“We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.” Karl Marx, Letter from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher to Ruge (1843).
The state of morals in contemporary society, especially regarding money and business matters – i.e. issues to do with earning a living, hustling, putting food on the table, surviving, making profit, hunting riches, acquiring wealth – is a popular topic in public columns in Uganda, Kenya and elsewhere. As highlighted in an earlier blog, a number of analysts’ diagnoses is that we are living in times of moral decline and crisis, as evidenced by widespread and institutionalised economic fraud and other malfeasances in the economy.
Here, I want to argue for a shift in analytical perspective. I want to analytically treat phenomena that are declared to be examples of moral decline (or alternatively, moral bankruptcy and immorality) as instances of something else – an ongoing and profound moral transformation in societies undergoing a comprehensive capitalist restructuring of their polity, economy and culture.
This analytical move implies that we forget for a moment the prognosis of a decrease, thinning out, or dwindling of morals and instead focus on changes of morals in the economy, shifts in society concerning what is regarded as acceptable and unacceptable economic practice, in particular, in the economic sectors, locations (markets, factories, banks, etc.), professions, and so on. And to be more precise, not just shifts regarding notions of acceptable/unacceptable, but also regarding what constitutes legitimate/illegitimate, right/wrong, good/bad, praiseworthy/blameworthy, proper/improper, or desirable/undesirable practice. Of course, you can replace practice with economic order, ‘economic relationship, economic processes, economic outcomes and so on in order to track moral changes in these matters too, but for practical purposes let us focus our analytical eyes on practice.
Daniel Kalinaki, a leading newspaper columnist in Uganda whose insightful analysis I eagerly read every week, recently wrote something to the effect that empathy is on the decline in daily life in contemporary Uganda. His column was titled “At what point does a society lose all sense of empathy? Are we there yet?” There are passages in it, such as, “An entire generation [of young Ugandans] has grown up parentless, valueless and mannerless.” The text ends with: “We are no longer raised by the village but by wolves. This land is broken. This society needs healing. Urgently.”
Arguably, Kalinaki (like other authors that run this line of analysis) writes as if there is indeed an end point concerning cultural decline, as if “all sense of empathy” can indeed ever be lost in a society of nearly 40 million people, as if people really grow up totally valueless, as if a society can really be broken, and, as if it is clear to the analyst when a society has reached rock bottom after which there is no further cultural decline i.e. the absolute end of empathy.
Arguably Kalinaki does not discuss moral decline as such but moral change i.e. a change concerning under what conditions, for what reason, how, to whom, and regarding what people show empathy in today’s Uganda. He, like columnist Yusuf Serunkuma, myself and others, is in fact an analyst of moral change in a rapidly changing country. A significant change in the moral climate in society intrigues us and we try to nail down the nature and causes of that change. In sum, we try to understand what it is that is changing, how, why, and to what effect. Perhaps, above all, we try to figure out how we got here.
Capitalism and its discontents
The spread and intensification of capitalism, as writers ranging from Karl Marx to Edward P. Thompson emphasised, brings cultural-economic change i.e. shifts in dominant norms and values, notions of acceptable practice, boundaries of what is doable, permissible, normal, taken for granted and so on. These processes are conflictual; some actors want the status quo to remain, others want change. Put simply, capitalism, over time, makes the previously unacceptable practice acceptable, at least acceptable to the extent needed to spread, normalise, and routinise the practice. It alters what was previously regarded morally wrong, immoral, and abnormal into right, moral, normal. The unthinkable and outrageous becomes everyday reality and taken for granted moral taboos weaken and dissolve.
In short, capitalism forever alters the moral structure and moral grammar in society, especially with regards to the economy. Importantly, it doesn’t dissolve moral order altogether (“All that is solid melts into air…” as says the Communist Manifesto) but creates new moral new order(s), new orders of right/wrong, good/bad, acceptable/unacceptable, etc. That is why, analytically speaking, the moral decline/bankruptcy assumption is so restrictive; it does not allow us to identify, track and explain this ever-evolving order. It presumes that there is indeed a clear end point concerning the moral regression of humanity, whereas in reality the story of moral change is of moral order alterations on the planet that continue till we have arrived at the figurative “last man standing” moment.
