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Plagues and the Prose Informing Our Shared Condition

14 min read.

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

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Plagues and the Prose Informing Our Shared Condition
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I did a deep read in search of the virus and found out it is us.

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

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

Situational analyses and political narratives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big picture social science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narratives of collapse and anti-climax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The novel and the dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dr. Goldsmith is an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years.

Ideas

The Moral Economy of Elections in Africa

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The Moral Economy of Elections in Africa
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In recent months it has felt like election rigging has run riot.

Citizens killed, beaten and intimidated and election results falsified in Uganda. Ballot boxes illegally thrown out of windows so their votes for the opposition can be dumped in the bin in Belarus. Widespread censorship and intimidation of opposition candidates and supporters in Tanzania.

So what do ordinary citizens make of these abuses?

If you follow the Twitter feed of opposition leaders like Uganda’s Bobi Wine, it would be easy to assume that all voters are up in arms about electoral malpractice – and that it has made them distrust the government and feel alienated from the state. But the literature on patrimonialism and “vote buying” suggests something very different: that individuals are willing to accept manipulation – and may even demand it – if it benefits them and the candidates that they support.

Our new book, “The Moral Economy of Elections in Africa” tries to answer this question. We looked at elections in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda over 4 years, conducting over 300 interviews, 3 nationally representative surveys and reviewing thousands of pages of archival records.

Based on this evidence we argue that popular engagement with democracy is motivated by two beliefs: the first is civic, and emphasises meritocracy and following the official rules of the democratic game, while the second is patrimonial, and emphasises the distinctive bond between an individual and their own – often ethnic – community.

This means that elections are shaped by – and pulled between – competing visions of what it means to do the right thing. The ability of leaders to justify running dodgy elections therefore depends on whether their actions can be framed as being virtuous on one – or more – counts.

We show that whether leaders can get away with malpractice – and hence undermining democracy – depends on whether they can justify their actions as being virtuous on one – or more effective – of these very different value systems.

Why morality?

We argue that all elections are embedded in a moral economy of competing visions of what it means to be a good leader, citizen or official. In the three countries we study, this moral economy is characterised by a tension between two broad registers of virtue: one patrimonial and the other civic.

The patrimonial register stresses the importance of an engagement between patron and client that is reciprocal, even if very hierarchical and inequitable. It is rooted in a sense of common identity such as ethnicity and kinship.

This is epitomised in the kind of “Big Man” rule seen in Kenya. The pattern that’s developed is that ethnic leaders set out to mobilise their communities as a “bloc vote”. But the only guarantee that these communities will vote as expected is if the leader is seen to have protected and promoted their interests.

In contrast, civic virtue asserts the importance of a national community that is shaped by the state and valorises meritocracy and the provision of public goods. These are the kinds of values that are constantly being pushed – though not always successfully – by international election observers and civil society organisations that run voter education programmes.

In contrast to some of the existing literature, we do not argue that one of these registers is inherently “African”. Both are in evidence. We found that electoral officials, observers and voter educators were more likely to speak in terms of civic virtue. For their part, voters and politicians tended to speak in terms of patrimonial virtue. But they all had one thing in common – all feel the pull of both registers.

This is perfectly demonstrated by the press conferences of election coalitions in Kenya. At these events, the “Big Men” of different ethnic groups line up to endorse the party, while simultaneously stressing their national outlook and commitment to inclusive democracy and development.

Over simplification

It is often assumed that patrimonial beliefs fuel electoral malpractice whereas civic ones challenge it. But this is an oversimplification.

Take the illegal act of an individual voting multiple times for the same candidate. This may be justified on the basis of loyalty to a specific leader and the need to defend community interests – a patrimonial rationale. But in some cases voters sought to justify this behaviour on the basis that it was a necessary precaution to protect the public good because rival parties were known to break the rules.

In some cases, malpractice may therefore look like the “right” thing to do. What practices can be justified depends on the political context – and how well leaders are at making an argument. This matters, because candidates who are not seen to be “good” on either register rapidly lose support.

