Connect with us

Ideas

Disaster Capitalism in the Age of COVID-19

15 min read.

The coronavirus pandemic, like other disasters, will no doubt provide opportunities to some people to make money. When many get killed, there are always a few that make a killing. This is the essence of disaster capitalism.

Published

on

Disaster Capitalism in the Age of COVID-19
Download PDFPrint Article

The current COVID-19 pandemic, originating in Wuhan, China, is just one in a series of pandemics that have characterised the epidemiological history of humanity over the centuries. Among the most notable pandemics in the modern world are the HIV/AIDS pandemic that peaked between 2005 and 2012 period, and which is estimated to have killed 36 million people so far; the 1968 influenza pandemic that killed one million people; the Asian influenza of 1956-58 that killed two million; the cholera pandemic of 1910-11 that killed 800,000; and the 1918-20 influenza pandemic (also known as the Spanish flu) that affected more than one-third of the world and decimated an estimated 20—50 million people.

Perhaps the Bubonic plague, also known as Black Death, remains the most devastating pandemic recorded in world history. Originating in China, it is said to have struck in Europe in 1347 and, in four years, it killed 200 million people. It is the Bubonic plague that led to the coining of the word and practice of quarantine. With knowledge that the plague was contracted through proximity to carriers, authorities in Venice, Italy, began holding newly arrived sailors in isolation on their own ships until they could prove that they were not sick. Initially, they were held for 30 days – trentino in Venetian law – then, over time, this was increased to 40 days – quarantino – and thus quarantine was born.

Whereas the Bubonic plague was caused by a bacterium, Yersinia pestis, COVID-19 is caused by a virus, coronavirus. There, however, is a parallel in the manner in which the two pandemics spread. The Bubonic plague was spread by maritime transport – by commercial ships sailing from one continental port to another. Similarly, coronavirus has apparently been spread across continents and countries by air travel. It is remarkable, for instance, that the most affected areas in the United States are big hubs of the international aviation industry. These include New York City, Seattle, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, and Miami, among others.

Overall, the most devastating pandemics in human history have been the Bubonic plague, cholera, influenza, and smallpox. Smallpox was endemic to Europe, Asia, and Arabia for centuries and it killed one-third of those infected. It was spread to the Americas by European settlers and, without immunity to the new disease, the natives of these places were killed in the tens of millions.

Fortunately, smallpox was the first viral pandemic to be ended by a vaccine. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared in 1980 that smallpox had been eradicated from the face of the earth. The Ebola virus, which struck the three West African countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone in 2014, killed thousands. However, it was regionally confined mainly to the three West African countries and was thus considered an epidemic rather than a pandemic. By mid-April 2020, the coronavirus had killed more than 120,000 people, the majority of them in the Global North.

Overall, the most devastating pandemics in human history have been the Bubonic plague, cholera, influenza, and smallpox. Smallpox was endemic to Europe, Asia, and Arabia for centuries and it killed one-third of those infected.

One major impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is its demonstration of the extent to which the contemporary world has become interconnected. The idea that our world has become a global village is no longer hyperbole. Emanating from Wuhan, the sprawling capital city of Central China’s Hubei Province, in November 2019, the coronavirus spread by air travel to all corners of the world within no time. It has affected both the lowly and the mighty, from the ordinary citizens of this world to the most powerful political actors, such as the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, Prince Charles, US Senator Randy Paul, Prince Albert II of Monaco, Australian Minister of Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, French Minister of Culture, Franck Riester, as well as Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, the wife of the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. At the beginning of the second week of April 2020, the top ten most affected countries in terms of sheer numbers of the infected and deaths as a percentage of the infected are as listed in the Table below.