The spread and intensification of capitalism, as writers ranging from Karl Marx to Edward P. Thompson emphasised, brings cultural-economic change i.e. shifts in dominant norms and values, notions of acceptable practice, boundaries of what is doable, permissible, normal, taken for granted and so on.
That said, many people – both professional and non-professional analysts – notice and comment on moral shifts on what is regarded normal and acceptable. For instance, some people, especially older generations who have witnessed and lived under somewhat different moral orders, say that the current norms (culture and moral order more broadly) are upside down. This is arguably a commentary on the large-scale socio-cultural processes that are unfolding in large cities such as Kampala and Nairobi. Of course, these shifts in moral order are generally highly complex processes, not necessarily linear, with various components and sub-components.
This includes changes in how people relate to one another, how they assess their own economic action and that of others, their relationship with money and wealth, and how they define ideas such as individualism, freedom, success, and power. This requires an (re-)assessment and de-/attachment vis-a-vis various social values such as achievement/personal success, enjoyment/pleasure, and self-direction (that serve individual interests) as well as group security, conformity to social expectations, concern for others’ welfare (that serve rather collective interests), and so on.
How did we get here?
Interestingly, in the 19th century Marx had already noted a point or trend that Kalinaki observes in 21st century Uganda. Marx wrote that only “bourgeois society, the society of free competition … [is characterised/constituted by networks of] individuals who remain indifferent to one another”. In other words, we are dealing with a change process that seems inherent to/characteristic of capitalist transformation, driven by larger, historical forces encompassing vast time-space zones.
The United States, the leading example of today’s capitalist market society, is usually a good ground to search for the latest (and sometimes most shocking) moral shifts in global capitalist civilisation and market culture. Just check out what goes on in terms of commercialisation of childhood there: the competitive beauty contests for young girls, the commercial shows, the business models around childhood. Children and teenagers are now on social media channels like YouTube and Instagram – not seldom, supported and cheered on by their parents – to market products and earn significant amounts of money.
The most cutting edge examples, the latest pushing of moral boundaries, is not just coming out of the US. It is only a matter of time, in my view, until the same marketing strategies (i.e. modern day child labour) will be used on Ugandan and Kenyan children. Ugandan artist Fresh Kid might well be the first Ugandan child to become an academic case study of that sort of commercialisation of childhood years down the road; the Ruparelia group, linked to tycoon Sudhir Ruparelia, has just started its relationship with the child (giving him a scholarship of the Ruparelia Foundation to start with).
Again, one key question for this and any case of moral-economic change under capitalism is: how did we get here? When did we start selling stuff to kids, making them (and their parents) objects of profit-oriented business strategies, and targets of relentless marketing campaigns? When, how, and why did we start selling kids unhealthy, health-endangering food that makes them addicted and obese?
When did we start telling people, and the poorest in particular, that taking a loan (i.e. being indebted) is a good, desirable thing? When did we start putting up commercial betting businesses and gambling shops in the poorest neighbourhoods? When did these practices become part of common sense i.e. morally acceptable? What changes in culture, politics and economy were required for these practices – and the underlying business models and ways of thinking and feeling – to become widespread and seen as normal (instead of abnormal and demanding outrage and protest)?
Again, one key question for this and any case of moral-economic change under capitalism is: how did we get here? When did we start selling stuff to kids, making them (and their parents) objects of profit-oriented business strategies, and targets of relentless marketing campaigns?
