commercial airlines are a deadly escape route, a sober movement that recognises the urgency of reform must force an uncompromising demand for accountability that is not distracted by the public relations of an illegitimate regime. If truth is the first casualty of war, as Aeschylus said, then the “war” against coronavirus is unlike any other traditional war we have fought. It is a war that requires less tear gas and more ventilators; less policemen and more nurses; less misinformation and censorship and more transparency and science. All of these are disciplines that are alien to any autocratic kleptocracy. Misinformation, such as Donald Trump’s disinfectant prescriptions, or the insistence of for-profit evangelical churches on large gatherings, or the Chinese government’s censorship in the weeks following the outbreak, have all proved lethal. There ought to be no need for Kenya to conduct any further experiments in misinformation without learning from these fatal errors.

The Kenyatta pyramid scheme, and the quasi-religious political tribalism that has fueled it, is obsolete for even this most rudimentary task of sustaining human life and dignity.

The virus is a fractal

The most striking feature of the global response to the coronavirus pandemic is how much it has depended on global solidarity across artificial national boundaries despite continual territorial confrontations. It is quite likely that if any one nation develops a vaccine against the coronavirus in the future, even its enemies’ desire to keep their own citizens alive will overshadow any prejudices. This open exchange of knowledge is most apparent in the medical and scientific communities, an example being Cuban and Chinese doctors coming to the aid of Italy long before many of Italy’s own neighbours moved into action. The insular reaction of the great pyramid of the United States now stands as a cautionary tale.

Like all natural forces, such as earthquakes and tsunamis, viruses are blind to our cherished social pyramids as they spread, yet our resilience to the economic shocks that result from this disruption are not. There has been a stark class divide in the degree of disruption to livelihoods, education, negotiating power and law enforcement. We are in the process of discovering the extreme asymmetry between the advancement of biomedical understanding of the coronavirus pandemic versus governments’ willingness to do what is necessary to match this challenge with the most fractal response available.

Closing the gaping chasm between hard-won scientific understanding on the one hand, and the intractability of our political institutions on the other, is the central challenge of the pandemic in Kenya. This means integrating deep cultural understanding of our diverse communities with lessons from the most proactive responses to the pandemic around the world. Our standard Anglo-Saxon benchmarks will not be available this time around.

We are in the process of discovering the extreme asymmetry between the advancement of biomedical understanding of the coronavirus pandemic versus governments’ willingness to do what is necessary to match this challenge with the most fractal response available.

Fortunately, for those who are willing to learn, this is the first time in human history that we know so much about a pandemic. During the Black Death of the fourteenth century, the biggest cause of death was a basic ignorance of its origin in rat fleas, which led to the burning of poor old women who were described as witches and the scapegoating of Jews. Similarly, when the Spanish flu emerged just a century ago, the influenza virus that felled tens of millions of people could not be identified in time to “flatten the curve”. In contrast, within just two weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, scientists were able to identify the correct virus genome and share it online, enabling the development of tests as well as the search for a vaccine. For laypeople like me, this boiled down to basic preventative information that features diagrams of a funny looking tentacled ball – hardly the face of an existential enemy of humanity.

Although the efficacy of tests is still being improved, and the development of a vaccine may be over a year away, these are still remarkable feats of human understanding only made possible by unprecedented knowledge sharing in a fractal pattern. Human beings are phenomenally creative when they share knowledge and engage distributed decision making. It is within our power to resolve this crisis if we channel resources to public health in particular, and public goods in general, using the kind of fractal distribution that has been made possible by the 2010 Constitution.

This will necessarily include a robust public education system that would cultivate the next generation of healthcare workers and creative thinkers who do not require coercion to respond collectively to any crisis. Education, you will notice, is absent from President Uhuru Kenyatta’s so-called Big 4 Agenda. With less than 10,000 doctors, Kenya is nowhere near the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation of one doctor for every 1,000 people. And of the few doctors that we do have, many are siloed in foreign research entities with narrow mandates, unable to share data that might be useful in the war against coronavirus.

The existence of information silos that are blind to one another is typical of pyramids and is a feature not only of the healthcare system, but of all knowledge creation in both the arts and sciences within Kenya’s neoliberal administration. Silos are perfect for running a police state where a paranoid dictator does not want his left hand knowing what the right hand is doing privately. But well into the 21st century, where both viruses and information spread at an exponential rate, it is hard to imagine a worse way of managing our shared knowledge.

