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The Dark Side of Digitisation and the Dangers of Algorithmic Decision-Making

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As we hand over decision-making regarding social issues to automated systems developed by profit-driven corporates, not only are we allowing our social concerns to be dictated by the profit incentive, but we are also handing over moral and ethical questions to the corporate world, argues ABEBA BIRHANE

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The second annual CyFyAfrica 2019, the Conference on Technology, Innovation, and Society, took place in Tangier, Morocco, 7 – 9 June 2019. It was a vibrant, diverse and dynamic gathering where various policy makers, United Nations delegates, ministers, governments, diplomats, media, tech corporations, and academics from over 65 nations, mostly African and Asian countries, attended.

The conference unapologetically stated that its central aim was to bring forth the continent’s voices to the table in the global discourse. The president’s opening message emphasised that Africa’s youth need to be put at the front and centre of African concerns as the continent increasingly relies on technology for its social, educational, health, economic and financial issues. At the heart of the conference was the need to provide a platform to the voice of young people across the continent. And this was rightly so. It needs no argument that Africans across the continent need to play a central role in determining crucial technological questions and answers not only for their continent but also far beyond.

In the technological race to advance the continent, there are numerous cautionary tales that Africans need to learn from, tales that those involved in the designing, implementing, importing, regulating, and communicating of technology need to be aware of.

The continent stands to benefit from various technological and artificial intelligence (AI) developments. Ethiopian farmers, for example, can benefit from crowd sourced data to forecast and yield better crops. The use of data can help improve services within the healthcare and education sectors. Huge gender inequalities that plague every social, political, economic sphere can be brought to the fore through data. Data that exposes gender disparities in these key positions, for example, renders crucial the need to change societal structures in order to allow women to serve in key positions. Such data also brings general awareness of inequalities, which is central for progressive change.

In the technological race to advance the continent, there are numerous cautionary tales that Africans need to learn from, tales that those involved in the designing, implementing, importing, regulating, and communicating of technology need to be aware of.

Having said that, there already exist countless die-hard technology worshippers, some only too happy to blindly adopt anything data-driven and “AI” without a second thought of the possible unintended consequences, both within and outside the continent. Wherever the topic of technological innovation takes place, what we constantly find is advocates of technology and attempts to digitise every aspect of life, often at any cost.

At the CyFyAfrica 2019 conference, there were plenty of such tech evangelists – those blindly accepting ethically suspect and dangerous practices and applications under the banner of “innovative”, “disruptive” and “game changing” with little, if any, criticism and scepticism. Therefore, given that we have enough tech-worshippers holding the technological future of the continent in their hands, it is important to point out the precautions that need to be taken and the lessons that need to be learned from other parts of the world as the continent races forward in the technological race.

Reinforcing biases and stereotypes  

Just like the Silicon Valley enterprise, the African equivalent of tech start-ups and innovations can be found in every corner of the continent, from Addis Ababa to Nairobi and Cape Town. These innovations include in areas such as banking, finance, healthcare, education, and even “AI for good” initiatives, both by companies and individuals within as well as outside the continent. Understandably, companies, individuals and initiatives want to solve society’s problems and data and AI seem to provide quick solutions. As a result, there is a temptation to fix complex social problems with technology. And this is exactly where problems arise.

In the race of which start-up will build the next smart home system or state-of-the-art mobile banking application, we lose sight of the people behind each data point. The emphasis is on “data” as something that is up for grabs, something that uncontestedly belongs to tech-companies, governments, and the industry sector, completely erasing individual people behind each data point. This erasure of the person behind each data point makes it easy to “manipulate behaviour” or “nudge” users, often towards profitable outcomes for the companies. The rights of the individual, the long-term social impacts of AI systems and the unintended consequences on the most vulnerable are pushed aside, if they ever enter the discussion at all. Be it small start-ups or more established companies that design and implement AI tools, at the top of their agenda is the collection of more data and efficient AI systems and not the welfare of individual people or communities.