How did matters of economic and political power (i.e. specific class interests) drive this change? How did public disagreement, criticism, struggle and resistance of some groups shape and later change (but not entirely stop) these processes? When, how and why did we (or rather they – the powerful actors) make all the other unsettling, weird, dubious, shocking practices in the capitalist economy sufficiently acceptable and normal to become taken-for-granted routine practice? To ask these questions about moral change is to focus on the major enabling conditions, factors and actors that can trace and explain these major change trajectories?
The “sugar daddy” phenomenon
Against the above, let’s go to an illustrative example from the region – a recent report about sugar daddies in Kenya. In an exemplary fashion, it highlights the moral change process I am talking about here: “[In] Kenya, and in some other African countries, ‘sugar’ relationships seem to have become both more common and more visible: what once was hidden is now out in the open – on campuses, in bars, and all over Instagram…[We] have arrived at a point where having a ‘sponsor’ or a ‘blesser’ – the terms that millennials usually apply to their benefactors – has for many young people become an accepted, and even a glamorous lifestyle choice. Estimates suggest that about 20-25% of female students nowadays have a sponsor/transactional sexual relationship with an older man.”
Arguably, this “sugar daddy” phenomenon and related practices and underpinning morals did not exist in this particular way even three decades ago. Of course, this practice and related morals are contested and some observers will declare it all as immoral, a reflection of moral decline. But it is highly instructive to start seeing and studying these phenomena from a moral-economic change perspective, thus, identifying the drivers, the enabling conditions, and so on.
Importantly, note that this phenomenon has grown in other countries too, including in the UK and other “developed” countries (see here for an overview of sugar daddy websites and their instructive titles – e.g. Whats Your Price’, Established Men, Find Rich Guys’ Rich Meet Beautiful, Miss Travel).
One of these agency website notes: “In 2017, 100,000 U.K. students registered on Seeking Arrangement, which represented a 72 percent increase from the previous year, in order to find some relief from tuition, student loan debt, and other college-related costs. The presence of a monthly allowance and a financial arrangement adds to the allure of the lifestyle. Finding the right Sugar Daddy can help a Sugar Baby stay ahead of the game and get the education they need without the burden of a mountain of student loan debt.”
These days we even have websites that have “virginity for sale” to the highest bidder (google sugar daddy virginity sale for more details). Again, how and why did we get here?
When did we start telling people, and the poorest in particular, that taking a loan (i.e. being indebted) is a good, desirable thing? When did we start putting up commercial betting businesses and gambling shops in the poorest neighbourhoods? When did these practices become part of common sense i.e. morally acceptable?
The above phenomena reflect the dynamics of – and different takes on – the changing notions of morality with regards to earning a living, surviving, hustling, escaping poverty, making fast and easy money, striking riches, climbing the social ladder, managing economic pressures, and living different lifestyles in a world that is quite morally fragmented anyway.
In that regard, always keep in mind that what one observer might assess as a world or society with regressive morals, one that is in moral decline or crisis, another might assess that society as one experiencing moral progress (“We never had it better”, Things are improving”, “Let’s have fun”.)
Moral views these days are in some ways highly individualistic and personal, depending, amongst others, on one’s position, perceptions and experiences in economic life (and thus in economic hierarchy, class structure etc.).
Note that the above mentioned report about sugar daddies ends with a protagonist asking: “What is wrong about sex anyway?…People just make it sound wrong. But sometimes, it ain’t wrong at all.”’ There you go…
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Book Review: Lords of Impunity by Rasna Warah
Deeply researched and convincingly told, Warah’s book is a damning indictment of the UN that shatters any notions that the organization is the moral conscience of the world, instead revealing an internal culture of fraud, corruption, mismanagement, racism and sexism, driven by an instinct of craven institutional self-preservation.
