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Pandemonium! The Pathology of a Pandemic

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The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the world’s wounds, scars, fissures and pressures. The fear of an impending catastrophe when the virus finally reaches zones of abandonment remind us of the violence and partialities that partition a world that should ideally be shared and held in common.

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Pandemonium! The Pathology of a Pandemic
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I. Pharmakon

The recent exposure of our bodies to foreign bodies has also exposed the cracks and limited sympathies that form the body politic. The COVID-19 pandemic has made us aware of a world that we all share. A world whose wounds, scars, fissures and pressures do not open up to an outside. A world where bodies and borders fold back into themselves, revealing the things that animate the current order, as well as that which is yet to come.

As we are told to distance ourselves from other human and non-human beings, let us remember that there are things that the act of distancing cannot prevent. That there are many separations and intimacies, as well as wounds, that it cannot heal. As we are encouraged to wash our hands and to stay at home, let us revisit the cultures of the home and dynamics of homelessness too. With critical care and compassion, with renewed passion and attention, let us question some of the presentist tales on retail and see the pharmakon — the remedy, the poison, and the scapegoat — that they entail.

For the past two years, the Kenyan political imaginary has been mediated and saturated by a dynastic handshake. A handshake whose supposedly reconciling touch has created new political alignments and theistic rearrangements. Like other diplomatic gestures aimed at repairing democratic fissures, the handshake has generated reports and initiatives of conjecture. For some, it is a breath of fresh air. For others, it is a political chokehold and a cause of breathlessness. For some, the handshake is a pay cheque.

With the current emergency measures being declared against the backdrop of an immunitary politics of touch and breathlessness, we should be wary of the emergence of untouchable officers who suspend or act outside of the law. But there is a doubleness to this untouchability. While it signals to the impunity and fear that marks our immunitary present, it also calls upon us to apprehend , embrace, and agitate with the millions that our political habits have abandoned and rendered precarious – the so-called “untouchables” whose everyday life and vision of the future is marked by hunger and breathlessness of one form or another, the millions for whom the curfew and other emergency measures carry the forces of life and death in equal measure.

In this time when faces sit behind masks or, as we have seen, so many black skins move without masks, we need to question the official protocols behind the disposal of the breathless dead in undignified ways. We need to heed the calls of homeward-bound travelers who are subjected to the familiar tools of repression while some —untouched by the familiar brutality of rungus and teargas —remain “safely” bound within their homes. As the home-bound people moralise and cheer on the few armed men who enforce the curfew against the so-called “undisciplined masses”, remember that home – that assumed space of safety – also causes premature death for others. Remember that on these streets some people do not need to commit an infraction; their very existence, their everyday movement, their way of being, is now an infraction. Today it is them, tomorrow it might be you.

It is during this time – when habitual forms of touch, breath, intimacy, or even desire can be fatal – that one must find ways of touching and connecting to others in other ways. Beware of the fear of exposure to foreign bodies that makes one fearful or suspicious of foreigners. Beware of the war metaphors and mobilisations that urge people to withdraw into themselves, cut the ties and veins that connect them to others, and plug the nodes and portals through which contact and contagion take place. Beware of the calls to take the politics of touch too literally, such that one cannot be touched by the plight and joy of others. It is when we are all masked up and everyday touch becomes lethal that one must remember the touching words of Frantz Fanon at the end of his Black Skins, White Masks where he calls upon us:

[…]to recapture the self and to scrutinize the self, it is through the lasting tension of their freedom that men will be able to create the ideal conditions of existence for a human world…Why not the quite simple attempt to touch the other, to feel the other, to explain the other to myself?

II. Care/Carefulness

In these times where we are called upon to shelter in place and distance ourselves from others, let us also distance ourselves from our habitual ways of being and the selves that they hold in place. Undoubtedly, the emergency modes of care and immunity generate regimes of carefulness that guarantee life and safety, but certain forms of carefulness also stand in the way of solidarity and attunement to the wailing and mumbling of the world.

With the recognition that solidarity is both a gift and a sacrifice that binds, we must ask what it means to stand with another without producing micro-fascisms and architectures of enmity that reduce difference to identity while subjecting it to dominant regimes of recognition. At what point, we might ask, do solidarities become sodalities or even a kind of new modality of being with others based on limited sympathies and forms of fear?

It is during this time – when habitual forms of touch, breath, intimacy, or even desire can be fatal – that one must find ways of touching and connecting to others in other ways.

As we witness abandoned African migrants being profiled, evicted, abused, and expelled from Guangzhou in China while African states receive personal protective equipment donations from China and test kits and masks from Jack Ma and as we see people of Asian descent being spat on, wailed at, and attacked on U.S. streets based on the notion that they are the originators and carriers of SARS-CoV-2 virus, how are we to respond? How can we attend to the double challenge that calls upon Africans at home to condemn the violence against fellow Africans in China as well as that which is waged against the Chinese and other Asians in the U.S.— a place where fellow black people are already disproportionately exposed to illness , injury, and death? How are we to ensure that we do not excuse or reproduce these violences here at home or anywhere else for that matter? Whither the spirit of Bandung? Insofar as this geography of pain and therefore ethics is concerned, Africans, it seems, are the behemoth that sees multiple sides of the violence, debt, gifts, and betrayals that summon us to condemn, mobilise, and sympathise simultaneously. Tragic as it may be, awareness of these layered precarities provides an orientation that remains crucial for negotiating and navigating the world of separations that is emerging in the wake of the pandemic and its related pandemonium.

***

Again, and owing to biocolonial and biopolitical concerns, the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus across the globe has led to new discourses on African lack and excess. In some of these narratives, the low incidence of the COVID-19 disease in Africa is attributed to the systemic disconnectedness of Africa from the rest of the world. In other discourses, Africans are said to be immune to a virus that is ravaging humanity at large, given that they are a species apart from humanity.

Within this second figuration, imagined African immunity serves as evidence of a superhuman or subhuman status, thus legitimising the creation of drug trial regimes or resilience-based systems of abandonment based on the notion that Africans will always adapt to conditions that other human beings cannot live in. Either way, the African scene — just like the camps and refugee holding centers in Bangladesh and Europe, Gaza, and prisons in the U.S. — is seen as an exceptional incubator of disease. Accordingly, the abandoned, displaced, walled-off, or exploited collectivities are considered to be the source of enduring threat and fear to the isolated, who might remain uninfected yet but is still affected by the disease. As COVID-19 reveals connections and disconnections that are often disavowed and living conditions that should never have existed in the first place, further moves are made to separate and contain the refugees, prisoners, Palestinian, and African carriers of difference rather than abolish the apartheid orders and structures of exclusion that make the prospect of disease in these places so lethal.