Nothing demonstrates this better than the practice of handing out money around election times. Our surveys and interviews demonstrated that voters were fairly supportive of candidates handing out “something small” as part of a broader set of activities designed to assist the community. In this context, the gift was seen as a legitimate part of an ongoing patrimonial relationship.

But when a leader who had not already proved their moral worth turned up in a constituency and started handing out money, they were likely to be seen as using handouts to make up for past neglect and accused of illegitimate “vote buying..”

This happened to Alan Kwadwo Kyeremanten in Ghana, a political leader so associated with handing out money that he became popularly known as Alan Cash. But Cash has consistently failed to become the presidential flagbearer for his National Patriotic Party. We argue that this is because he failed to imbue gifts with moral authority. As one newspaper noted at the time:

Alan Cash did not cultivate loyal and trusted supporters; he only used money to buy his way into their minds not their hearts.

The problem of patrimonialism

A great deal of research about Africa suggests – either implicitly or explicitly – that democratisation will only take place when patrimonialism is eradicated. On this view, democratic norms and values can only come to the fore when ethnic politics and the practices it gives rise to are eliminated.

Against this, our analysis suggests that this could do as much harm as good.

Patrimonial ideals may exist in tension with civic ones, but it is also true that the claims voters and candidates make on one another in this register is an important source of popular engagement with formal political processes. For example, voters turnout both due to a sense of civic duty and to support those candidates who they believe will directly assist them and their communities.

This means that in reality ending patrimonial politics would weaken the complex set of ties that bind many voters to the political system. One consequence of this would be to undermine people’s belief in their ability to hold politicians to account, which might engender political apathy – and result in lower voter turnout. In the 2000s, as many as 85% of voters went to the polls, far exceeding the typical figure in established Western democracies.

The same thing is likely to happen if the systematic manipulation of elections robs them of their moral importance – signs of which were already visible in the Ugandan elections of the last few months.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Ideas

Doing Democracy Without Party Politics

Our various peoples had clear democratic practices in their pre-colonial political formations without the inconvenience of political parties. It is high time we learned from our indigenous heritages.

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Doing Democracy Without Party Politics
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The formation of factions is part of group dynamics, and is therefore to be found in every society. However, it was 18th century Western Europe and its North American corollary that invented the idea of institutionalising factions into political parties — groups formally constituted by people who share some aspirations and who aim to capture state power in order to use it to put those aspirations into practice. Britain’s Conservative Party and the Democratic Party in the US were the earliest such formations. Thus party politics are an integral part of representative democracy as understood by the Western liberal democratic tradition. Nevertheless, Marxist regimes such as those in China, Cuba, the former Soviet Union and the former East Germany also adopted the idea of political parties, but in those countries single party rule was the norm.

The idea of political parties gained traction in the various colonial territories in Africa beginning with the formation of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa in 1912. The founders of the ANC were influenced by African American political thinkers with whom they associated in their visits to the US.

Political organisations during the colonial period in Kenya

Kenya’s first indigenous political organisation, the East African Association (EAA), formed in 1919, had a leadership comprising different ethnic groups – Kikuyu, Luo, Kamba, the various communities later subsumed under “Luhya”, and some Ugandans, then the dominant ethnic groups in Nairobi. Its political programme entailed protests against the hut-tax, forced labour, and the kipande (passbook). However, following the EAA-led Nairobi mass action of 1922 and the subsequent arrest and deportation of three of EAA’s leaders, Harry Thuku, Waiganjo Ndotono and George Mugekenyi, the colonial government seemed to have resolved not to encourage countrywide African political activity, but rather ethnic associations. The subsequent period thus saw the proliferation of such ethnic bodies as the Kikuyu Central Association, Kikuyu Provincial Association, Kavirondo Tax-payers Association, North Kavirondo Tax-payers Association, Taita Hills Association, and the Ukamba Members Association.