The war of the future

If you had a hundred dollars for every person in the world infected with COVID-19, you would still not have the amount of money that Kenyan taxpayers have lost to corruption during the tenure of the Jubilee administration. Let that sink in. The billions blend into quantum gibberish in the brains of all but the most tenacious economists such as David Ndii.

If the war against coronavirus becomes yet another fundraiser, as early indications suggest, it will be especially demoralising to public health workers risking their lives to serve Kenyans in the midst of chronic underfunding. Kenya is less a poor country than it is a country with poorly allocated wealth. No one knows how much longer the long suffering Kenyan people will accept abuse, but as Chairman Mao once wrote, “A single spark can light a prairie fire”.

If you had a hundred dollars for every person in the world infected with COVID-19, you would still not have the amount of money that Kenyan taxpayers have lost to corruption during the tenure of the Jubilee administration. Let that sink in.

Our precarious economy cannot sustain lockdowns and curfews forever, and we might not have to wait until the next election to discover the elastic limit of the people’s tolerance of impunity. In the words of the Kisii based musician Smallz Lethal, aka Omoisiomobe, following his release from arrest as well as the release of a new song I’m Offended:

Sisi kama mayouth tunasimama as one voice. This time round, hatuendi kuyamaza. Mayouthman wamebonga na wamesema kila mse ako offended, and that is a fact. Si hata mayouth pekee yake. Ni watu in general… Lazima [hawa] wakuwe accountable. We sio superstar. We sio msanii. People are pocketing millions, why are you arresting me? Mimi mnanipatia 1600 shillings after six months kama county. Alafu unakuja kuniarrest unaexpect nitoe wapi pesa za kulipa bond? Ju ni mapesa tu makarao wanataka. Mayouthman wasimame. There’s no other time to do this apart from this time! Now that we are speaking, and now that people are hearing. The voice is louder!

Smallz has thrown down the gauntlet. In the meantime, as a thinking human being and as a creator, I have the same job that I have always had: to create learning tools and experiences for a new generation of fractal thinkers so that they might see beyond the mediocrity that leeches on our potential as a nation. In them, I see a fractal community that fuses critical thinking with the ethical use of technology to build alternative realities.

Our health and our imagination is our greatest resource, not buildings. Even in our darkest hour, we are not without the power to imagine together, and it is the existence of this shared imagination that repudiates the world that they try shamelessly to pull over our open eyes. We, the inheritors of history, are seeing for the first time the clear peak of Mount Kilimanjaro from the windows of a city in lockdown, and beginning to wonder what it would be like to rise to those heights.

Continue Reading

Ideas

Plagues and the Prose Informing Our Shared Condition

PAUL GOLDSMITH reviews a selection of vantage points from pandemic literature and attempts to make sense of the partially understood coronavirus and its world-warping spread.

Published

on

Plagues and the Prose Informing Our Shared Condition
Download PDFPrint Article

I did a deep read in search of the virus and found out it is us.

Plagues and epidemics of yore were simple affairs, manifestations of evil caused by angry gods, hidden forces, or bad air. Death and survival were karmic outcomes. The pandemics of the information age are considerably more complicated. They kill relatively few but infect millions with angst and paranoia. They spawn feedback across a spectrum bookended by scientific rigour on one side and inventive conspiracy on the other. We are updated in real time with wave after wave of imperfect statistics, breaking science, experiential perspectives, and ideology-driven commentaries.

For much of the world, quarantine time is being spent on social media, watching journalists morph into screeching owls on CNN, and catching up on films and TV series – a format that now appears custom-made for lockdowns. But some of us have also used the time to study the phenomena that are sweeping away the cadences of life as we knew it, and to process its stories and tropes.

Situational analyses and political narratives

Thomas Puelo is a one-man “coronology” resource. He posted an analysis on Medium that almost overnight was translated into 37 languages. His March 19th follow-up, “The Hammer and the Dance”, made the case to immediately enforce total lockdowns (the hammer). This comprehensive call to arms beat all the university departments, institutes, and the World Health Organization (WHO) to the punch: “The world has never had to learn about anything so fast. The hammer is the best response for buying time for the fightback (the dance).”

The curves of the nations most affected created a baseline for three options: 1) do nothing; 2) mitigation; and 3) suppression. His analysis covered detailed projections of infections and fatalities, the prospects for virus mutation, political barriers to hammer implementation, and many related sectoral ramifications. Up to now the hammer and dance in the countries most affected has encompassed variations on these three strategies, influenced to different degrees by the Chinese lockdown of Hubei Province.