Rather, whether explicitly laid out or not, the central point is to analyse, infer, and deduce users’ weaknesses and deficiencies for the benefit of commercial firms. Products, ads, and other commodities can then be pushed to individual “users” as if they exist as an object to be manipulated and nudged towards certain behaviours deemed “correct” or “good” by these companies and developers.

The result is AI systems that alter the social fabric, reinforce societal stereotypes and further disadvantage those already at the bottom of the social hierarchy. UN delegates addressing the issue of online terrorism and counterterrorism measured and exclusively discussed Islamic terrorist groups, despite the fact that white supremacist terrorist groups have carried out more attacks than any other group in recent years. This illustrates an example where socially held stereotypes are reinforced and wielded in the AI tools that are being developed.

Although it is hardly ever made explicit, many of the ethical principles underlying AI rest firmly within utilitarian thinking. Even when knowledge of unfairness and discrimination of certain groups and individual as a result of algorithmic decision-making are brought to the fore, solutions that benefit the majority are sought. For instance, women have been systematically excluded from entering the tech industry, minorities are forced into inhumane treatment , and systematic biases have been embedded in predictive policing systems, to mention but a few. However, although society’s most vulnerable are disproportionally impacted by the digitisation of various services, proposed solutions to mitigate unfairness hardly consider such groups as crucial pieces of the solution.

A question of ethics

Machine bias and unfairness is an issue that the rest of the tech world is grappling with. As technological solutions are increasingly devised and applied to social, economic and political issues, the problems that arise with the digitisation and automation of everyday life also become increasingly evident. The current attempts to develop “ethical AI” and “ethical guidelines”, both within the Western tech industry and the academic sphere, illustrate awareness and attempts to mitigate these problems. The key global players in technology, Microsoft and Google’s DeepMind from the industry sector and Harvard and MIT from the academic sphere are primary examples that illustrate the recognition of the possible catastrophic consequences of AI on society. As a result, ethics boards and curriculums on ethics and AI are being developed.

These approaches to develop, implement and teach responsible and ethical AI take multiple forms, perspectives, and directions and emphasise various aspects. This multiplicity of views and perspectives is not a weakness but rather a desirable strength that is necessary for accommodating a healthy, context-dependent remedy. Insisting on one single framework for various ethical, social and economic issues that arise in various contexts and cultures with the integration of AI is not only unattainable but also advocating a one-size-fits-all style dictatorship.

Machine bias and unfairness is an issue that the rest of the tech world is grappling with. As technological solutions are increasingly devised and applied to social, economic and political issues, the problems that arise with the digitisation and automation of everyday life also become increasingly evident.

Nonetheless, given the countless technology-related disasters and cautionary tales that the global tech-community is waking up to, there are numerous crucial lessons that African developers, start-ups and policy makers can learn from. The African continent needs not go through its own disastrous cautionary tales to discover the dark side of digitisation and technologisation on every aspect of life.

AI over-hype

AI is not magic; it is a buzz word that gets thrown around so carelessly that it has increasingly become vacuous. What AI refers to is notoriously contested and the term is impossible to define conclusively – and it will remain that way due to the various ways various disciplines define and use it. Artificial intelligence can refer to anything from highly overhyped and deceitful robots to Facebook’s machine learning algorithms that dictate what you see on your News Feed, your “smart” fridge and everything in between. “Smart”, like AI, has increasingly come to mean devices that are connected to other devices and servers with little to no attention being paid to how such hypoconnectivity at the same time creates surveillance systems that deprive individuals of their privacy.

Over-hyped and exaggerated representation of the current state of the field poses a major challenge. Both researchers within the field and the media contribute to this over-hype. The public is often made to believe that we have reached AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) or that we are at risk of killer robots taking over the world, or that Facebook’s algorithms have created their own language forcing Facebook to shut down its project , when none of this is in fact correct.