In 1944, the colonial government appointed Eliud Mathu as the African representative to the Legislative Council (LegCo). On the advice of the governor, the Kenya African Study Union (KASU) was formed as a colonywide African body with which the lone African member could consult. However, the Africans changed its name to the Kenya African Union (KAU), insisting that their grievances did not need study but rather organisation.

In 1947, James Gichuru stepped down as chairman of KAU in favour of Jomo Kenyatta whose mandate was to establish it as a countrywide political forum. However, there were serious disparities in political awareness, and the colonial government continued to encourage the masses to think of the welfare of their own ethnic groups rather than that of the country as a whole. Besides, KAU’s links with other communities were often strained because of what was perceived as Kikuyu domination of the organisation. By 1950, KAU was largely moribund because, through the Mau Mau Uprising, Africans challenged the entire basis of colonial rule instead of seeking piecemeal reforms. In June 1953, the colonial government banned KAU after it concluded that radicalisation was inevitable in any countrywide African political organisation.

From 1953 to 1956, the colonial government imposed a total ban on African political organisation. However, with the Lyttelton Constitution — which provided for increased African representation — in the offing, the colonial government decided to permit the formation of district political associations (except in the Central Province which was still under the state of Emergency and where the government would permit nothing more than an advisory council of loyalists). Argwings-Kodhek had formed the Kenya African National Congress to cut across district and ethnic lines, but the government would not register it, so its name was changed to the Nairobi District African Congress.

Consequently, the period leading up to independence in 1963 saw a proliferation of regional, ethnic and even clan-based political organisations: Mombasa African Democratic Union (MADU), Taita African Democratic Union (TADU), Abagussi Association of South Nyanza District (AASND), Maasai United Front Alliance (MA), Kalenjin Peoples Alliance (KPA), Baluhya Political Union (BPU), Rift Valley Peoples Congress (RVPC), Tom Mboya’s Nairobi People Convention (NPC), Argwings-Kodhek’s Nairobi African District Council (NADC), Masinde Muliro’s Kenya Peoples Party (KPP), Paul Ngei’s Akamba Peoples Party (APP) later named African Peoples Party (APP) and others.

However, between 1955 and 1963, there developed a countrywide movement led by non-Mau Mau African politicians who appealed to a vision of Kenya as a single people striving to free themselves from the shackles of colonialism. Nevertheless, it was a fragmented movement, partly because the different peoples of Kenya had an uneven political development, becoming politically active at different times. The difficulties of communication and discouragement from the colonial government also contributed to the weakness of the movement.

Nevertheless, on the eve of Kenya’s independence in 1963, the numerous ethnically-based political parties coalesced into two blocks that became the Kenya African National Union (KANU), whose membership mainly came from the Kikuyu and the Luo, and the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) which mainly had support from the pastoralist communities such as the Kalenjin, Maasai, Samburu, and Turkana, as well as the Giriama of the Coast and sections of the Luhya of Western Kenya. During the 1963 elections, on the eve of independence, KADU only secured control over two out of the eight regions, namely, the Rift Valley and the Coast.

KANU under Jomo Kenyatta

Although at his release from detention in 1961 Jomo Kenyatta was not keen to join KANU, he ended up as its leader through the machinations of its operatives. He ascended to state power on its ticket at Kenya’s independence, first as Prime Minister, then as President. As Prime Minister, Kenyatta was directly answerable to Parliament, and it is this accountability that he systematically undermined.

First, the KANU government initiated a series of constitutional amendments and subsidiary legislation that concentrated power in the hands of the central government at the expense of the regional governments entrenched in the Independence Constitution. This KANU easily achieved because KADU was greatly disadvantaged numerically in Parliament. Thus within the first year of independence, KANU undermined the regional governments by withholding funds due to them, passing legislation to circumvent their powers, and forcing major changes to the constitution by threatening and preparing to hold a referendum if the Senate – in which KADU could block the proposals – did not accede to the changes.