The fear of an impending catastrophe when the virus finally reaches these zones of abandonment – where political and health systems, as well as living conditions, aren’t conducive for the enforcement of social distancing or other measures required to contain the spread of the COVID-19 disease – tell us a lot about the “abnormality” and pathology of the spaces that we take as normal. The gaps — which in reality are a gaping abyss — remind us of the violence and partialities that partition a world that should be shared and held in common.

***

When we are called upon to clean the world, our homes, and ourselves, let us heed the words of Françoise Vergès who, in an essay on “Capitalocene, Waste, Race, and Gender” carefully illustrates the gendered dynamics of care and cleaning and the intricate economy and circulation of exhausted bodies that work in spaces of everyday life. Accordingly, our solidarity and our cares should lie with those who are rendered most vulnerable, superfluous, and injured by racial capitalism, patriarchy, and neoliberal logics today.

While the economy and ecology of care and cleaning are now recognised as essential to containing the spread of COVID-19, the periodic clapping and heroic chants still overlook the scars, hunger, sleeplessness, and liquification of the skins and hands of the people who clean the world. It also renders mute the very essential people that one claims to be talking about and does not protect them from being disposable or easily replaceable.

Beware of the narratives that commoditise and moralise, rather than politicise, the realm of care. Beware of the sacrificial fetishisation, rather than politicisation, of the labouring body that makes it difficult to contest the practices and dispositions that continue to lay so many lives to waste. Beware of those who turn the space of care into an extension of the policing apparatus or those who proclaim their individual freedoms to move and transact “normally”, thus putting undue pressure on already overstretched caregivers.

***

While the language of care is sometimes mobilised to speak of sustaining and rejuvenating practices of self-care, we have to ask ourselves what it is that causes the exhaustion that we are being rejuvenated from and what we are returning to in this re-energised state. In the time of the pandemic, the “care of the self” and the philosophical injunction to know oneself is not something that can be closed unto itself or cordoned off from worlds that any human being is entangled with. With this eroticism of carefulness, the condom – that erotic membrane mobilised to keep the outside outside in the wake of an earlier pandemic – is now joined by masks, gloves, and other membranes. The whole body becomes “condomised” and “sanitised”. The world becomes “moralised” as borders are enforced, as body parts and prostheses are sanitised, and as the fear of the other and suspicion of the self increase.

In New York, they have produced a guide to taking care during sex in the age of COVID-19:

Kissing can easily pass COVID-19. Avoid kissing anyone who is not part of your small circle of close contacts. * Rimming (mouth on anus) might spread COVID-19. Virus in feces may enter your mouth. *Condoms and dental dams can reduce contact with saliva or feces, especially during oral or anal sex. *Washing up before and after sex is more important than ever. Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. * Wash sex toys with soap and warm water. * Disinfect keyboards and touch screens that you share with others (for video chat, for watching pornography or for anything else).

In Nairobi, the Gengetone music group Ethic released their songs Quarantei and Soko, each articulating the violence, sex, and exuberance that accompanies this moment and that, unfortunately, reflects some fantasies and actual realities of urban sex life.

While the economy and ecology of care and cleaning are now recognised as essential to containing the spread of COVID-19, the periodic clapping and heroic chants still overlook the scars, hunger, sleeplessness, and liquification of the skins and hands of the people who clean the world.

In this time of care, and carefulness, in this time of sorrow, grief, lamentation, and burdens of the mind, let us take care of each other. Let us also be wary of the insidious moves that seek to take charge of politics, popular imagination, and desire or fear in the name of freedom. Let us beware of those that prey on vulnerable others and generate fantasies of male domination. Let us beware of the moralists who use these Nairobi scenes of excess to generate a moral panic that normalises and regulates or defines what counts as “proper” desire for everyone. For in the exceptional moment of enclosure, for in the search of a cure, a new “curia” can curate an order of heteronomous morality (unquestioning rule following) where their “orders” and even playful seductions re-order individual and collective life in the service of religious, misogynistic, capitalist, and even fascist ideals rather than amplifying an ethics of care predicated on a radical altruism and attention to more life-affirming practices (sexual or otherwise).

III. Exceptions/ Exemplarities

As we receive the communication on immunity and calls to wash our hands in order to prevent the spread of this microbial “agent”, remember those excommunicated from the sphere of ethical concern. Remember that the dry taps and inability to observe the stay-at-home orders or to even self-isolate in cramped living spaces are not geographical accidents; they are not the historical outcome of poor choices by the poor. They are the material manifestations of old and new structures of exploitation tied to the legacies of colonialism and neoliberalism as well as resilience governance in Kenya today.

When we encounter the unwashed hand or the overpriced jerrycan of water, remember the washed money and the laundered conscience that is baptised in holy water every week. Remember the attritional violence and white-collar crime which, unlike its red-collared counterpart, kills millions slowly, and with a clean conscience. Remember the dataism and algorithmic life that is becoming part of the Kenyan reality as a result of blockchain governance, biometric registration, Safaricom FinTech futures, and the popular and expert ethnic arithmetic, as well as Cambridge Analytica’s psychographics that supplement the idea of insurmountable differences or tyranny of one sort or another. Remember how the Moi era involved patterns of surveillance where the right to know every detail of individual life coincided with the sovereign right to rule in exclusion of others.

When we encounter the unwashed hand or the overpriced jerrycan of water, remember the washed money and the laundered conscience that is baptised in holy water every week.

While resisting technophobic conspiracy theories is necessary, one must recognise how the desire for more elaborate regimes of outbreak analytics and Integrated Disease Surveillance and Response Systems (IDSR) can help contain the spread of COVID-19 but also set the stage for other biopolitical and immunitary forms of governance that target and eliminate the dissenting political body. The crisis, as we come to see, is not one of immunity alone but also of community and its dynamics of superfluity. Let us question our limited sympathies and the discourses on responsibility and discipline that dictate how, or for whom, one must care, be accountable to, know, and even mourn.