Top Ten Coronavirus Infected Countries as of April 9, 2020

Source: Compiled from Worldometers, 2020

Second, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the level of preparedness of governments around the world to deal with such a pandemic. Among the top ten listed countries in the Table above, it is evident that Germany has done very well in managing the pandemic. Ranking 4th in terms of number infected, it drops to 10th in terms of number of deaths as a proportion of the infected, at under 2%. The UK appears to be doing the worst, ranking 8th in terms of number of infected, but first in terms of deaths as a percentage of the infected, at 13%. The Netherlands has also done poorly, ranking 12th (not among the top ten) in number of infected persons; it ranks third in terms of percentage of deaths, at 11%. In terms of sheer numbers, Italy has the highest number of COVID-19 deaths, at 17,907, constituting 12.69% of the country’s infected population, ranking second to the UK. Arguably, there are great lessons to be learnt from how Germany and South Korea have handled the COVID-19 pandemic. South Korea, one of the first countries to be hit hard by the pandemic, quickly flattened the infection and death curves and is no longer among the top most affected countries globally.

Third, the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the tragi-comedy of the American presidency under Donald Trump. When the media started reporting on the emerging pandemic, Trump, as self-absorbed as ever, never took it seriously. Instead, with the help of his favorite conservative media house, Fox News, he dismissed talk of a coronavirus pandemic as “a hoax”, as another attempt by the Democrats to “impeach” him. At one moment the president remarked that the virus would simply disappear one day! He was more concerned with the impact of the coronavirus on his chances for re-election and thus sought to wish it away. Asked by journalist Yamiche Alcindor why the US’s testing for the coronavirus was far behind other countries in per capita terms, Trump’s response demonstrated that he does not even understand what “per capita” means! The initial response of the Trump administration was thus one of mismanagement, scapegoating, and missed opportunities. No wonder the country swiftly shot to the top of the infection table within no time. Unfortunately, this approach was replicated in Kenya where the government continued to allow flights to land in the country, including one carrying 236 passengers from China, the origin of the coronavirus, with a simple advice to arriving passengers to “self-quarantine”

Fourth, the COVID-19 pandemic has facilitated Cuba to stage a kind of diplomatic coup against the US. Cuba has one of the highest numbers of medical professionals in the world: 90,000 in a country of 11 million. Of these, 37,000 are deployed in countries around the world, some on medical aid missions, but most on official contracts with recipient countries paying Cuba directly. It is estimated that Cuba makes $6 billion annually from the export of medical and other public services. Whereas Cuba and the US reached some rapprochement during the Obama administration, with the two cooperating to help fight the Ebola epidemic in 2014, the Trump administration has, for two years, focused on obliterating Cuba’s deployment of medical personnel abroad, a great source of soft power for Cuba. Arguing that the medical professionals are exploited workers and agents of Communist indoctrination, the Trump administration scored victories when Bolivia, Brazil, and Ecuador cancelled contracts of thousands of Cuban medical professionals following the electoral defeat in the three countries of leftist governments allied with Havana by rightist ones closely allied with Washington.

The initial response of the Trump administration was thus one of mismanagement, scapegoating, and missed opportunities. No wonder the country swiftly shot to the top of the infection table within no time.

With the COVID-19 pandemic hitting hard, however, the fortunes of Cuba’s medical diplomacy have received a shot in the arm. In the midst of the crisis, Cuba deployed 593 doctors to 14 countries including Andorra, Belize, Dominica, Italy, Jamaica, and Nicaragua. In hard hit Crema City in the northern Lombardy region of Italy, 52 Cuban doctors and nurses set up a field hospital with 32 beds equipped with oxygen and 3 ICU beds to help manage the pandemic in one of the most overwhelmed areas of the country. In response to continued US discouragement of countries from contracting Cuban medical workers even amid the current pandemic, Andorran Foreign Minister, María Ubach is quoted as saying, “I am aware of the position of the United States, but we are a sovereign country and we can choose the partners with which we are going to have cooperation,” a profound testimony to the changing fortunes of Cuban medical diplomacy. Indeed, Cuban state officials have been proudly posting videos of Cuban doctors receiving standing ovations as they arrive abroad to begin work, and have been blasting the Trump administration for its criticisms. Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s ambassador to Canada, tweeted: “Shame on you. Instead of attacking Cuba and its committed doctors, you should be caring about the thousands of sick Americans who are suffering due to the scandalous neglect of your government and the inability of your failed health system to care for them.”