Puelo’s projected numbers for infections in the United States under option 1 (do nothing) are 25 million. Implementing option 3 (suppression), after the initial wave, reduces this estimate to tens of thousands. The role of the states complicates the US numbers, but taken as a whole, the million-plus currently recorded infections approximate the rate expected under the option 2 mitigation strategy. Most of the world is on the same pathway with areas of high infection rates under lockdown, with a number of countries edging into dance mode.

In addition to hosting Puelo’s updates and other in-depth posts, Medium is one of the more useful sources of information on the pandemic. Their business model generates an algorithm-driven selection of punchy short reads. Articles like the gazillion-hit “The Hammer and the Dance” are outliers in an eclectic sample dominated by personal development and the gig economy. The elite publications of the English-speaking world are still the primary source of high clout policy pieces and opinion shaping analyses.

The New Yorker’sIts Not Too Late To Go on the Offense Against the Corona Virus” is one example. After reviewing his international civil servant CV, the author, the former World Bank boss, Jim Yong Kim, tells us, in the Bank’s typical take-your-medicine tradition, “I’ve been fighting pandemics for most of my adult life.” I almost stopped reading what turned out to be a compact overview of the five weapons that need to be deployed to defeat the enemy: social distancing; contact tracing; testing; isolation; and treatment. It is a parsimonious argument based on the collective experience of front line coronavirus warriors – all of which are wealthy industrialised nations.

But the experience of recent pandemic responses does not augur well for such glib technocratic solutions in many regions. In “The Politics of Disease Epidemics: a Comparative Analysis of the Sars, Zika, and Ebola Outbreaks”, Lydia Kapiripiri and Alison Ross show why. The authors use four categories to unpack the literature published in peer-reviewed journals: attribution of infectious disease sources; responsibility for their socioeconomic distribution; credibility of evidence informing response pathways; and the decision-making informing research and development. Their findings converge on the observation that “the narratives accompanying these events contrasted power and privilege with the disproportionate impact of the epidemics on the economically disadvantaged”.

Attribution often reduced multiple causal factors to the role of ethnic minority groups, even though socioeconomic distributions for the diseases implicate poor nutrition, cramped unhygienic living conditions, and inadequate health services. During the Ebola crisis, the evidence informing interventions tended to support short-term response horizons, tracing responsibility for the outbreak to bush meat and traditional funereal customs. Here, and in other cases, this diverted attention from long-term issues, such as poor public health infrastructure.

Although poverty is the greatest risk factor in epidemics, decision-making processes instead highlight institutional policy biases prevailing in global centres of power. Kapiripiri and Ross concede that the neoliberal roots of policy biases appear to be too deep to uproot. They state that to re-balance the equation, “It is critical that narratives of those most vulnerable are represented in mainstream narratives.”

During the Ebola crisis, the evidence informing interventions tended to support short-term response horizons, tracing responsibility for the outbreak to bush meat and traditional funereal customs. Here, and in other cases, this diverted attention from long-term issues, such as poor public health infrastructure.

Global coronavirus narratives are flipping these categories. Attribution is now a focal point in the larger info war being waged by China and the United States. The response hammer has benefited from a socioeconomic distribution highlighting the array of high profile and celebrity first wave infections. Evidence and developmental decision-making processes have focused on the shared methods contributing to individual nations’ dance strategies.

This choreography is generating the diverse natural experiments underway across the world. Besides showing different pathways to recovery, before it is over, the dance is going to reveal how variations on political leadership impact on the contrasting national curves. We can also expect it to cut a path through the jungle of viral conspiracies and sweep away some of the ideological myths being propagated in its wake. For now, however, the fightback is proceeding in a world of noise and fuzzy information.

A sense of shared peril checked the forces opposed to the multilateral world order, for a while. The controversy over WHO provided an entry point for the populist insurgency to fight back. By contesting the scientific guidance behind the lockdowns, the antics of American alt-right experts have distinguished themselves from the consensus guiding the vast majority of the world’s population. But this is a sideshow.

In the N+1 journal article, “Chinese Virus, World Market”, Andrew Liu explains how China’s new elites’ pursuit of exotic food displays as a marker of wealth and status created the conditions for the emergence of the corona viruses. Wuhan, a city far from the areas of traditional wildlife consumption, became the epicentre. COVID-19 is the first capitalist-created virus to directly attack capitalism.

The Pandemic is Just Getting Started”, but we are not on new ground. The system-changing function of infectious disease is a well-documented phenomenon, and the latest chapter is being written before our eyes.