IV. Spectacular/ Spectral Handshakes

With the disappearance of the handshake here and elsewhere, let us not forget how this habitual gesture became so common – how it has been banned and reinvented over time, and how it has shaken the world so many times. Remember Mussolini’s anti-bourgeois campaign that replaced the handshake with the fascist Roman salute just after the First World War and the devastation of the Spanish flu. Remember the Boy Scouts’ friendly left-hand handshake invented by Baden-Powell (now buried in Nyeri) as he colonised the Ashanti and subjected King Prempeh to the British crown.

The “genius” and deception behind British geopolitics and the colonial handshakes behind it is illustrated in Nicholas Rankin’s reflection on figures like Richard Meinertzhagen, who is well-known for his love of birds, his execution of the Haversack Ruse in Gaza, and the assassination of Koitalel Arap Samoei in Kenya. The killing, the fatal sleight-of-hand, took place when Koitalel reached out for a conciliatory handshake with the colonial officer who, in familiar anti-diplomatic fashion, denied him the privilege or immunity guaranteed to emissaries and shot him at point-blank range. Meinertzhagen also decapitated Koitalel’s body and took his head, his ornaments, and adornments as trophies of this colonial conquest.

Meinhertzhagen saw war as a metaphor for hunting, which he enjoyed immensely. The only difference for him was that in war you hunted men rather than animals. In Quetta, he used a polo mallet to bludgeon to death a worker who had mistreated his ponies. He then bribed the police to cover up the cause of death by claiming the man had died of the plague. Nearer home in Tanganyika, Meinhertzhagen and his troops searched the German latrines for soiled documents, which acted as “filthy though accurate information” in the service of the British Empire. He also killed birds and put them next to watering holes in order to deny his enemies access to the water, which was marked as poisoned. This man’s blood-soaked fingerprints and the spectre of his deceptive and man-hunting methods are felt from Kenya to Tanzania, Quetta and Palestine.

Beware of the ghosts and methods we summon when we hope to contain today’s deaths and maladies. Beware of the new manhunts, the surveillance, the handshake betrayals, the civilizing missions, the colonial logics of discipline, non-contamination, and the politics of water, toilets and toilet paper, that is sometimes never too far away from profiling, carceral, and other colonial practices. Beware of the desire for “tough” maternal and paternal love and discipline based on the notion that the only language Africans understand is that of brute force. Beware of the notion that the protection the collective is always achieved through sacrifice, punishment, and disregard for the meaningful practices, intimacies, and the little pleasures and compassion that define human and communal dignity. Beware of the interplay of customary norms and governmental exceptions, as well as the quest for a new normal that is to be built on negation rather than negotiation, or conversion without any space for conversation.

When the nostalgia for “the handshake” returns, remember how Fides, that old pagan mark of trust, reliability, and conciliation, became the ritualised sign of Christian pacification. Remember Romeo Dallier who “shook hands with the devil” in Rwanda and even “smelled him”.

Let us not forget those who refused the handshake and watched as opportunity slipped through their fingers. Remember sister Farah Alhajeh who sued and was awarded 40,000 Kronor by a Swedish labour court for discrimination after the translation company Semantix ended her job interview in May 2016 due to her refusal to shake hands with male workers because of her Islamic faith. If Alhajeh was lucky, this was not the case for an Algerian woman who, also citing her religious beliefs, refused to shake hands with the male official at the end of her citizenship ceremony in France, which led to a denial of her citizenship application. The court hearing her appeal supported the denial of her citizenship, noting that she had not assimilated into French society in spite of having been married to a French man for six years.

It is not surprising that now, owing to the COVID-19 outbreak, both countries have banned the handshake that was hitherto considered an indispensable part of their cultures. It is also not surprising that as part of a long-standing biocolonial hexagonal imagination, French doctors Jean-Paul Mira and Camille Locht suggested that new COVID-19 vaccines be tested in Africa. For the two medics, Africa is nothing but a zone of experimentation and insurmountable difference rather than a place of shared humanity.

As private hospitals turn away the sick, recall how the golden handshake of SAP-induced voluntary early retirement led so many to a hand-to-mouth existence. And remember the crafty business deals and pyramid schemes that emerged in that era of Goldenberg-induced uncertainty. Remember the era of privatisation that commodified life, normalised African privation, and gave birth to the side-hustler and the sufferer.

V. Banalities

So let us reassess the idea of the gentleman’s handshake and all the promises, bodies, and hearts that it has broken. From the unwelcome lingering or limp fish-like handshake to the firm grip that promises too much, duplicity and the sleight of hand has often accompanied this gesture. Here, inattentiveness to the lives of those who are not at the table where the agreements take place is the rule rather than the exception.

As private hospitals turn away the sick, recall how the golden handshake of SAP-induced voluntary early retirement led so many to a hand-to-mouth existence. And remember the crafty business deals and pyramid schemes that emerged in that era of Goldenberg-induced uncertainty.

As we are all told to wash our hands, remember there is a lot more to wash and that not all can do it the same way. Remember the dry callused hand whose labour is denigrated as the “farmhand” is called upon to be resilient. Question those tender manicured hands that have been washed, sanitised, and made supple by the softening touch of the business tender and laundered money. Beware of the soft blood-soaked hand that has just signed away the commons and now asks us to clap as he gives back the scraps as acts of personal charity or captures the commons as part of a glittery public-private partnership (PPP).

Beware of the sovereign handshake from the hand that remains unwashed after a bout of butt-scratching anger.

VI. Embracing Humanity/Animality

On ambitious and superfluous presidential handshakes, remember the U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) who shook hands with 8,513 people during the 1907 New Year’s Day White House celebration. But this shaker of hands was also a shaker of the world. He was a conservationist. In the company of his son, a team of naturalists, taxidermists, and African porters and guides, Roosevelt’s African safari expedition, taken shortly after his retirement, trapped, shot, classified, and chronicled over 11,000 animals from British East Africa, Belgian Congo, and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. The collected specimens were donated to the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum where they serve a pedagogical function. The collections educate some on nature conservation, others on the legacy of man as sovereign knower with dominion over nature, while others are reminded of the destruction of man, knowledge, and nature arising from a colonial order of knowledge and its ideal of man-the-collector and classifier.