It was clear to KADU that it was outnumbered and outmanoeuvred, and that the prospects for enforcing the compromise federalist Independence Constitution were grim. It was also clear to KADU that it was highly unlikely that it would win power through subsequent elections. Consequently, KADU dissolved and joined KANU, resulting in Kenya becoming a de facto single-party state at the beginning of 1964. These amendments produced a strong provincial administration which became an instrument of central control.

Second, with the restraining power of the opposition party KADU out of the way, KANU initiated amendments that produced a hybrid constitution, replacing the parliamentary system of governance in the Independence Constitution with a strong executive presidency without the checks and balances entailed in the separation of powers. Thus KANU quickly created a highly centralised, authoritarian system in the fashion of the colonial state.

In 1966, Oginga Odinga, the Luo leader at the time, who had hitherto been the Vice President of both the country and KANU, lost both posts due to a series of political manoeuvres aimed at his political marginalisation. Odinga responded by forming a political party — the Kenya Peoples Union (KPU) — in April of the same year. KPU was a loose coalition of KANU-B “radicals” and trade-union leaders. Although a fifth of the sitting MPs initially supported it, KPU was widely perceived as a Luo party. This was mainly due to the fact that Kenyatta and his cohorts, using the hegemonic state-owned mass media, waged a highly effective propaganda war against it.

Kenyatta took every opportunity to promote the belief that all his political opponents came from Oginga Odinga’s Luo community. Through a series of state-sponsored machinations, KPU performed dismally in the so-called little elections of 1966 occasioned by the new rule, expediently put in place by KANU, that all MPs who joined KPU had to seek a fresh mandate from the electorate.

During the 1969 General Election, KANU was for the first time unopposed. Those who were nominated by the party in the party primaries — where they were held — were declared automatically elected as MPs, and in the case of Kenyatta, President. Thus during the 1969 general election, Kenyatta also established the practice where only he would be the presidential candidate, and where members of his inner circle would also be unopposed in their bids to recapture parliamentary seats.

During Kenyatta’s visit to Kisumu in October 1969, just three months after the assassination of Thomas Joseph Mboya (Tom Mboya), a large Luo crowd reportedly threatened Kenyatta’s security, and was fired on by the presidential security guards in what later came to be known as the “Kisumu massacre”, resulting in the death of forty-three people. In an explanatory statement, the government accused KPU of being subversive, intentionally stirring up inter-ethnic strife, and of accepting foreign money to promote “anti-national” activities. Soon after this incident, the Attorney-General, Charles Njonjo, banned KPU under Legal Notice No.239 of 30th October 1969, and Kenya again became a de facto one-party state. Several KPU leaders and MPs were immediately apprehended and detained.

In 1973, the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association (GEMA) was formed with Kenyatta’s consent. In a chapter in Ethnicity and Democracy in Africa, the immediate former Attorney-General Prof. Githu Muigai, explains that GEMA had a two-pronged mission: to strengthen the immediate ethnic base of the Kenyatta state by incorporating the Embu and Meru into a union with the Kikuyu, and to circumvent KANU’s party apparatus in the mobilisation of political support among these groups. While posing as a cultural organisation, GEMA virtually replaced KANU as the vehicle for political activity for most of the Kikuyu power elite. Consequently, many other ethnic groups formed “cultural groups” of their own such as the Luo Union and the New Akamba Union. As Prof. Muigai further observes, with the formation of GEMA, the façade of “nationalism” within KANU had broken down irretrievably.

In October 1975, Martin Shikuku, then MP for Butere, declared on the floor of Parliament that “anyone trying to lower the dignity of Parliament is trying to kill it the way KANU has been killed”. When Clement Lubembe, then Assistant Minister for Tourism and Wildlife, demanded that Shikuku substantiate his claim that KANU had been killed, the then Deputy Speaker, Jean-Marie Seroney, stated: “According to Parliamentary procedures, there is no need to substantiate what is obvious.” Consequently, Shikuku and Seroney were detained without trial, and were only released after Kenyatta’s death in 1978.