The robot known as Sophia is another example of AI over-hype and misrepresentation. This robot, which is best described as a machine with some face recognition capabilities and a rudimentary chatbot engine, is falsely described as semi-sentient by its maker. In a nation where women are treated as second class citizens, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has granted this machine citizenship, thereby treating this “female” machine better than its own female citizens. Similarly, neither the Ethiopian government nor the media attempted to pause and reflect on how the robot’s stay in Addis Ababa should be covered. Instead the over-hype and deception were amplified as the robot was treated as some God-like entity.

Leading scholars in the field, such as Mitchell, emphasise that we are far from “superintelligence”. The current state of AI is marked by crucial limitations, such as the lack of understanding of common sense, which is a crucial element of human understanding. Similarly, Bigham emphasises that in most of the discussion regarding “autonomous” systems (be it robots or speech recognition algorithms), a heavy load of the work is done by humans, often cheap labour – a fact that is put aside as it doesn’t bode well with the AI over-hype narrative.

Over-hype is not only a problem that portrays an unrealistic image of the field, but also one that distracts attention away from the real danger of AI, which is much more invisible, nuanced and gradual than “killer robots”. The simplification and extraction of human experience for capitalist ends, which is then presented as behaviour based “personalisation”, is a banal practice on the surface but one that needs more attention and scrutiny. Similarly, algorithmic predictive models of behaviour that infer habits, behaviours and emotions need to be of concern as most of these inferences reflect strongly held biases and unfairness rather than getting at any in-depth causes or explanations.

The continent would do well to adopt a dose of critical appraisal when presenting, developing and reporting AI. This requires challenging the mindset that portrays AI as having God-like power. And seeing AI as a tool that we create, control and are responsible for, not as something that exists and develops independent of those that create it. And like any other tool, AI is one that embeds and reflects our inconsistencies, limitations, biases, political and emotional desires.

Technology is never either neutral or objective – it is like a mirror that reflects societal bias, unfairness and injustice. AI tools deployed in various spheres are often presented as objective and value-free. In fact, some automated systems that are put forward in domains, such as hiring and policing, are put forward with the explicit claim that these tools eliminate human bias. Automated systems, after all, apply the same rules to everybody. Such a claim is, in fact, one of the single most erroneous and harmful misconceptions as far as automated systems are concerned.

The continent would do well to adopt a dose of critical appraisal when presenting, developing and reporting AI. This requires challenging the mindset that portrays AI as having God-like power.

As the Harvard mathematician, Cathy O’Neil [19] explains, “Algorithms are opinions embedded in code.” This widespread misconception further prevents individuals from asking questions and demanding explanations. How we see the world and how we choose to represent the world are reflected in the algorithmic models of the world that we build. The tools we build necessarily embed, reflect and perpetuate socially and culturally held stereotypes and unquestioned assumptions. Any classification, clustering or discrimination of human behaviours and characteristics that our AI system produces reflects socially and culturally held stereotypes, not an objective truth.

UN delegates working on online counterterrorism measures but explicitly focusing on Islamic groups despite over 60 percent [20] of mass shootings in 2019 the USA being carried out by white nationalist extremists illustrate a worrying example that stereotypically held views drive what we perceive as a problem and furthermore the type of technology we develop.

Algorithmic decision-making

A robust body of research, as well as countless reports of individual personal experiences, show that various applications of algorithmic decision-making result in biased and discriminatory outcomes. These discriminatory outcomes affect individuals and groups that are already on society’s margins, those that are viewed as deviants and outliers – people that refuse to conform to the status quo. Given that the most vulnerable are affected by technology the most, it is important that their voices are central in any design and implementation of any technology that is used on/around them. Their voices need to be prioritised at every step of the way, including in the designing, developing, and implementing of any technology, as well as in policy-making.

As Africa grapples between catching up with the latest technological developments and protecting the consequential harm that technology causes, policy makers, governments and firms that develop and apply various tech to the social sphere need to think long and hard about what kind of society we want and what kind of society technology drives. Protecting and respecting the rights, freedoms and privacy of the very youth that the leaders want to put at the front and centre should be prioritised. This can only happen with guidelines and safeguards for individual rights and freedom in place.