Living in Nairobi, one of my guilty pleasures is looking through expat guides and tour books on Kenya. I am definitely not the target audience, but I pick up Xpat Magazine whenever I’m in the Karen area, where it seems to be plentiful and free, its outdated font and clunky layout notwithstanding. There’s the famous Nairobi Expat Marketplace on Facebook, which has somehow lost its lustre in recent years since being infiltrated (this is conjecture) by commercial sellers, but which in its heyday was the place to get all kinds of high-quality second-hand household items from expatriates disposing of their possessions in readiness for moving back to their home countries. Most of the posts would read “QUICK SALE”—taken by most Kenyans not as an indication to actually buy the item quickly, but rather to be a signal that it was “game on” to bargain as hard as possible.
Then there are the many expat guides online, which offer advice on everything from finding schools to hiring domestic help. Here’s one: “Employing domestic staff is the norm here, and they can be a great asset to an expat household. This may not be something that new arrivals are used to, but likely something they will soon embrace.” (!) There is a part of me that is triggered when I read the casual racism and superiority in some of these posts, but to be honest, my main motivation in deliberately falling into these strange rabbit holes is the same as watching trashy reality TV—to roll my eyes and scoff with a mixture of bemusement and incredulity.
Of course, in the Nairobi context, the main hub serving as the attraction and engine for this fairly large expatriate community (relative to many other African cities), is the United Nations office in Nairobi that serves as the UN headquarters in Africa and one of the four UN main duty stations, the only one in the global south, as many an article breathlessly, and needlessly, emphasizes. The Nairobi office is the global headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) as well as 23 country offices and several regional hubs.
Working for the UN is an ambition for many, not just because of its perceived high pay and job security—a friend of mine was recently hired by the UN office in Nairobi and upon hearing the news, another friend told him, “Ah, wewe umeomoka!” (Sheng for dude, you’ve made it!). On a broader level, the public image of the UN is that of an institution where people are driven by a strong sense of purpose, working together in the pursuit of world peace and a better future for us all, a place of “high protocol and elegant diplomatic manners.”
But Rasna Warah’s new book, Lords of Impunity, shatters any notions that the UN is a pristine place oriented towards lofty ideals, the moral conscience of the world. Warah, a writer, journalist and author of five books, worked for the organization for twelve years, having joined with the same wide-eyed innocence and determination to Make A Difference. What she found instead is a rigidly hierarchical, self-protecting system that tolerates fraud, abets corruption, excuses mismanagement, encourages abuse of authority, persecutes whistle-blowers, actively and tacitly devalues black lives, and puts women and children in the way of sexual predators.
Warah’s book touches on her own experiences of being harassed and forced out of the organization when she accidentally discovered US$300,000 in donor funds being possibly misused, and the emotional and verbal bullying that ensued. She had also been compelled by her supervisor to use unscientific and inaccurate data in The State of the World’s Cities report, of which she was editor. Instead of addressing this gross irregularity, Warah writes, she was “humiliated in office meetings and called a liar”. All her efforts to get internal redress were ignored, “buried in a heap of bureaucratic indifference” including by the UN Ethics Office, and by several subsequent directors of UN-Habitat, only going public by writing this book as a last resort.
Rasna Warah’s new book, Lords of Impunity, shatters any notions that the UN is a pristine place oriented towards lofty ideals, the moral conscience of the world.
The bulk of the book however, unearths harrowing stories from UN failures worldwide, opening in the first chapter with a striking quote from a 1994 New York Times op-ed that describes the UN headquarters in New York as “one of the most dangerous territories for women”, where female UN staff faced a hostile work environment of rampant sexual harassment, but had nowhere to turn because no national laws, not even those of the United States, can govern how it operates. This article predates the #MeToo movement by a quarter century, and even now, it seems that “many male UN employees believe they are entitled to sexual favours at their workplace”.