Today, when some Kenyans decry the loss of safari tourism revenues, or when we look at big and small game hunters from other parts of the world, let us not forget the history and geography of this ecological catastrophe. Those who walk through the museums should remember that collection and theft are never too far away from each other. Let us remember the foundational con game that this conservationist performed and the cruel history of some of our knowledge practices and the fetishes that seek to capture the wild.

Beware of foundational conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt and Madison Grant who created public parks in the U.S., developed xenophobic policies, and caged and killed non-human beings in order to “conserve” them while preserving “their” ideal of man. Beware of today’s eco-fascists who see man as the virus on the planet and whose nihilistic desire for green spaces involves the elevation of white races and the idealisation of blood and soil in a world without us.

But Teddy Roosevelt was a man of contradictions. In a change of heart during a Mississippi hunting trip, he refused to shoot an injured bear that a guide had dutifully tied to a tree so as to please his by then exhausted master. The presidential pardon for the animal became an icon of pity, and thus the Teddy Bear was born.

Today, Western children and some Westernised Southerners go on a veritable teddy bear hunt to distract them from the COVID-19 lockdown. These, and other stuffed animals, adorn home and shop windows for children to spot as they walk around their walkable neighbourhoods.

However, others wait for the African peak of the pandemic so that teddy bears, trauma bears, and other stuffed animals may be sent to Africa as part of humanitarian teddy bear diplomacies or marketing campaigns, such as the Swedish “Teddybear Airdrop Minsk 2012”. Receive the bear, anticipate the bear hug for those seen as bare life, and beware of the bio-expectations they entail. These icons of sentimentality sometimes disavow the lived and material conditions of things or the simple fact that the night of bombs and gunshots is followed by the day of teddy bears, often sourced from the same place. Note how after the abandonment, after the disparaging remarks, after the deportations and incarcerations, comes the teary embrace — albeit for just a short while.

Today, when some Kenyans decry the loss of safari tourism revenues…let us not forget the history and geography of this ecological catastrophe. Those who walk through the museums should remember that collection and theft are never too far away from each other.

As one embraces and beholds the teddy bears in this time of zoonotic transmission of novel viruses, let us also remember and scrutinise the other things and knowledges that are going viral. The knowledge and conspiracy theories that are the rage of our age have many analogue precedents. For instance, the 1 April 1972 issue of the British peer-reviewed journal Veterinary Record carried an article about the diseases of Brunus edwardii — a species “commonly kept in homes in the United Kingdom and other countries in Europe and North America”. The article, which also carried sketches of the teddy bear (Brown Edward), warned that “the public health implications of this fact are obvious, and it is imperative that more be known about their diseases, particularly zoonoses or other conditions which might be associated with their close contact with man.” Beware of the hoaxes. Pay attention to the nuances. Let us read the stories of the animal and us and heed the reality of the animals in us or the animals that we are. Feel the disavowed animalities that make up our humanity.

***

The hand, we are told, is one of the things that makes the human being human. With the opposable thumb we get the tech of life, ranging from the fist, to tool handling skills, and all manners of gesticulating habits of crafting and communication. But hands are also carriers of difference. The privileging of dexterities and discrimination of those without hands or with limp limbs is part of the order of things.

Ours is the age of thumbs. The “all thumbs” awkward one of yesterday is now the master of the phone texting keyboard and drone controls. With the interruption of rhythms of work, school, and life, new forms of mutuality, aid, and care become imaginable in this new dispensation where we are told to keep our hands to ourselves. As we compose our worlds anew, beware of the pedagogies of apartness. Beware of those who speculate and gamble away the collective futures. Also remember those who have shown the commoner their middle finger as they feed off of our hands, bite them, and now try to keep us all at arm’s length— for our own sake, for the sake of others, but mostly for their own sake.

In the age of public notices and jeremiads, in a time of conspiracy theories and public orders, this lamentation on what we all see but sometimes shake away is a call for us to recall and recompose the things that we already know and experience. These are things that the invisible microbe forces us to look at and hold in our hearts even as the invisible hand tries to inscribe us as man-the-buyer and alienates our labour as the labouring hand becomes more restrained.

In a time where everyday touch, even when it does not bear any arms, is said to be potentially fatal, a time where touch is being virtualised for some and others have the rungu waving over their heads, remember that the ties that bind can be cut, created anew, or extended to generate a more life-affirming humanity with the possibility of a deeper mutuality.

But this time can also be captured by the forces of disaster capitalism or worse, those of disaster fascism.

So Beware! Be aware …

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By

Sam Okoth Opondo is Assistant Professor in Comparative Politics and Africana Studies at Vassar College N.Y. His research engages race, biopolitics, aesthetics and ethics in colonial, settler colonial and postcolonial societies with a focus on the dynamics of ‘mediating estrangement’ and co-habitation.

Ideas

Africa’s Land Use Problem: Is Green Revolution Agriculture a Solution or a Cause?

It is a myth that the only way to increase productivity on existing agricultural lands is through Green Revolution programmes and evidence shows that they are among the principal causes of unsustainable land use.

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Africa’s Land Use Problem: Is Green Revolution Agriculture a Solution or a Cause?
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By all accounts, food and agriculture were barely on the agenda at this month’s UN Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland. They should have been. Food production, distribution, consumption, and waste contribute an estimated one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. In production, the majority comes from unsustainable livestock production with another large share coming from unsustainable production and use of synthetic fertilizers. But a significant share also comes from “land use change”, a neutral term for the destructive expansion of agriculture onto new land.

That sort of “extensification” of agriculture can have serious environmental consequences – deforestation, soil erosion, unsustainable water use, etc. Those in turn have important implications for climate change, as a recent UN report highlighted. Land use changes due to agricultural expansion increase carbon emissions from land clearing, eliminate carbon dioxide-absorbing plants such as rainforests, and create greenhouse gases with incoming modern farming methods. According to the UN, they account for about 30 per cent of agriculture-related emissions.

The simplifying neo-Malthusian perspective attributes extensification to growing populations exerting pressure on scarce natural resources. Increasing farmers’ productivity on existing lands in regions such as Africa where yields are relatively low is the mainstream solution. The goal is to foster “sustainable intensification” – growing more food on the same land. With commercial inputs such as commercial seeds and synthetic fertilizers, farmers can intensify their exploitation of existing agricultural land, raising productivity and easing pressures from growing populations to bring new lands into cultivation.