Fifth, and perhaps most poignantly, the COVID-19 pandemic has created lucrative opportunities for what celebrated Canadian author, Naomi Klein, calls “disaster capitalism”. This is an extreme form of capitalism created in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, whether a natural one like an earthquake, volcanic eruption, or hurricane, or a man-made one like a war, a financial crisis, or a terrorist attack. Klein note, in her seminal book, Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, that many governments employ the brutal tactic of using the public’s disorientation during a collective shock from disaster to enact radical pro-corporate measures that would otherwise be impossible to pass through. These include: (1) privatisation of public property; (2) arbitrary elimination of laws, clinically dubbed “deregulation”; and (3) slashing democratically chosen programmes that help ordinary citizens, euphemistically called “austerity measures”.

This strategy, according to Klein, has been a silent partner to the imposition of neoliberalism for more than 40 years. Its application follows a clear pattern: wait for a crisis, or help foment one through identity conflicts and coup-making; declare a moment of what is sometimes called “extraordinary politics”; suspend some or all democratic norms; and then ram the corporate wish-list through as quickly as possible. Any tumultuous situation, Klein avers, if framed with sufficient hysteria by political leaders, could serve this softening-up function. It could be an event as radical as a military coup, but the economic shock of a market or budget crisis would also do the trick. Political and economic elites are acutely aware that moments of crisis constitute their best opportunity to push through their wish-list of unpopular policies that further polarise wealth by making the wealthy wealthier and the poor poorer.

For instance, the 2007-2008 financial crisis facilitated the US political and economic elite to sell a panicked population on the necessity for attacks on social protections and for an enormous bailout to prop up the financial private sector. Cheques worth billions of public dollars were made out to private financial institutions with arguments that failure to do so would lead to an economic apocalypse! No one was interested in questioning the role of the very institutions in causing the economic crisis through their greed and predatory lending, nor in questioning where the billions they made in annual profits were.

Similarly, one major response to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US has been the passing of a two-trillion-dollar stimulus package. The planned parceling out of this stimulus package is testimony to how corporations always benefit from such crises. Of the two trillion dollars, ordinary Americans, hundreds of millions of them, are set to receive a slice of only 30%; public services will receive 9%; state and local governments 17%; so-called small businesses will receive 19% while the few big corporations are set to get 25% of the pie – a whopping half a trillion dollars! In other words, 46% of the $2 trillion will go to private capitalist interests. Indeed, as The Wall Street Journal reports, the coronavirus stimulus package has fueled a boom for lobbyists as companies jostle to secure the biggest possible slice of the $2 trillion package for themselves.

Another aspect of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been closure of schools and recourse to online and remote teaching and learning. Clearly, therefore, the crisis wrought by the pandemic is turning out to be a boon for the providers of the internet tools needed for cyber-education, all of which are poised to make unprecedented profits. These include providers of “free” education apps, like Google, who end up reaping massive harvests of data that are critical to their advertising and marketing strategies. As Kline opines, this doesn’t mean that some of their solutions aren’t good; it means that they have to be watched carefully, and school authorities should be asking questions bearing in mind that they are not talking to philanthropists who just want to help out, but companies that are responding to a chance to profit from disaster. Indeed, it would not be surprising, she observes, if some virtual schooling businesses don’t see pandemic-related school closings as a chance to take over portions of the education sector permanently, whether they can actually provide quality education or not.

Similarly, one major response to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US has been the passing of a two-trillion-dollar stimulus package. The planned parceling out of this stimulus package is testimony to how corporations always benefit from such crises.