The book goes on to chronicle serious offences covered up by a UN that, in her telling, is a place concerned, above all, with its own reputation and continued existence. Some of these offences are well known, such as the UN’s failure to intervene in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, even though it had the intel to do so. (Remarkably, Kofi Annan, who at the time was head of the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, escaped blame for the genocide, going on to head the UN as Secretary-General and receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001.) In addition, the UN failed to take responsibility for a 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti that killed 10,000 people; the outbreak originated in the sewage of the UN peacekeeping mission there. Others feature less in the public consciousness but are no less appalling, such as the organization’s cover-up of sexual abuse of children by UN Peacekeepers in Mozambique, Liberia, Cambodia, East Timor and the Democratic Republic of Congo—the perpetrators were simply sent home.
This article predates the #MeToo movement by a quarter century, and even now, it seems that “many male UN employees believe they are entitled to sexual favours at their workplace”.
There is also the internal work culture at the organization that abets irregularities and outright fraud, such as fiddling with statistics to show a higher slum population or more people facing food emergencies, so that more funds can be raised for a particular cause. Or, in an even broader sense, the outright colonial idea that white people are invariably better than non-white people at the organization, with white supremacy animating much of the hierarchy at the UN. Lack of career advancement is a sore point for African staff at the organization, and in one episode in the book that I found particularly striking, denial of a promotion is ostensibly carried out “to ‘protect’ the employee from racism—a very convoluted way of thinking that victimizes African employees twice”. Instead of white colleagues being reprimanded for being unwilling to be supervised by an African, the African’s career advancement was blocked. Any typical Nairobian can attest to the fact that white expatriates enjoy privileges—such as domestic staff, which expat publications are always quick to laud—that they might not get in Europe and North America, and so, white people typically throw their weight around and commit infarctions that they would not dare attempt back home.
Deeply researched and convincingly told, Warah’s book is a damning indictment of an organization that, all said, she still believes can do much good in the world, but only with real and systematic restructuring—such as redefining the immunity clauses of the UN charter so that staff implicated in crime or unethical behaviour are not exempted from being indicted in their home country as is the case currently, and replacing the UN Ethics Office with an independent external arbitration tribunal.
The book’s major weakness is that in some places, its scope becomes too sprawling and one can become lost in the intricacies of the internal workings of the UN; it could have been edited more tightly for a general audience. I am also not sure how different this book is from Warah’s 2016 book UNSilenced, which uncovers similar webs of lies, cover-ups, corruption and impunity within a UN that has allowed wrongdoing to continue unabated, but this may be because have not yet had the opportunity to read that earlier book.
Re-Reading History Without the Color Line: When Egypt Was Black
Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living Egyptians today with ancient pharaohs, emerged partly as an alternative to colonial British efforts to racialize Egyptians as people of color.
In his monumental 1996 book Race: The History of an Idea in the West, Ivan Hannaford attempted to write the first comprehensive history of the meanings of race. After surveying 2,500 years’ worth of writing, his conclusion was that race, in the sense in which it is commonly understood today, is a relatively new concept denoting the idea that humans are naturally organized into social groups. Membership in these groups is indicated by certain physical characteristics, which reproduce themselves biologically from generation to generation.
Hannaford argues that where scholars have identified this biological essentialist approach to race in their readings of ancient texts, they have projected contemporary racism back in time. Instead of racial classifications, Hannaford insists that the Ancient Greeks, for example, used a political schema that ordered the world into citizens and barbarians, while the medieval period was underwritten by a categorization based on religious faith (Jews, Christians, and Muslims). It was not until the 19th century that these ideas became concretely conceptualized; according to Hannaford, the period from 1870 to 1914 was the “high point” of the idea of race.
Part of my research on the history of British colonial Egypt focuses on how the concept of a unique Egyptian race took shape at this time. By 1870, Egypt was firmly within the Ottoman fold. The notion of a “Pan-Islamic” coalition between the British and the Ottomans had been advanced for a generation at this point: between the two empires, they were thought to rule over the majority of the world’s Muslims.
But British race science also began to take shape around this time, in conversation with shifts in policy throughout the British empire. The mutiny of Bengali troops in the late 1850s had provoked a sense of disappointment in earlier attempts to “civilize” British India. As a result, racial disdain toward non-European people was reinforced. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s works, these attitudes became overlaid with a veneer of popular science.