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) was founded 15 years ago to address the productivity problem. With generous funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller foundations, the alliance set out to reduce chronic hunger and poverty by increasing yields in key food crops through the expanded use of commercial seeds and fertilizers. This is the “technology package” credited with raising agricultural productivity in what came to be known as the first Green Revolution in India and other parts of Asia and Latin America in the 1970s.

Africa’s Green Revolution has largely failed to promote either sustainability or intensification. Evidence suggests that the initiatives, which include high levels of government subsidies for farmers to use Green Revolution inputs, are both failing to raise productivity and contributing to the unsustainable expansion of farming onto new lands.

My research shows that excessive incentives to maize and a few commercial crops have persuaded farmers to shift land out of other nutritious crops while expanding production onto new lands. The result is higher maize production but without significant productivity increases. Meanwhile, we see rising levels of malnourishment and undernourishment as poor farmers fail to benefit from rising productivity but see their families’ diet diversity decline as the diversity of food crops in their fields declines.

Climate change and the unaddressed pandemic emergency are contributing to a deep hunger crisis in Africa. The worst dangers of famine are in areas of conflict such as Ethiopia, but hunger is more widespread. The United Nations has recorded a 50 per cent increase in the number of severely undernourished people in Sub-Saharan Africa since 2006. Underlying that deprivation is a model of agricultural development that is encouraging unsustainable land use and undermining crop and diet diversity.

These alarming outcomes have prompted African food producing organizations to call on donors to end their support for AGRA and other Green Revolution programmes. They call for a shift to agroecological initiatives that have been shown to generate sustainable productivity improvements across a range of food crops, addressing the need for more food and more nutritious diets while easing pressures on unsustainable land use.

Redoubling climate damage

Neither evidence nor entreaties have persuaded Green Revolution leaders that their strategies may be misguided. In October, Mr Hailemariam Desalegn, former Prime Minister of Ethiopia and current Chair of the Board of AGRA, acknowledged the problem. “Over the last two decades, the African continent has registered the most rapid rate of agricultural production growth of any region of the world,” he wrote in an opinion column for African Arguments. “Unfortunately, most of this growth has been through the expansion of agricultural land, not an increase in productivity. With our population expected to double by the middle of the century, our farmers need to continue growing more, while using fewer resources.” He went on to argue that the intensive use of Green Revolution seeds and fertilizers could achieve that. He has urged governments and donors to redouble Green Revolution efforts.

Climate change and the unaddressed pandemic emergency are contributing to a deep hunger crisis in Africa.

The evidence suggests otherwise. In 2020, I carried out a comprehensive assessment of the impacts of Green Revolution programmes in AGRA’s 13 focus countries. AGRA refused to share its own impact data, so I used national-level data on crop production, productivity, and area expansion to determine whether AGRA was meeting its stated goal of doubling productivity for 30 million small-scale farming households by 2020. Because 30 million represent the vast majority of farms in AGRA’s programme area, national-level data from 2006-2018 would reveal whether such a productivity revolution was occurring. I also assessed progress toward AGRA’s stated goals of doubling incomes for those same farmers and cutting food insecurity by half by 2020.

I found the Green Revolution was failing on its own terms. Productivity growth was slow, even for heavily supported and subsidized crops such as maize. More traditional staple crops such as millet and sorghum showed stagnation or decline. My estimate of productivity increases for a basket of staple crops in AGRA’s 13 focus countries showed just 18 per cent yield growth over 12 years, a rate barely higher than the preceding 12 years. Not surprisingly, poverty remained endemic, particularly in rural areas. And rather than cutting food insecurity by half, the number of undernourished people increased 31 per cent in those 13 countries.

The data also revealed that Green Revolution initiatives were not only failing to achieve sustainable intensification, they were promoting the opposite. As the graph shows, between 2006 and 2018 maize productivity rose by only 29 per cent while the area planted to maize increased by 45 per cent in AGRA’s 13 focus countries. Overall, production increased 87 per cent, but mainly because of extensification rather than intensification. Meanwhile, land planted to other staples such as millet and sorghum declined or stagnated, as did yields. My composite staple yield index showed just 18 per cent yield growth. (All data cited here, unless otherwise indicated, are from the United Nations, cited in my Tufts University Working Paper.)

AGRA Progress Report: Productivity and Food Security
This outcome will come as no surprise to those living in AGRA countries where incentives are heavily concentrated on maize. In most AGRA countries, governments provide large subsidies to farmers to buy and use commercial maize seeds and fertilizers. AGRA itself has spent one billion dollars in its 14-years of work, but African governments have been spending up to one billion dollars per year on such Farm Input Subsidy Programmes (FISPs). Some governments also pay above-market prices to farmers for their maize to maintain public grain reserves.

As any agricultural economist can attest, land and investments flow to crops that are subsidized or otherwise supported. That has been true in the United States for decades. Farmers make complex calculations to gauge the relative returns to corn, soybeans, wheat, and other crops based on market conditions and relative levels of government support.

In Africa, maize has received the lion’s share of the support in most AGRA countries, so land and investment have moved more heavily into maize production. Farmers are incentivized to switch out of existing crops like millet, which has seen an alarming 24 per cent decline in production and a 21 per cent drop in yields, and into maize. Hence the decline in crop diversity under Green Revolution programmes. Farmers with access to land are also incentivized to bring new land into production, which allows them to reap the benefits of government support programmes. Hence the extensification of production.

As any agricultural economist can attest, land and investments flow to crops that are subsidized or otherwise supported.

Across AGRA countries, there was a 13 per cent increase in land under cultivation from 2006 to 2018, the majority of it in AGRA’s two principal supported crops, maize and rice. More than 7 million more hectares of land were planted in maize in 2018 than in 2006. Another 3 million more hectares were planted in rice. Those 10 million hectares accounted for nearly all of the expansion in land planted to cereal crops in that time period.

It is hard to argue that Green Revolution programmes did not contribute significantly to this problem of agricultural extensification. That is especially problematic when such input-intensive agriculture is failing to generate the promised productivity gains or reductions in hunger.