KANU under Daniel arap Moi

Two years before Kenyatta’s death, more than twenty MPs sought to amend the section of Kenya’s constitution which stipulated that the vice president would become the interim president should the incumbent become incapacitated or die. Although the “Change the Constitution Movement” involved MPs from across the country, members of GEMA were among the most vociferous in seeking to block Daniel arap Moi’s succession in this way. Thus, upon assuming the Presidency, Moi set about reducing the influence of GEMA, especially its leaders who had been closest to his predecessor. Whereas Kenyatta had by-passed KANU, Moi revitalised and mainstreamed it, using it as the institution through which his networks would be built. By so doing, he undercut the power of established ethno-regional political leaders, and made the party an instrument of personal control.

Besides, Moi persecuted advocates of reform among university lecturers, university students, lawyers and religious leaders, many of whom were arrested, tortured, detained without trial, or arraigned in court to answer to tramped up charges and subsequently face long prison sentences, and all this forced some of them into exile.

Furthermore, Moi co-opted into KANU the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU), Maendeleo ya Wanawake (the countrywide women’s organisation), and any other organisation that he viewed as a potential alternative locus of political power. At one point during Moi’s reign, the provincial administration even harassed people who did not have KANU membership cards in their possessions in markets, bus stops and other public places. I remember my father purchasing these cards to give to all his grown-up children in a bid to help them avoid such harassment. MPs lived under the fear of being expelled from KANU — which would mean automatic loss of their parliamentary seats — and so outdid one another in singing Moi’s and KANU’s dubious praises inside and outside Parliament. On the Voice of Kenya (VOK), the state-run radio station which enjoyed a monopoly, songs in praise of Moi and KANU and others castigating dissenters were played after every news broadcast.

Moi only conceded to restore multi-party politics at the end of 1991 due to the effects of his mismanagement of the economy coupled with the end of the Cold War, both of which increased internal and external pressure for reform. Nevertheless, he declared that people would understand that he was a “professor of politics”, and went on to emphasise that he would encourage the formation of as many parties as possible — a clear indication that he was determined to fragment the opposition in order to hang on to power for as long as possible. Indeed, the opposition unity that had influenced the change was not to last, as ethnically-based parties sprang up all over the country, enabling Moi to win both the 1992 and 1997 elections. Furthermore, the Moi regime was reluctant to put in place the legal infrastructure for a truly multiparty democracy, and the same was later to prove true of the Kibaki regime that took over power on 30th December 2002.

Parties as obstacles to democratisation

In a chapter in A Companion to African Philosophy, Makerere University philosophy professor Edward Wamala outlines three shortcomings of the multi-party system of government in Ganda society in particular, and in Africa in general.

First, the party system destroys consensus by de-emphasising the role of the individual in political action. Put simply, the party replaces “the people”. Consequently, a politician holding public office does not really have loyalty to the people whom he or she purportedly represents, but rather to the sponsoring party. The same being true of politicians in opposing parties, no room is left for consensus building. We have often witnessed parties disagreeing for no other reason than that they must appear to hold opposing views, thereby promoting confrontation rather than consensus.

Second, in order to acquire power or retain it, political parties act on the notorious Machiavellian principle that the end justifies the means, thereby draining political practice of ethical considerations that had been a key feature of traditional political practice. We are thus left with materialistic considerations that foster the welfare not of the society at large, but rather of certain suitably aligned individuals and groups.

Third, as only a few members at the top of a party wield power, even the parties that command the majority and therefore form the government are in reality ruled by a handful of persons. As such, personal rule, after seeming to have been eliminated by putting aside monarchs and chiefs, makes a return to the political arena of the Western-type state. Thus the KANU-NDP “co-operation” and ultimate “merger” was the result of the rapprochement between Daniel arap Moi and Raila Odinga; the Grand Coalition Government was formed as a result of the decision of Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga; The Handshake and the Building Bridges Initiative was the result of private consultations between Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta. In all these cases, party organs were only convened to ratify what the party leaders had already decided, and dissenters threatened with disciplinary action. We have very recently seen the same approach in the debate on the allocation of revenue, where what was supposed to be the opposition party acquiesced to the ruling party’s view simply because of the Handshake and the Building Bridges Initiative.