When a series of high-profile acts of violence involving Christian communities became a cause célèbre in the European press, the Ottomans became associated with a unique form of Muslim “fanaticism” in the eyes of the British public. The notion of Muslim fanaticism was articulated in the scientific idioms of the time, culminating in what historian Cemil Aydin calls “the racialization of Muslims.” As part of this process, the British moved away from their alliance with the Ottomans: they looked the other way when Russians supported Balkan Christian nationalists in the 1870s and allied with their longtime rivals in Europe to encroach on the financial prerogatives of the Ottoman government in Egypt.
Intellectuals in Egypt were aware of these shifts, and they countered by insisting they were part of an “Islamic civilization” that, while essentially different from white Christians, did not deserve to be grouped with “savages.” Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was one of the most prominent voices speaking against the denigration of Muslims at the time. His essays, however, were ironically influenced by the same social Darwinism he sought to critique.
For example, in “Racism in the Islamic Religion,” an 1884 article from the famous Islamic modernist publication al-Urwa al-Wuthqa (The Indissoluble Bond), Afghani argued that humans were forced, after a long period of struggle, “to join up on the basis of descent in varying degrees until they formed races and dispersed themselves into nations … so that each group of them, through the conjoined power of its individual members, could protect its own interests from the attacks of other groups.”
The word that I have translated as “nation” here is the Arabic term umma. In the Qur’an, umma means a group of people to whom God has sent a prophet. The umma Muhammadiyya, in this sense, transcended social differences like tribe and clan. But the term is used by al-Afghani in this essay to refer to other racial or national groupings like the Indians, English, Russians, and Turks.
Coming at a time when British imperial officials were thinking about Muslims as a race, the term umma took on new meanings and indexed a popular slippage between older notions of community based on faith and modern ideas about race science. Al-Afghani’s hybrid approach to thinking about human social groups would go on to influence a rising generation of intellectuals and activists in Egypt—but the locus of their effort would shift from the umma of Muslims to an umma of Egyptians.
In my book, The Egyptian Labor Corps: Race, Space, and Place in the First World War, I show how the period from 1914 to 1918 was a major turning point in this process. At the outbreak of the war, British authorities were hesitant to fight the Ottoman sultan, who called himself the caliph, because their understanding of Muslims as a race meant that they would naturally have to contend with internal revolts in Egypt and India. However, once war was formally declared on the Ottomans and the sultan/caliph’s call for jihad went largely unanswered, British authorities changed the way they thought about Egyptians.
Over the course of the war, British authorities would increasingly look at Egyptians just as they did other racialized subjects of their empire. Egypt was officially declared a protectorate, Egyptians were recruited into the so-called “Coloured Labour Corps,” and tens of thousands of white troops came to Egypt and lived in segregated conditions.
The war had brought the global color line—long recognized by African Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois—into the backyard of Egyptian nationalists. But rather than develop this insight into solidarity, as Du Bois did in his June 1919 article on the pan-Africanist dimensions of the Egyptian revolution for NAACP journal The Crisis, Egyptian nationalists criticized the British for a perceived mis-racialization of Egyptians as “men of color.”
Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living in Egypt today with the ancient pharaohs, emerged in this context as a kind of alternative to British efforts at racializing Egyptians as people of color. Focusing on rural Egyptians as a kind of pure, untouched group that could be studied anthropologically to glean information about an essential kind of “Egyptianness,” Pharaonism positioned rural-to-urban migrants in the professional middle classes as “real Egyptians” who were biological heirs to an ancient civilization, superior to Black Africans and not deserving of political subordination to white supremacy.