The idea of disaster capitalism has become the modus operandi of capitalism in our contemporary world. All manner of crises, both natural and man-made, are turned into lucrative money-making opportunities for corporate interests and an opportunity for political elites to implement otherwise unpopular policies that serve the special interests of capital. A number of other cases, including the September 2001 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina in the US, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and the perpetual crisis of civil war in the Congo suffice to illustrate this.

9/11, Katrina, and disaster capitalism

Steve Fraser writes that the reconstruction programmes that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina were skewed heavily in favour of the business community and the rich. In both New York and New Orleans, sites of the man-made and natural disasters, respectively, big business controlled the redevelopment process, and ipso facto, where the money landed and where it didn’t. Tax breaks and private sector subsidies became channels for federal aid. “Public benefit” standards, which once accompanied federal grants and tax exemptions to ensure that projects served some public purpose, especially to “benefit persons of low and moderate income”, were eliminated, leaving poorer people out in the cold, while exacerbating existing inequalities. Both federal, state, and city governments scurried around to invent ways to auction off reconstruction projects to private interests by issuing tax exempt “Private Activity Bonds”. These were soon gloriously renamed “Liberty Bonds”, though, as Fraser notes, the unasked question was: Whose liberty?

The lion’s share of government grants and exemptions went to the biggest corporations. In New York, more than 40% of all bonds amounting to $2.4 billion, went to a single developer, Larry Silverstein. Second to Silverstein was Goldman Sachs. Yet these institutions and their inhabitants represented at best a mere 15% of those affected, most of whom were low-wage workers who, in some cases, ended up getting evicted from their homes, thanks to those business-oriented tax breaks. “Federal aid, hypothetically tied to building affordable housing and the creation of living-wage jobs ended up as just that: hypothetical,” Fraser writes.

When Hurricane Katrina hit America’s Gulf Coast in 2005, it wrought major devastation in terms of human and property loss as well as economic cost. To the surprise of many around the world, Katrina also laid bare America’s shocking poverty. Most people in Mississippi and New Orleans who stayed put in the wake of the hurricane did so not out of choice but because they were too poor to leave. According to figures from the 2000 US census, close to 40% of the New Orleans population lived in poverty, with 27% having no access to a vehicle. Yet in the aftermath of the hurricane, disaster capitalists were the chief beneficiaries of the reconstruction efforts, not the poor victims of the horrific disaster.

Following Katrina, real estate mogul Joseph Canizaro said, in classic disaster capitalist attitude, that the clearing out caused by Katrina represented some “very big opportunities”. A Republican representative from Baton Rouge said, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” In this event, as Rachel Riederer writes, “cronies of the Bush administration profited from post-Katrina reconstruction,” with Halliburton subsidiary KBR paying out tens of millions of dollars for no-bid contracts. Public schools and public housing were swept away in the redevelopment. Now, more than one third of tenants in New Orleans pay more than half of their monthly income in rent and the city now has more than 100,000 fewer African American residents whose annual incomes are 54% lower than those of their Caucasian counterparts. The largely privatised school system has achieved many of its test-score gains, leading to former Education Secretary Arne Duncan to famously quip that Hurricane Katrina was the “best thing” to happen to education in New Orleans. Notably this turned out to mean that the disaster swept aside the public school system and opened up opportunities for private operators to move in. These have achieved test-scores by excluding the city’s most disadvantaged students. It is on account of this that John Mutter notes that Katrina put the disaster in disaster capitalism.