In my youth, I was convinced that if only multi-party rule would be restored in Kenya, autocracy would be a thing of the past. With hindsight, however, it is now clear to me that just as middlemen enjoy the bulk of the fruit of the sweat of our small-scale farmers, so party leaders enjoy the massive political capital generated by the people. In short, party politics, whether with one, two or many parties in place, hinder true democratisation by perpetuating political elitism and autocracy.

Towards a no-party system of governance

In Cultural Universals and Particulars, the Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu advances the view that the no-party system has evident advantages over the multi-party system:

When representatives are not constrained by considerations regarding the fortunes of power-driven parties they will be more inclined in council to reason more objectively and listen more open-mindedly. And in any deliberative body in which sensitivity to the merits of ideas is a driving force, circumstances are unlikely to select any one group for consistent marginalisation in the process of decision-making. Apart from anything else, such marginalisation would be an affront to the fundamental human rights of decisional representation.

However, Yoweri Museveni’s “no-party system” which he instituted when he took power in Uganda in 1986 was simply a one-party system in disguise. Indeed, in his Sowing the Mustard Seed, Museveni unintentionally reveals a party orientation in his analysis of his electoral victory in 1996: “Although I was campaigning as an individual, I had been leading the movement for 26 years. Therefore, the success of the NRM and my success were intertwined.”

Our various peoples had clear democratic practices in their pre-colonial political formations without the inconvenience of political parties. For example, Prof. Wamala, in the chapter already cited, informs us that the Kabaka of the Baganda could not go against the decision of the Elders. It is high time we learned from our indigenous heritages.

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Ideas

Life at the End of the American Empire

The poverty of ideas in America’s political arena reflects the barbarism of our historical moment. While Trump’s minions promote authoritarianism and jingoism, their ideological opponents within the Democratic Party offer equally bankrupt solutions, from a return to “civility” to the rebuilding of national “unity” all the while forgetting the critical lesson: White supremacy does not love White folks.

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Life at the End of the American Empire
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Americans have a knack for demonstrating, in spectacular fashion, that they possess neither the political language nor the maturity to address the crises of our time.

As the climate catastrophe hurtles past the point of return, US pundits are content to debate “cancel culture.” As levels of economic inequality soar from the obscene to the unfathomable, half the political class obsesses over Russian meddling while the other half nurtures conspiracy theories about the “deep state.”

Critics have long characterised American politics as a form of mass paranoia. Witnessing recent events, one is reminded that American identity itself is an act of self-deception. As a society we remain trapped in petulant adolescence, incapable of and uninterested in developing any real awareness of ourselves.

For decades this willful ignorance made the US an especially dangerous superpower. Now, as the decline of US empire accelerates, our practiced innocence is fueling a sense of collective disorientation and despair.

Critics have long characterised American politics as a form of mass paranoia. Witnessing recent events, one is reminded that American identity itself is an act of self-deception

To grasp our predicament we must recognise modern American politics as a clash between competing delusions. The populist insurgents of the right pursue one set of ideological fantasies while elite apologists for the status quo pursue another. Even as political polarisation increases, both camps embrace the myths of American virtue that perpetuate our national blindness.

The mob that recently stormed the Capitol is a toxic outgrowth of the cult of lies on the right. Among those lies is the assertion that “Blue Lives Matter.” Americans who watched footage of the Capitol invaders pummeling cops with flags and other objects (one officer was bludgeoned to death with a fire extinguisher) might wonder whether “Blue Lives Matter” is actually a principled declaration of support for police, rather than a cynical effort to subvert Black Lives Matter and justify racist state terror.