Understanding Pharaonism as a type of racial nationalism may help explain recent controversies that have erupted in Egypt over efforts by African Americans to appropriate pharaonic symbols and discourse in their own political movements. This is visible in minor social media controversies, such as when Beyoncé was called out for “cultural appropriation” for twerking on stage in a costume depicting the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. But sometimes, social media can spill over into more mainstream forms of Egyptian culture, such as when the conversation around the racist #StopAfrocentricConference hashtag—an online campaign to cancel “One Africa: Returning to the Source,” a conference organized by African Americans in Aswan, Egypt—received coverage on the popular TV channel CBC. While these moral panics pale in comparison to American efforts to eradicate critical race theory, for example, they still point to a significant undercurrent animating Egyptian political and social life.
Writing the Human: A Person Is a Person Through Other People
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.
“Are we fighting to end colonialism, a worthy cause, or are we thinking about what we will do after the last white policeman leaves?”
Several decades after he wrote these words, these sentiments from Frantz Fanon remain an urgent challenge for postcolonial societies. In 2022, austerity measures implemented by multilateral organisations are back in countries like Kenya which are arguably still recovering from the devastation of the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1980s. Echoing colonisation, extractive economics framed as development and investment is everywhere, from natural resources to digital platforms. Black people are once again on sale as domestic and construction workers in countries that refuse to provide them basic human rights protections, and recently as potential conscripts in wars that have nothing to do with them. Nearly eighty years after Fanon articulated the demands of independence from colonisation, countries of the global south are still struggling to extricate themselves from the deeply unequal global dynamics. History is repeating itself.
When does the “post” in “postcolonial” begin? When do we get free?
Somewhere on the journey to the postcolony, the freedom dreams of so many societies in the world seem to have lost their way. To borrow from Fanon, it is evident that several societies did not give enough room to articulate and nurture freedom dreams beyond the desire to watch the last white policeman leave. Many of our revolutionaries like Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral and Steve Biko were assassinated because the size and scope of their dreams was a threat to the global hegemons. Others, like Winnie Mandela and Andree Blouin, suffered intense personal attacks, and exile and isolation from the sites of their work. And others like Robert Mugabe became consumed with the idea of power at all costs, trading freedom and the greater good for personal accumulation and military power, refusing to cede even an inch of power to anyone. The freedom dreams atrophied in the shadow of these losses, and today the map to the “post” remains buried in the sand.
It’s difficult in this day and age to write an essay about freedom when the word has been co-opted by so many people who use a bastardised definition of the word to advance the destruction of others. In Western countries, right-wing movements routinely use the word to refer to selfish ambitions to protect wealth and exclude others. Freedom has unfortunately become synonymous with selfishness in too many places around the world, with extremists using it to justify laws and policies that destroy social protections for the poor and marginalised. Tragically, the word needs some qualification and contextualisation before it can be used sincerely to engage with the realities unfolding around us.
And yet freedom remains a deeply necessary project. The desire for freedom is what transforms individual desires or ambitions into social projects. Freedom is a lot like being in love. It’s difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t yet experienced it but once you’ve experienced it even once you feel its absence keenly. It’s the peace of knowing that you are in a community that is working towards something greater than just survival, but is instead imagining and building a world in which everyone thrives. It is mutual support and solidarity. It is care and concern. It is an obsession with justice and inequality not just for those who have access to the levers of power but for everyone. It is more than meaningless numbers and empty promises of development. Freedom is truth telling and accountability, but also connection and restoration. Freedom is living in a society that recognises your personhood and that wants to make room for everyone to live fully, audaciously and joyfully. Freedom is a social concern that cannot be achieved as an individual. Human beings are social creatures. You are not free because you live outside the constraints of a society: you are free because you live in a society that values your existence and allows you to maintain meaningful connection with others.
Freedom dreams are a crucial part of attaining the “post” in postcoloniality. The desire for freedom is what pushes people to coordinate around lofty ambitions and develop a programme of action for achieving them. The desire for freedom pushes us into deliberation and debate about what our societies can represent, but they also push us into introspection about our personal role in achieving those goals. Freedom dreams are more than just flights of fancy. They are invitations to coordinate and participate in social life. Freedom dreams are like a compass. They give a collective perspective on what we need to do in order to build the kind of society in which we can all thrive.