Big picture social science

The 1975 publication, Plagues and People, by William H. McNeill marked a major pivot away from the great civilizations and influential actors focus of historical scholarship. McNeill concluded that epidemics will continue to be one of the fundamental determinants of human history. Forget Bill Gates, over five decades ago, McNeill predicted that the next system shock will come from a rapidly mutating form of the influenza virus.

Jared Diamond’s first book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, originated with a simple question in 1972 proffered by a local friend in New Guinea: “Why do you people have most of the cargo and the rest of us do not?” Diamond’s answer came after two decades of research, and was published in 1994. Subtitled A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years, the book underscored how Europeans’ conquest of the world originated with their long history of settled farming. High population densities catalysed a process of agriculture intensification and technological innovation. Generations of close contact with domestic livestock conferred the disease immunity that proved to be a decisive factor when they came into contact with new populations.

Diamond is master storyteller. The popularity of this book made him a popular purveyor of big picture social science. His books are displayed in all the world’s airports; his arguments have burrowed their way into introductory anthropology courses. He brings massive detail to bear on his subject. The “germs” chapter serves up an excellent overview on how the evolutionary dynamics of contagion favoured Eurasia over most of the planet’s other regions.

But there are problems beyond the undiluted environmental determinism highlighted by his critics. Guns, Germs, and Steel conveys a linear, mechanistic version of history. And, as one anthropologist remarked: “So when Europeans ‘succeed’ at colonialism, that was not their doing, nor their fault. When other societies falter, that was their choice to fail.” He who gets the head start wins the power to distribute smallpox-infected blankets.

McNeill disagreed. In a 1997 exchange in the New York Review of Books, he accused Diamond of overlooking the importance of human “cultural autonomy” in determining human development. Diamond replied that the large time-scale of his analysis necessarily smoothed out such factors.

Although this reductionism worked well when demolishing racial and cultural assumptions about the world’s vast developmental differentials, Diamond’s method shares the problems of other single matrix analyses. Small variations in initial conditions that drop out of view in Diamond’s big picture approach underpin the cultural and socioeconomic complexity of contrasting regional trajectories. Despite the weight of factual information, in the chapter on Africa, the book’s focus on linguistics, plants, and agriculture shortchanges distinctive features of the continent’s historical processes.

In “Ecology Control and Economic Development in East African History”, Helge Kjekshus works within the same environmental history paradigm Diamond champions, but the research reinforces McNeill’s emphasis on cultural syntheses as one of the primary forces driving historical adaptation. Kjekshus documents in great detail the efficacy of the region’s indigenous knowledge traditions and how inter-ethnic social networks worked well to contain the scourges of Brazilian sand fleas, yaws, tsetse flies, malaria, and dengue fever, and to limit the damage from smallpox and other disease vectors.

Rinderpest, however, proved to be the exception, conforming to Diamond’s “Lethal Gift of Livestock” thesis. The rinderpest epidemic devastating the herds of the Maasai and other warrior pastoralists opened the door for colonial occupation. Monkeys, bats and pangolins are still small-time players compared to the disease-incubating contribution of cows and pigs to human history. But Homo sapiens trump the mammal crowd on the global level of analysis.

The epidemiology in Plagues and People highlighted the constantly evolving relationship between micro-parasites (e.g. bacteria, viruses) and macro-parasites like rats, livestock, and humans. This led McNeill to theorise that humankind itself is a type of disease, a parasite on its host, Earth – and warned that it could self-destruct if humans continue to over-stress their host.

Long the province of science fiction, the cultural industry now generates a constant feed of dystopian futures and zombie apocalypses. The rise of artificial intelligence is the latest source of plots based on McNeill’s hypothesis. In The Matrix, Agent Smith tells Keanu Reeves, “Humans are a virus.” In the current season of Westworld, the “Man” played by Ed Harris declares humanity to be a bacteria consuming the planet.

The epidemiology in Plagues and People highlighted the constantly evolving relationship between micro-parasites (e.g. bacteria, viruses) and macro-parasites like rats, livestock, and humans. This led McNeill to theorise that humankind itself is a type of disease, a parasite on its host, Earth…

The coronavirus pandemic, the latest example of fiction predicting reality, is also reinvigorating real world science linking the environmental costs of unbridled capitalism to the prospects of societal collapse.