Many antiracists have long known the truth. Many of us recognise, as well, something that few Americans will ever discover; namely, that White supremacy does not love White folks. Whiteness is simply a method of conquest. It is a necessarily antihuman mode of domination. When the hordes at the Capitol called for the head of Mike Pence, a great White patriarch, and erected gallows outside the halls of Congress, they were enacting a philosophy not of tribal loyalty but of capricious and unrelenting violence.

If the forces on the right wing are driven by lies, the moderate defenders of liberal democracy are no less devoted to deception. Business and political elites condemned the Capitol siege in the wake of the attack. Yet they routinely launch their own “raids” on the commons through the practice of corporate sovereignty and unrestrained capitalism. Some members of the ruling class have framed Trump’s departure from the White House as an opportunity to restore the rule of law and the prestige of American democratic institutions. They cannot be serious. The net worth of US billionaires has risen by a trillion dollars since the pandemic began. Precisely which democracy are Americans supposed to reclaim?

In reality, US plutocrats can offer only a more polished racial capitalism as a remedy for the vulgarity of Trumpism. Their revitalized America will continue to imprison legions of black people, hunt undocumented immigrants, and wage unrelenting war on brown populations abroad. But it will do so under an African American woman vice president and a rainbow cabinet. Voila. White supremacy lite.

If the forces on the right wing are driven by lies, the moderate defenders of liberal democracy are no less devoted to deception. Business and political elites condemned the Capitol siege in the wake of the attack. Yet they routinely launch their own “raids” on the commons through the practice of corporate sovereignty and unrestrained capitalism.

The poverty of ideas in the political arena reflects the barbarism of our historical moment. While Trump’s minions promote authoritarianism and jingoism, many of their ideological opponents within the Democratic Party offer equally bankrupt solutions, from a return to “civility” to the rebuilding of national “unity.” (We are asked to forget that it was decades of “unity” between the Democrats and the billionaire class that helped produce the social and economic dystopia we now inhabit.)

Thus do the reigning forces in American political life—the populist right and the liberal center—sustain their crusades of disinformation. Both factions brandish the bloody flag of patriotism. Both long for the revival of a glorious order. Both preach fundamentalist creeds, whether they use the jargon of White evangelicalism or that of underregulated markets. And both are doomed. They are combatants on the deck of a sinking ship.

In truth, the disintegration of American civilisation has been evident for some time. The perverse murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were symptoms of deeper pathologies. Our trillion dollar military budget, our gleeful binge of fossil fuels, our support for the occupation and degradation of the Palestinian people—all signal the malignancy of a decadent and cruel nation.

In reality, US plutocrats can offer only a more polished racial capitalism as a remedy for the vulgarity of Trumpism. Their revitalized America will continue to imprison legions of black people, hunt undocumented immigrants, and wage unrelenting war on brown populations abroad.

Meanwhile our intellectual decay intensifies. Capitalism was never going to be satisfied with just seising our social wealth. It has gutted our cultural and educational institutions as well. Small wonder most Americans are strangers to critical thought, and are unable to perceive or meaningfully address the social contradictions that shape their lives. Absorbing the ideas of their religious and political leaders, they find themselves searching for meaning in gospels of prosperity and theories of lizard men.

There may still be an alternative to bewilderment and depravity for the American masses. Recent months and years have witnessed promising countersigns. Popular antiracist and environmental movements reinvigorated our traditions of dissent. Attempts to organize Amazon warehouses, fast food chains, the ridesharing and tech industries and other stubbornly antiunion establishments raised the prospect of renewed worker power. Despite the social devastation of the coronavirus, a period of extreme isolation and anxiety spawned mutual aid projects and tenant struggles.

Progressive dissidents and workers may yet draw on these expressions of solidarity to reconstruct a fractured republic. As feckless Joe Biden takes office, he and his administration should be greeted by waves of radical agitation. We should expand resistance to austerity and endless war, even as we escalate campaigns for climate repair, Medicare for all, living wages, student debt cancellation, and equitable vaccine distribution. Quests for human rights and dignity may not heal America, but they may well preserve some semblance of grace as our society collapses under the weight of its lies.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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