Studies in extensification: Zambia and Rwanda

Zambia and Rwanda have both expanded maize production dramatically, but both illustrate the ways in which Green Revolution incentives have led to undesirable outcomes. Zambia was one of AGRA’s focus countries until a few years ago. It left the alliance but has re-joined recently. Zambia provides extensive subsidies for maize production and also buys maize at supported prices for its food reserve programme. As a result, it has the highest levels of fertilizer use among AGRA countries. Between 2006 and 2018, Zambia increased maize production by 150 per cent, making it an apparent Green Revolution success story.

Zambia Progress Report: Productivity and Food Security
But, as the graph shows, only a small share of the added maize came from productivity growth. Yields grew just 27 per cent while the area planted to maize doubled. Millet and sorghum production and yields declined and farmers moved land out of those traditional staples into maize in response to Green Revolution incentives. Two-thirds of Zambia’s 32 per cent increase in land planted to crops was attributable to new land planted to maize. Staple yields overall increased just 20 per cent in that 12-year period. And all that maize failed to stem hunger or reduce poverty. The number of undernourished Zambians increased 29 per cent while extreme rural poverty remained at 78 per cent.

Rwanda has been a poster child for AGRA for years. AGRA’s current president, Agnes Kalibata, ascended to that position in large part due to her success in increasing maize production as Rwanda’s Minister of Agriculture. Between 2006 and 2018, maize production increased 300 per cent thanks to a well-funded and heavy-handed Green Revolution initiative. Seeds and fertilizer were heavily subsidized and farmers were fined if they did not agree to use the inputs.

Rwanda Progress Report: Productivity and Food SecurityAs the graph shows, Rwanda achieved higher maize yield growth than Zambia, increasing productivity by 66 per cent. But as in Zambia, most of the added maize came from a 146 per cent increase in new land planted to the crop, not from productivity. Similarly, rice production doubled, but yields actually declined 19 per cent, with land planted to rice increasing 147 per cent. In this small, densely populated country, some of that land came out of other staple crops, with the government reportedly banning their cultivation in some areas. Sorghum, cassava, sweet potatoes, and other roots and tubers were more important food crops than maize before AGRA, providing nutritional diversity in addition to benefits to the land. Land in cassava fell 16 per cent, while sorghum land declined 17 per cent.

Millet and sorghum production and yields declined and farmers moved land out of those traditional staples into maize in response to Green Revolution incentives.

My more comprehensive Staple Yield Index captures Rwanda’s poor performance across all staple crops. Compared to the much-touted 66 per cent increase in maize yields, we see just a 24 per cent increase in yields for key staples – maize, millet, sorghum, roots and tubers. Since 2006, extreme poverty remained high, falling just three percentage points to a still alarming 60 per cent. As in Zambia, all that extra maize did not help the hungry; the number of undernourished Rwandans has increased 40 per cent since 2006.

Far from being a Green Revolution success story, Rwanda offers an example of the ways in which the imposition of such a model on a relatively diverse farming landscape can disrupt more nutritious and sustainable cropping patterns. Rwanda does not have a great deal of uncultivated arable land, so most of the area expansion for maize and rice came from other crops rather than new lands. Still, Rwanda highlights how heavy incentives for Green Revolution crops create outcomes at odds with the goals of sustainable intensification for food security.

“Time to change course”

AGRA Board Chair Hailemariam Desalegn is correct to identify the problem of unsustainable expansion onto new lands in Africa, but he is wrong to think that his Green Revolution will solve that problem. Evidence shows that Green Revolution programmes are among the principal causes of unsustainable land use. Incentives for a narrow range of supported crops entice farmers and investors to open new lands for cultivation. Meanwhile, those commercial inputs are failing to generate any sort of productivity revolution or address the alarming 50 per cent rise in the number of undernourished Africans since AGRA was founded in 2006.

Seeds and fertilizer were heavily subsidized and farmers were fined if they did not agree to use the inputs.

As representatives from the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa state in their published response to Mr Desalegn, it is “time to change course: the future is in agroecology.”

It is a myth that the only way to increase productivity on existing agricultural lands is through Green Revolution seeds and fertilizers. Examples abound across Africa of farming communities that are increasing both the diversity and productivity of their fields. In Africa and other developing countries, some 15 million small-scale farmers interplant so-called green-manure cover crops alongside their food crops to fix nitrogen in the soil, reduce weeding, add another food or forage crop to their fields, and increase the carbon sequestered in the soil. Scientists recommend appropriate cultivars from a range of more than 100 proven cover crops.

The Lablab bean native to East Africa, for example, has been shown to fix very high levels of nitrogen in the soil through its roots, improving soil fertility and water retention. The added nitrogen can raise maize yields threefold in those same fields, eliminating the need for inorganic fertilizer. And farm families get another nutritious food crop from their fields.

Such approaches are documented in a new UN report from its High Level Panel of Experts. Farmers are getting far better results, growing more food on existing land in sustainable ways that increase soil fertility over time. One University of Essex study surveyed nearly 300 large ecological agriculture projects across more than 50 poor countries and documented an average 79 per cent increase in productivity with decreasing costs and rising incomes. This is far higher than AGRA’s 18 per cent yield growth in staple crops.

Agroecological farming can also achieve sustainable extensification. With the support of some governments, West African farmers are expanding onto uncultivated lands but in a way that builds rather than compromises the environment. In long-term land rehabilitation projects in the drylands of West Africa, farmers in Burkina Faso, Senegal, Ghana, and Niger are leading “another kind of green revolution.” They regenerate tree growth on deforested lands then diversify production as part of agro-forestry initiatives that are increasingly supported by national governments. This restores soil fertility, increases water retention, and has been shown to increase yields 40 to 100 per cent within five years while increasing farmer incomes and food security. According to one study, farmers rehabilitated at least 200,000 hectares of degraded land in Burkina Faso, enabling farmers to grow cereals on land that had been barren.

Farmers are getting far better results, growing more food on existing land in sustainable ways that increase soil fertility over time.

Land reclamation is a desirable form of extensification, avoiding the negative environmental impacts of the input-intensive farming of monocultures of Green Revolution crops. Similarly, agroecology programmes intensify the production of diverse food crops on existing lands in ways that rebuild soil fertility and resilience to climate change.

Such strategies stand in stark contrast to Green Revolution programmes that are failing to help solve Africa’s unsustainable land-use issues. In fact, they are making them worse.