Narratives of collapse and anti-climax

Jem Bendell is a professor of sustainable business practices who argues that the time for incremental responses to climate change has passed. He sums this up in a 2018 paper that proved too disturbing for publication in a peer-reviewed journal he once edited. Pandemics are a second order effect of climate change that, among other things, is bringing us into direct contact with the new ecologies we have created for bats and other wildlife species. Such narratives have become both truth and truism.

Disaster is now a common theme in Western culture. The real-life world of new viruses Richard Preston described in Crisis in the Hot Zone is actually more frightening than most of Hollywood’s monetised virus-infected zombies, including the movie version of his book. Fictionalisation is arguably one of the reasons not much has changed despite the very real prospects of ecological cataclysm. COVID-19 is the latest omen.

These second-order emergencies have sustained a curious dualism. Our universities and institutes figure out the problem, develop palliatives, and advocate sensible policies. Our governments lag behind, and citizens resist preventative measures until they are in the crosshairs of the next scourge. Epidemics trigger multinational responses only to revert, as Kapiripiri and Ross concluded, to the standard narrative.

The history of cholera is the classical example of partial response in the presence of full knowledge. Coronavirus is more contagious than cholera. The author of this Guardian long read regretted the fact that the corona story will play out the same way if we allow global health to be funded and governed by the same unredeemed colonial logic.

This is why, as Bendell stated in a recent interview, “Returning to business as usual is a “fantasy. Policy makers and business leaders must recognize that climate change will be even more disruptive than the coronavirus.” But restating these warnings at a time when a more proximate enemy threatens us can have the opposite result in a world inured to disaster inflation.

The negative implications for the long game cues up the third book in Diamond’s trilogy, Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change. Diamond builds his discussion around examples of wars, coups, and military dictatorships; natural disasters, pandemics, and famines do not feature. Plagues, as the historical record shows, disrupt and redirect more than they destroy the societies they attack.

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is both enlightened historiography and great literature. The author provides the earliest written account of a plague and its impact on political events. The war was a response to decades of Athenian dominance, and for the first time Sparta had Athens on the defensive. The Athenians retreat behind the city walls, creating the crowded and unhygienic conditions contributing to the outbreak of a highly contagious disease in 229 BC.

The first wave of the epidemic killed 100,000 Athenians, but it also saved the city. When the Spartans saw the smoke of thousands of funeral pyres, they abandoned their siege and fled. The anomie that followed was yet more unexpected. Thucydides remarked, “The catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.”

Both the wealthy and the nouveau riche elevated by inheriting dead relatives’ property spent recklessly, assuming that death may strike any time. The social value of virtue and reputation plummeted. Non-Athenians were scapegoated and their rights abrogated. The gods did not fare much better; they were demoted. Refugees and the dying camped out at their temples. Athenians accused Apollo, the god of disease and medicine, of siding with the enemy.

The disease returned twice over the next fifteen years. Athens did not collapse, nor did it recover its former influence and glory. But different pandemics create different trajectories.

Both the wealthy and the nouveau riche elevated by inheriting dead relatives’ property spent recklessly, assuming that death may strike any time. The social value of virtue and reputation plummeted.

The Black Death wiped out almost half of Europe at the end of the fourteenth century and continued to wreak havoc across the continent over the next 400 years. The dirge composed by English satirist Thomas Nashe, A Litany in the Time of Plague, conveys the sense of resignation when the plague reappeared in Shakespeare’s London.

“Sing me some doleful ditty to the lute,” he requests the poet, “That may complaine my neere approaching death.” The bard responds:

Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss;
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
None from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us.  

Rich men, trust not wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us.

By breaking up the feudal order, the bubonic plague both slowed down and set the stage for European expansion. Around the same time that Nashe was composing his ditty, the diseases Hernando Cortez imported into central Mexico were killing 80 per cent of the population. The Aztec empire disintegrated.

But collapse, as defined by the case studies in Joseph A. Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, is not to be confused with invasions like the one that caused the slow-moving genocide reducing 24 million indigenous Mexicans to 1 million survivors a century after the conquistadores’ arrival. The book traces collapse to the point when solutions for the problems facing a society become too complicated and costly to implement.

Other archeologists studying ancient societies attribute collapse to an abrupt political change, reduction in social complexity, and their knock-on effects throughout society. Biomedical progress minimises the probability of fast-moving epidemics turning into a mass Athenian death sentence or the poet’s toxic darts. Their impact can, however, signal the directionality of processes that either result in transition to a new order or to system-deadening entropy.