A robust body of research, as well as countless reports of individual personal experiences, show that various applications of algorithmic decision-making result in biased and discriminatory outcomes.

Mining people for data

Invasion of privacy is an issue that is increasingly becoming an issue in every sphere of life, including insurance, banking, health and education services. Various start-ups are emerging from all corners of the continent at an exponential rate to develop the next “cutting edge” app, tool or system; to collect as much data as possible and then infer and deduce “users’” various behaviours and habits.

However, there seems to be little, if any, attention paid to the fact that digitisation and automatisation of such spheres necessarily bring their own, often not immediately visible, problems. In the race to come up with the next new “nudge” mechanism that could be used in insurance or banking, the competition for mining the most data seems the central agenda. These firms take it for granted that such data, which is out there for grabs, automatically belongs to them. The discourse around “data mining” and “data rich continent” shows the extent to which the individual behind each data point remains non-existent. This removing of the individual (individual with fears, emotions, dreams and hopes) behind each data set is symptomatic of how little attention is given to privacy concerns. This discourse on “mining” people for data is reminiscent of the coloniser attitude that declares humans as raw material free for the taking.

Data is necessarily always about something and never about an abstract entity. The collection, analysis and manipulation of data possibly entails monitoring, tracking and surveilling people. This necessarily impacts them directly or indirectly, whether it is change in their insurance premiums or refusal of services.

AI technologies that are aiding decision-making in the social sphere are developed and implemented by private companies and various start-ups for the most part, whose primary aim is to maximise profits. Protecting individual privacy rights and cultivating a fair society is, therefore, the least of their priorities, especially if such practice gets in the way of “mining”, freely manipulating behaviour and pushing products onto customers. This means that as we hand over decision-making regarding social issues to automated systems developed by profit-driven corporates, not only are we allowing our social concerns to be dictated by corporate incentives (profit), but we are also handing over moral and ethical questions to the corporate world.

“Digital nudges” – behaviour modifications developed to suit commercial interests – are a prime example. As “nudging” mechanisms become the norm for “correcting” an individual’s behaviour, eating habits or exercise routine, those corporates, private companies and engineers developing automated systems are bestowed with the power to decide what the “correct” behaviour, eating habit or exercise routine is. Questions, such as who is deciding what the “correct” behaviour is and for what purpose, are often completely ignored. In the process, individuals that do not fit the stereotypical image of what a “fit body”, “good health” and “good eating habit” end up being punished, ostracised and pushed further to the margin.

The use of technology within the social sphere often, intentionally or accidentally, focuses on punitive practices, whether it is to predict who will commit the next crime or who would fail to pay their mortgage. Constructive and rehabilitation questions, such as why people commit crimes in the first place or what can be done to rehabilitate and support those who have come out of prison are almost never asked. Technological developments built and applied with the aim of bringing security and order, necessarily bring cruel, discriminatory and inhumane practices to some. The cruel treatment of the Uighurs in China and the unfair disadvantaging of the poor are examples in this regard.

The question of technologisation and digitalisation of the continent is also a question of what kind of society we want to live in. African youth solving their own problems means deciding what we want to amplify and show the rest of the world. It also means not importing the latest state-of-the-art machine learning systems or any other AI tools without questioning what the underlying purpose is, who benefits, and who might be disadvantaged by the application of such tools.

Moreover, African youth playing in the AI field need to create programmes and databases that serve various local communities and which do not blindly import Western AI systems founded upon individualistic and capitalist drives. In a continent where much of the narrative is hindered by negative images, such as migration, drought, and poverty, using AI to solve our problems ourselves means using AI in a way we want to understand who we are and how we want to be understood and perceived – a continent where community values triumph and nobody is left behind.

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Abeba Birhane is currently a PhD candidate in cognitive science at University College Dublin in the School of Computer Science.

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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.

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Moving Beyond Africapitalists and Economic Messiahs: Redefining African Entrepreneurship
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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Plagues and the Prose Informing Our Shared Condition
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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.

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