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Imagining Kenyan Futures Through Kenyan Pasts

The grievances of this generation are disturbingly similar to those of the generation of the 1940s who took up arms in the Mau Mau movement. For both, it is about land and freedom.

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Imagining Kenyan Futures Through Kenyan Pasts
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Mau Mau has always been a dangerous topic in Kenya. Marked by the brutality of the British counterinsurgency against it, Mau Mau is acknowledged by historians to have been simultaneously a nationalist war of independence, a peasant revolt, a civil war within the Kikuyu ethnic group, and an attempted genocide of the Kikuyu people. This plurality of meanings, which successive generations of citizens, politicians and historians have attempted to smoothen out and fit into neat categories, refuses to be tamed. Instead, the struggle for Mau Mau’s memory continues unabated, with little sign of a ceasefire.

The general contours of the Mau Mau war are widely accepted. On 20 October 1952, the Colonial Office declared a state of emergency in Kenya in response to the growing threat posed by the Mau Mau, a revolutionary military group, who had taken up arms in the forests of the central highlands, demanding “land and freedom”. Primarily involving the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru ethnic groups, but also the Maasai, the Luo and Kenyan Indians, among others, the uprising tore through central Kenya, sweeping up not only the guerrilla fighters hidden in the forests and their British adversaries, but entire communities. Forced to pick between Mau Mau adherence and “loyalist” British allegiances, both of which carried immense personal and ideological risks, rural communities were set ablaze – sometimes literally – as the war ripped families apart and forced people to choose sides in an increasingly complex and violent conflict.

By the most conservative estimations, tens of thousands of people died, mainly Mau Mau fighters and supporters, but also African “loyalists” and a few white settlers. Many hundreds of thousands more were forcibly displaced by the fighting, and by what was termed “the Pipeline”, a systematised network of concentration camps and forced villagisation that set out to quash the movement by “converting” Mau Mau adherents into loyal colonial subjects by any means necessary. By 1957, after the capture and execution of Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi, and with the majority of the forest fighters dead or interned, the war was officially over. However, the violence continued.

Shaken by Mau Mau’s surprising military and ideological resilience, and determined to ensure that nothing like this would ever happen again, the colonial government doubled down on the Pipeline system, detaining, and often brutally torturing anyone suspected of harbouring Mau Mau sympathies. In the ensuing decade, it became clear that the rebellion had been quashed. But the writing was on the wall, underlined by the scandalous revelations of the colonial government’s conduct, Kenya’s independence was inevitable and urgent.

As one struggle was ending, however, another was just beginning. Now, the race was on for ownership of Mau Mau’s history. For the British, that meant Operation Legacy, a systematic destruction and removal of all evidence of their criminal conduct during the war. For the incumbent post-independence government, it meant carefully curating a Mau Mau narrative marked more by silences and omissions than by commemoration of the events of the war.

By the most conservative estimations, tens of thousands of people died, mainly Mau Mau fighters and supporters, but also African “loyalists” and a few white settlers.

For the hundreds of thousands of citizens who were survivors of the war, it meant finding ways outside of the public history-making to process the trauma and preserve the memories of the war. While the British government has been rightly condemned for its attempts to cover up the atrocities they committed and commissioned during the war, far less has been said of the Kenyan government’s complicity in the public silences around Mau Mau. For Jomo Kenyatta and his government, the past was a politically dangerous topic that needed to be carefully managed. Mau Mau, he proclaimed, was not to be discussed, and the organisation remained a banned terrorist group. The last holdouts in the forests were rounded up and persuaded to surrender, or arrested, and those who spoke about the movement publicly outside of officially sanctioned narratives often ended up in prison, in exile, or in the morgue.

Mzee Kenyatta’s mandate was clear: Mau Mau was to be forgotten, and not to be discussed publicly. The organisation remained an illegal terrorist group throughout the Kenyatta and Moi eras, and was only legalised after Mwai Kibaki’s inauguration in 2004. The “forgive and forget” policy of Kenyatta and his successor had several interlinked purposes. A generous assessment is that Kenyatta wished to promote national unity and to focus on a shared future rather than a divided past. However, this is only part of the truth. Personal interests needed to be protected, especially those of former loyalists who now held top government positions. In addition, land justice and redistribution, the key demand of the Mau Mau, and later the Kenya Land and Freedom Army – which emerged after the war, and named among its members many Mau Mau hold-outs – would not be a cornerstone of the post-independence political policy. In fact, many veterans returned from forests and camps to find that what little land they did have had been taken from them, and that the only recourse for them to regain it or acquire new land would be to buy it from the government.

Since Mau Mau had been a full-time commitment, and concentration camps did not award salaries, while loyalist Home Guards were paid, an inequity emerged between those who were able to afford land and those who weren’t, which fell along lines of allegiances during the war. A final reason for Kenyatta’s desire to silence any public discussion of Mau Mau was that British interests still needed to be protected. If Kenya wanted to emerge from the 1960s as part of the global economy, it would have to dance to the tune of its former colonisers, which meant not embarrassing them with tales of their past atrocities. All in all, it would be better to forget the whole sorry affair.

Personal interests needed to be protected, especially those of former loyalists who now held top government positions.

In practice, this meant a careful selection of which fragments of the truth of Kenya’s Mau Mau past could be discussed and by whom. As a student of Kenya’s national curriculum, if you learned anything at all about the history of decolonisation, it adhered to a specific narrative: colonialism came to an end when Jomo Kenyatta and other brave constitutional nationalists came to an agreement with the British. Depending on your age, you may also have learned the names of some long-dead Mau Mau heroes and heroines who helped win Kenya’s freedom.

Certainly, there would not have been any discussion of the ideological roots of the Mau Mau movement, rooted in land justice and economic freedom or a critique of the betrayed promises and the land-grabbing by the post-independence political elite. The issue is not that these things are untrue – although from a historical perspective, some of them are inaccurate – but that they are presented as complete truths. While it is true, for example, that Jomo Kenyatta was tried and imprisoned along with five other nationalist activists at Kapenguria for being a Mau Mau ringleader, historians now agree that Kenyatta’s conviction was based on trumped up charges that did not align with Kenyatta’s ambivalent relationship to the militant guerrilla movement.