Modern plagues have exacerbated global inequality, and so far this one is doing the same. It is collapsing some economic sectors and accelerating change in others. The economic damage is enormous, and based on past experience, the recovery period will be long, with serious ramifications for labour and capital. Surveillance of bodies is on the rise. The Davos elite and Xi Jinping’s cohorts will still hoard most of the cargo.

At the same time, the pandemic’s shock factor should not be underestimated. Historically, jolts like the one we are experiencing open new windows for human agency. There are promising background developments. The Lancet has called for a reformed social contract, and methodologies promoting collective intelligence are gaining ground. The carbon energy endgame is underway; the passing of the post-9/11 forever war is in sight. Women in leadership are showing the way.

Watching how the new corona-capitalism will play out is the most fascinating aspect of the pandemic. Is the coronavirus a tipping point? Will we dance our way to collective adaptation? Can a million burning pyres save the planet?

The novel and the dance

The species is at war with an invisible enemy, and the War on the Rocks experts tell us the best way to prepare for it is to read fiction:

Novels hone powers of observation and insight. They increase mental flexibility and help policymakers anticipate situations. They illuminate other mindsets, cultures, places, and times. The best ones induce a sense of empathy in their readers, and they help render policy approaches more effective and more humane.

This advice marks a radical departure from the gospel of the war on terrorism. Although 9/11 did initiate a new learning cycle, for the most part it centred on a narrow “with us or against us’” assessment of the others’ mindsets, cultures, and places. Policy approaches to the problem ended up midwifing a new generation of Islamist extremists. They created new breeding grounds for the virus. Maybe reading fiction can help us figure out some new moves.

The Plague by Albert Camus does not feature at the top of the 80 titles listed in the Goodreads selection of popular pandemic books. But its understated portrayal of a society suddenly trapped in an atmosphere permeated by dread and the absence of normality has made it the most cited work of fiction in the stream of coronavirus commentaries.

The story, published in 1947 and immediately translated into nine languages, revolves around a cast of everyday characters. The story centres on Doctor Rieux, who copes with the city’s inert bureaucracy while retaining his minimalist but positive view of humanity, the priest who blames the sins of his congregation for the calamity, the smuggler who wants the quarantine to continue, the self-pitying journalist obsessed with escape, the indifferent public officials who go through the motions and the lowly municipal clerk who tries to do what they will not, the Spanish invalid who spends his days counting peas from one bowl into another.

Literature and the domain of myth are the repositories where society’s collective knowledge and experience is stored. Camus scores high in both. He redefined heroism as ordinary people doing extraordinary things out of simple decency. For most of humanity, the moral responsibility of choosing to not be part of the problem is heroic enough. All but one of the city’s misanthropic characters eventually come around to empathising with the public’s suffering.

Watching how the new corona-capitalism will play out is the most fascinating aspect of the pandemic. Is the coronavirus a tipping point? Will we dance our way to collective adaptation? Can a million burning pyres save the planet?

If the “best novels” induce a sense of empathy in their readers, “leading to more humane and effective policies”, it is clear that Kenya’s decision-makers are reading from their own script. The government’s violent implementation and cynical exploitation of low friction policies that are working elsewhere has resulted in empty hospitals and the public’s refusal to be tested. Dauti Kahura’s reportage of a Kenyan doctor thrown out on the street in Wuhan reveals the brutal callousness of both the Chinese and Kenyan governments.

Midway through Camus’s account, the narrator takes stock: “The plague had swallowed up everything and everyone. No longer were there individual destinies, only a collective destiny made by the plague and the emotions shared by all.”

This is where we all stand right now. Athenian democrats are waging a defensive battle against Steve Bannon’s Spartans. All the numbers and models and deep insights notwithstanding, we still do not know where the coronavirus will lead us.

When I first read The Plague as a high school student, I understood it as an existential parable set in a small North African city. I was drawn to the story as metaphor of resistance to the Nazi occupation when I picked it up again at a university. By coincidence, I read Le Peste again six weeks before the Wuhan coronavirus story broke, and realised that is a universal allegory that could be set in any city anywhere at any point in time.

I believe if enough ordinary people listen to the right music, the dance will take us to a better place. But the narrator of The Plague, now revealed to be Dr. Riuex, ends on a cautionary note. The quarantine is over, the doctor and Grand, the redeemed municipal clerk, view the people celebrating in the streets. As they watch the townspeople’s dance of deliverance and newborn freedom, Grand remarks: “But they’re just the same as ever, really.”

As crises pass and give way to a new normalcy, amnesia soon sets in. The Nazis are restless, the virus will never go away. Great literature helps us remember, and stay awake.

Continue Reading

Trending