The earthquake in Haiti

In his aptly titled book, Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make the Rich Richer and the Poor even Poorer, John Mutter points out that, though we think of earthquakes, cyclones, floods and the like as “natural” disasters, the pattern and level of destruction they inflict are socially determined. Existing inequalities of housing, of land quality, or information asymmetry, are only part of the story. Natural disasters, Mutter shows, often make inequality worse, but that process is no accident of nature. In the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Mutter observes, “destruction was indiscriminate; the homes of the rich and the homes of the poor were all targets.” But the homes of the poor were poorly constructed and much more vulnerable. Though the quake itself—what Mutter calls “the natural part of the disaster”—affected rich and poor alike, the relief process was not so even-handed. In a society already starkly divided by class, the elites were able to pay for private medical and rebuilding services, while the poor were relegated to crowded, dangerous tent cities.

Following Katrina, real estate mogul Joseph Canizaro said, in classic disaster capitalist attitude, that the clearing out caused by Katrina represented some “very big opportunities”. A Republican representative from Baton Rouge said, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

Within the context of the shock and crisis following the earthquake, the Haitian government was compelled to enact a legislation in April 2010 that created the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC) to oversee post-earthquake reconstruction. The IHRC was empowered to do whatever it wanted, including approving policies, projects, and budgeting. The IHRC’s 26 board members were elected by no one and were accountable to no one. Half of them were foreign, including representatives of other governments, multilateral financial institutions, and non-governmental organisations. An international development consultant contracted by the IHRC, speaking with the Haiti Support Group’s Deepa Panchang and Beverly Bell, noted; “Look, you have to realize the IHRC was not intended to work as a structure or entity for Haiti or Haitians. It was simply designed as a vehicle for donors to funnel multinationals’ and NGOs’ project contracts.”

What followed the flood of donations that poured into Haiti following the earthquake was a classic case of disaster capitalism. John Mutter writes that the donations were “viewed as manna from heaven by the unscrupulous, a chance for new profit”. Citing a report from the Center for Economic Policy and Research, Mutter shows that of the nearly 1,500 contracts awarded as part of the Haitian relief project, only 23 went to Haitian companies, constituting a paltry 2.5% of the $195 million. Much of the rest went to US contractors based in and around Washington DC, often through no-bid contracts. In other words, to these US companies, the natural disaster in Haiti was simply an opportunity to make a killing.

Disaster capitalism and instability in the DRC

In Africa, nothing illustrates the case of disaster capitalism than the perpetual crisis of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The DRC is endowed with a rich and diverse natural resource base that is of vital significance to the global technological and electronic industry. Among these are gold, wolframite, coltan (columbite tantalite), and cassiterite, all of whose uses in the electronic and technological products make them precious and much sought-after commodities. Gold is highly conductive and resistant to corrosion and is thus used to make connectors, soldered joints, and connection wires, in addition to jewelry. Wolframite is the source of tungsten, an element that is used in applications like turning tools and milling, electronic devices including the vibration function in cellphones, cemented carbides, electrical, heating, and welding applications. Coltan is a metal ore from which the element tantalum is extracted and used to make high quality capacitors for applications requiring high performance, compact format, and high reliability. These include hearing aids, pacemakers, airbags, GPS systems, laptops, cellphones, videogame consoles, as well as video and digital cameras. Cassiterite is a metal ore from which tin is made and is used for producing cans, solder for electronic circuit boards, and plumbing.

The perpetual crisis of instability in the DRC is thus a kind of organised chaos that serves the vested interests of many actors at the local, national, regional, and international levels. Eastern Congo’s mines are controlled by militias and rebel groups that use profits from these minerals to perpetuate the DRC conflict. The conflict is estimated to have claimed more than 5 million lives since 1998, while trade in the minerals has continued apace with regular flights in and out of North Kivu’s Walikale in the conflict zone. Whereas miners make between one and five dollars a day working for either an armed group or someone who pays an armed group, the militias rake in millions of dollars. It is estimated that in 2009, militias made USD180 million while final dealers at the end of the chain made up to 50 times this amount.