Kenyatta was an African nationalist, but he was not a Mau Mau leader. Outside of the national curriculum, selective amnesia could most clearly be observed on national holidays, particularly Independence Day and Kenyatta Day. On such occasions, speeches glossed over the painful past, and focused on the economic development of the future. President Kenyatta and his successor Daniel Arap Moi seldom spoke explicitly about the history of the Mau Mau movement, instead alluding to the vague need to “commemorate Mzee Kenyatta and the blood that was spilled in our struggle for independence”. The careful ambiguity about whose blood that was, and why it might need to be commemorated speaks to the fact that Kenya’s Mau Mau past remained politically dangerous. Veterans could be used to mobilise voters in specific regions of the country, but would otherwise remain nameless, and, more importantly, silent.

My research as a historian has focused on what happened to the memories of Mau Mau in the face of this public silencing, and seeks to understand what grassroots memorialisation looks like in the face of political amnesia. Working with oral histories from veterans and their families, alongside archival material, I have been consistently struck by the plurality of experience that characterises the Mau Mau war. There is no one definitive historical truth, and a key part of the mishandling of Mau Mau histories in the decades since independence has been rooted in the ill-fated attempts to discipline the complicated and fragmentary history into something that might fit neatly into tales of heroes and villains.

Through my research, I have found that a rich material culture of Mau Mau has existed in rural communities since the end of the war, one that was astutely aware of the history-making endeavours, but did not adhere to them. While the archival material on Mau Mau was systematically destroyed at the national level, it was carefully preserved by thousands of individuals across Kenya, for whom forgetting the war was never an option. Veterans pulled out boxes of photographs and documents, personal archives carefully preserved far from the censorial eyes of public history-making. Many pulled up their sleeves or skirts to reveal scars, offering their very bodies up as living monuments to the war. Away from the ceremonial lip service of national holidays and hero-worship of the official narratives, these veterans found ways of memorialising Mau Mau on their own terms.

If Kenya wanted to emerge from the 1960s as part of the global economy, it would have to dance to the tune of its former colonisers.

For many years, Mau Mau history was marked more by what is not said in public than by what is said. It has, for successive generations of Kenyans, been characterised by profound silences: family members who never came home, land that was lost, unmarked graves, and gaps in family trees. However, this should not be confused with forgetting. In fact, the silences around Mau Mau and who was permitted to speak of it have often served to amplify the unhealed traumas of the past, which sit just below the surface of everyday life.

In 2003, President Kibaki’s un-banning of Mau Mau allowed veterans to organise publicly for the first time, and saw the beginning of attempts to memorialise the conflict and to portray Mau Mau fighters in a positive light, as heroes of independence. However, there is still no national museum dedicated to histories of the struggle, and national institutions remain reluctant to address the complexity and unhealed traumas of Kenya’s Mau Mau past. This period in the early 2000s coincided with the emergence of a new generation of urban youth, enlivened by stories of the ferocious fighters and their brave struggle for land and freedom, who created their own myths and memorial cultures of Mau Mau.

In Nairobi today, Mau Mau sightings are a frequent occurrence. Yes, there are a few national monuments, and a small display at the National Museum of Kenya, but, more importantly, Mau Mau appears in more quotidian forms. Dedan Kimathi sits astride a matatu, weaving through traffic, sandwiched between Tupac Shakur and Bob Marley. The words “Mau Mau” are spray-painted on walls and on the mud flaps of trucks. Young men wear dreadlocked hair and t-shirts with Kimathi’s face.

These representations of Mau Mau history have a lot to say about how memories of the war have come to take on new meanings for Kenyan futures. Mau Mau in general, and Kimathi in particular, have entered into an iconography of revolutionary history that holds a strong sense of continuity for young urban Kenyans today. After all, the grievances of this generation are disturbingly similar to those of the generation of the 1940s who took up arms in the Mau Mau movement. For both, it is about land and freedom. The slum demolitions and police brutality that animates young people in Nairobi and Mombasa and Kisumu have their roots in a not-so-distant colonial and post-colonial past. Increasingly expensive and precarious living situations, lack of economic opportunities, and a government more interested in accruing wealth and resources for a small elite than in ensuring the welfare of all citizens led to the Mau Mau war, and this struggle continues.

In this sense, contemporary popular representations of Mau Mau speak to the fact that Mau Mau cannot be neatly placed in the box marked “distant past” only to be opened under governmental supervision on Mashujaa Day, when veterans are wheeled out to recite carefully crafted histories of heroes and heroines. Mau Mau is still a living present. Despite their best attempts to bury the bodies, they lie in very shallow graves.

The lack of public history has led to a grassroots memorial practice that is as imaginative as it is true. The material cultures they have created around Mau Mau speak to an active attempt to reclaim histories of the struggle. What archival material has been revealed and declassified in the UK and in Kenya is coloured by the colonial gaze, so that there are still questions of authorship that remain to be answered by national historical institutions. What does addressing these archival inequities mean? Ignored by institutionalised history-making and, at times, actively silenced, new generations have continued the veterans’ practice of personal histories, crafting their own living monuments to the war. The model of a museum is unsuited to such histories, which are marked by their strong emotional truth more than their historical accuracy, and which need to live defiantly within communities, not cloistered behind the guarded gates of national museums.

The careful ambiguity about whose blood that was, and why it might need to be commemorated speaks to the fact that Kenya’s Mau Mau past remained politically dangerous.

This rejection of the conventions of public history, often characterised by material cultures produced by the elite, has liberated Kenyans to imagine their pasts, and, in turn, their futures. Following in the tradition of writers and artists of the 1970s and 80s, who often paid dearly for their representations, Kenyans use fashion and hip hop and graffiti to write into the decimated historical archive, harnessing their imaginative power to unravel the silences and reawaken a revolutionary sentiment.

National history projects like clear lines and straight narratives of heroes and heroines, but Mau Mau cannot and will not fit into such simple constraints. Mau Mau historical plurality reminds us that there is an urgent need to redress the injustices of the past, not by presenting a simple counter-narrative to the official sanctioned myths surrounding the war, but through embracing the plurality of experiences around Mau Mau pasts, presents and futures. These histories were never forgotten. They were deliberately obscured, but have lived active lives throughout the years of political forgetting. They are infused into our national consciousness, into our knowledge of who we are and were and might be.

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The Art of War by Other Means: Books as Propaganda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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