So, the increasing absence of freedom dreams in the way our ideas of progress or development are articulated is more than rhetorical loss. It’s not simply sad that today we talk about GDP and economic growth as measures of progress, and not welfare and inclusivity. It is a loss of orientation. It is what makes it possible for people to use money as a shorthand for all the things that we need to make social life make sense. Instead of universal health, people try to get wealthy enough to opt out of poorly funded public health systems. Instead of facing the calamity of climate change together, wealthy people build bunkers to allow them to survive in the apocalypse. Instead of thinking about conflict as a collective tragedy, wealthy countries see it as an opportunity to make money. And instead of seeing a global pandemic as an opportunity to reset and reinforce social systems that have for too long excluded the needs of the chronically ill and disabled, the elderly, and even children, we double down on the misguided idea that an advanced species is one in which the most vulnerable are allowed to die. All of these outcomes are united by the underlying fallacy that securing money can ever be a shorthand for the freedom dreams of living in a just society.
Within the postcolony, there has probably never been a greater need for freedom dreams than now. In Africa, the absence of a broad unifying orientation means we might quite literally become fodder for other people’s projects. Right now, young men and women are being enticed to fight for both Russia and Ukraine, neither of which has expressed particular concern for the wellbeing of Africans in the past. Russian mercenaries are wreaking havoc in several African countries; Ukraine is one of the biggest arms providers to African conflicts. Young Africans continue to die unnecessary deaths on the Mediterranean Sea because of unfounded fears of invasion, even as the West opens up its doors to tens of thousands more Ukrainian refugees. As Western countries try to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas, Africa is once again on the menu as an alternative source for these raw materials. There is an unspoken expectation that countries of the global south must stoically bear the burden of these inequalities because the freedom dreams of others are somehow more valuable than ours.
And in the absence of governments that care about our own freedom dreams, it is unclear what we will look like at the end of this period of global uncertainty (if there is one — climate change is still an omnipotent threat). Our freedom dreams are being bartered for trinkets by leaders who wrongly believe that wealth and proximity to power in another part of the world will ever be as meaningful or taste as sweet as building freedom where you are rooted. Are we entering another period in which authoritarians will double down on violence against us and remain unchallenged because they say the right things to different parties to the conflict? Watching leaders of India, Uganda, Sudan and more line up behind Russia certainly does not bode well. Will this season birth another era of Pinochets, Mengistus, and Mobutus? Will we watch once again as our freedom dreams are subsumed in global conflicts from which only the most greedy and violent will profit?
Our freedom dreams remind us that we have work to do that is bigger than this historical moment. The work is not to build the wealthiest country or the biggest army. The work is to build societies in which money isn’t a gatekeeper to living a decent life. The work is resetting our relationship with the natural environment so that the measure of our lives is not simply reduced to our unchecked ability to consume. Angela Davis reminds us that our freedom dreams cannot be constrained to our own lifetime but must be anchored in a desire to leave behind a world worth living in for future generations. We need our freedom dreams.
The freedom dreams of those who resisted and rejected colonisation seem a world away from the meagre ambitions of many of today’s leaders. Whereas previous generations fought for dignity and holistic defence of human life, today our dreams are organised around depoliticised ambitions like development or gender equality. The radical demands of rejecting systemic racialised violence and institutionalised exclusion have been deescalated into calls for scraps from the table.
And yet, looking around at the trajectory the world is on, freedom dreams have never been more urgent or important. It is tempting to resist the urge to deliberate and deconstruct, because it is labour. In a world that increasingly wants to turn everything – including our leisure time – into labour, the desire to disengage is deeply seductive. But freedom dreams cannot be defined in isolation.
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.
This essay is part of the “Futures of Freedom” collection of Progressive International’s Blueprint pillar.
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