According to British-based Global Witness’s 2009 report, the national Congolese army (FARDC) and rebel groups (especially FDLR – Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda), regularly cooperate with each other in Eastern DRC, carve up territory between themselves, and systematically use forced labour and violent extortion in mining areas. The conflict minerals then go through various middlemen from DRC through Burundi and Rwanda to East Asia where they are processed into valuable metals needed for electronic and other industrial products by companies such as Thailand Smelting and Refining Corporation (THAISARCO), the world’s fifth largest tin producing company. Incidentally, THAISARCO is owned by the British giant, Amalgamated Metal Corporation.

The perpetual crisis of instability in the DRC is thus a kind of organised chaos that serves the vested interests of many actors at the local, national, regional, and international levels…It is estimated that in 2009, militias made USD180 million while final dealers at the end of the chain made up to 50 times this amount.

Global Witness, an international NGO that campaigns to break the chain-link between natural resources and armed conflict, established in 2008 that the British-based Afrimex company was dealing in conflict minerals from the DRC. In its own investigation, the British government verified this finding that Afrimex was buying minerals from suppliers who made payments to rebel groups, a practice that was in breach of OECD international guidelines. Despite this finding, however, no concrete measures were taken by the government against Afrimex, not even a slap on the wrist. Other companies mentioned by Global Witness as partakers of trade in conflict minerals include Trademet and Traxys, both from Belgium, American electronic tech companies Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola, as well as Finnish telecom, infotech and electronics company Nokia. In their 2009 report, Global Witness concluded that the failure of governments to hold companies accountable, the failure of Rwanda and Burundi to restrict trade across their borders, and the failure of donors and diplomats to explicitly address the conflict minerals trade, have all contributed to the continuation of the endless DRC conflict.

Indeed, an effort to legislatively rein in the activities of American companies that profit from conflict minerals in 2009 came a cropper. In April 2009, Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas introduced the Congo Conflict Minerals Act to require electronics companies to verify and disclose their sources of cassiterite, wolframite, and tantalum. The proposed legislation died in committee stage, perhaps a testimony to the lobbying power of the targeted companies that profit from the crisis of instability in the DRC.

Conclusion

Overall, the United States has perfected the practice of creating crises ostensibly to serve the interests of its capitalist class. These include waging unnecessary wars, engineering coups and regime change, and fomenting intra-state conflicts. The main beneficiaries of such adventures include military defence contractors, private security contractors, and energy and natural resource companies – a phenomenon that has come to be referred to as the military industrial complex. No wonder American elections are an exorbitantly expensive affair in which special interests finance politicians’ campaigns and, once in office, the politicians execute legislative agendas in the service of the said special interests. It is on account of this that investigative journalist Greg Palast describes the American system as the best democracy money can buy in a book of the same title and subtitled A Tale of Billionaires and Bandit Ballots.

At the end of the day, in the event of a disaster, whether natural or man-made, pandemic or war, hurricane or earthquake, flooding or volcanic eruption, whereas there are many that get killed, there are always a few that make a killing. This is the essence of disaster capitalism.

Avatar
By

Wanjala S. Nasong’o, Ph.D. is Professor of International Studies at Rhodes College, Memphis, Tennessee, USA.

Ideas

Moving Beyond Africapitalists and Economic Messiahs: Redefining African Entrepreneurship

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

Published

on

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

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

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

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

Economic messiahs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entrepreneurship in precolonial Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Globalised capital that empowers and privileges

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

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

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

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

Neoliberal fetishisation of African entrepreneurship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue Reading

Ideas

The Shape of Our Post-COVID Future

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

Published

on

The Shape of Our Post-COVID Future
Download PDFPrint Article

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

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

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

Exposing a pyramid scheme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The virus is a fractal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The war of the future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue Reading

Ideas

Plagues and the Prose Informing Our Shared Condition

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

Published

on

Plagues and the Prose Informing Our Shared Condition
Download PDFPrint Article

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

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

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

Situational analyses and political narratives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big picture social science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narratives of collapse and anti-climax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The novel and the dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue Reading

Trending