In the last three decades, scholarly interest on entrepreneurship has exploded outside the traditional quantitative disciplines of economics and business studies. This is traceable to the global ascent of neoliberal capitalism, which has drawn remote corners of the world into global webs of capital and substituted self-help entrepreneurship with state-directed ameliorative economic projects. Humanists and qualitative social scientists have brought much-needed critical perspectives to bear on the study of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship.
One of the legacies of this humanisation of entrepreneurship studies is the extension of the observational and analytical lens to the Global South, a region of the world simultaneously regarded as a place dominated by a poverty-incubating pre-capitalist economic ethos and as a fertile ground for recruiting new entrepreneurs. The emphasis on producing indigenous entrepreneurs emanates from an assumption that Africa lacks capitalism and capitalist relations of production, an assumption that Horman Chitonge debunks. There is also a need to deconstruct paradigmatic understandings of not just capitalism but also of entrepreneurship, the supposed means to capitalism in Africa.
Africa has been at the centre of two cross-cutting processes: one focused on the alleged prevalence of pre-capitalist or socialistic poverty, the other on producing entrepreneurs to combat that poverty. The escalation of poverty in Africa from the 1980s, itself partly a product of neoliberal reforms, ironically opened the door to the neoliberal veneration of entrepreneurship as a remedy for mass poverty. Many anti-poverty interventions in Africa today seek to remake Africans into rural and urban entrepreneurs through instruments such as microfinance, revolving credit, and cooperative lending.
The proliferation of entrepreneurial projects in Africa in the neoliberal moment inspired unprecedented Africanist scholarly interest in entrepreneurship, enterprise, innovation, African capitalism (or Africapitalism) and the culture of self-help. As new groups of entrepreneurs emerged on the continent and engaged in a variety of capitalist, wealth-creating activities, Africanist scholars from a variety of fields began to develop new vocabularies and concepts to explain this entrepreneurial wave. This scholarly corpus has been illuminating, but it has also been plagued by conceptual imprecision and confusion.
Africa has been at the centre of two cross-cutting processes: one focused on the alleged prevalence of pre-capitalist or socialistic poverty, the other on producing entrepreneurs to combat that poverty.
The problem, as I want to show in this reflection, was that the Africanist entrepreneurial perspective that emerged had blind spots imposed by dominant formulations developed to understand entrepreneurial cultures in Euro-American contexts. There are two other inter-related problems. One is a failure to develop an analytical toolkit that accommodates the capacious and amorphous entrepreneurial lives of Africans who were pigeonholed into the new neoliberal category of the entrepreneur. The second is a failure to adequately critique the exuberant, self-assured discourse of entrepreneurs as economic messiahs and replacements for the economic responsibilities of the dysfunctional African state.
The first problem turns on the deployment of notions and definitions derived from the dominant Schumpeterian perspective on entrepreneurship. Joseph Schumpeter’s major contribution to the study of entrepreneurship lies in going beyond understanding the entrepreneur as one who had the skill to “combine the factors of production” and situating the entrepreneur in a more ambitious project of disrupting the process of value-creation. Schumpeter saw the entrepreneur not just in personal terms but also in terms of corporate agency, of the aggregate transformative impact of multiple, simultaneous, or successive entrepreneurial initiatives. Unlike other theorists, Schumpeter saw the entrepreneur not as a manager but as a catalyst, an innovator. Clearly, the empirical setting of Schumpeter’s theorisation is a European industrial one, giving his postulations a decidedly Eurocentric flavour.
The Schumpeterian paradigm applies to the innovatively disruptive capacities of some contemporary African industrial entrepreneurs. However, this explanatory model is problematic when called upon to illuminate the activities and priorities of other African entrepreneurs outside the capitalist industrial matrix. The Schumpeterian explanation does not know what to do with Africans whose enterprise consists not of the familiar portfolios of our modern capitalist imagination but rather of an eclectic corpus of holdings embracing the social, political, artisanal, and economic realms.
In trying to understand African entrepreneurs in all their diversity, we have hamstrung our own conceptual liberty and boxed ourselves into an analytical corner. The effort to comprehend African entrepreneurial modalities has suffered as a result. Our love of neat, hard categories and vocational identifiers have stifled our ability to appreciate the full range of African entrepreneurship. As a historian, my frame of reference is the African past and that is where I’d like to go to develop this contention.
Entrepreneurship in precolonial Africa
In precolonial Africa, entrepreneurship was not a narrow, bounded vocation. Instead, entrepreneurship manifested in particular ways of doing things, and in any organised activity that promised personal or communal rewards. In this capacious definitional universe, enterprising warriors were entrepreneurs. They transformed the art of warfare from a regimented, sporadic activity to one with its own routines and protocols. Historian Uyilawa Usualele’s chapter in my edited volume, Entrepreneurship in Africa, rightly argues for a recognition of the entrepreneurial ingenuity of Benin warlords, spiritual consultants, priests, and religious purveyors whose repertoire included the professionalisation and deft organisation of multiple social vocations. Their sophisticated endeavour, as Uyilawa demonstrates, entailed the adoption of business management principles that we today associate with entrepreneurs.
In trying to understand African entrepreneurs in all their diversity, we have hamstrung our own conceptual liberty and boxed ourselves into an analytical corner. The effort to comprehend African entrepreneurial modalities has suffered as a result.
Warrior guilds, whether in precolonial Ibadan, Asante, Dahomey, Buganda or Zulu, were sites of entrepreneurship. When systematised and conceptualised as a professional business venture, as it was in many precolonial African kingdoms, warring involved planning, management, delegation, tasks, goals, deliverables, compensation, the creation of value in the form of war spoils, the distribution of dividends, and reinvestment in processes that improved war making.
War making entailed post-operational accounting, the calculation of profits, and periodic stocktaking — in other words, elaborate formal and informal bookkeeping. It was a business, and the guilds, warrior cults, and military training programmes of precolonial African kingdoms were business schools of sorts. Many of today’s warlords are also conflict entrepreneurs, leveraging war as opportunities for profit.
I have chosen this unlikely example to illustrate my point that in Africa entrepreneurial pursuits were not and are still not wholly shaped by the narrow permutations of combining the forces of production — capital, labour, and knowledge — to produce a profit. The profit motive is not always central to entrepreneurial pursuits in the African context, although profit is an expected outcome of entrepreneurial acts. Furthermore, where present and clearly discernible as the primary catalyst in an enterprise, profit is articulated in less narrow terms than is posited in the economistic definitions of classical and neoliberal economic thought.
Historically, African entrepreneurs occupied multiple positions and professions in society; entrepreneurship was only one of several elements that defined them. Moreover, their entrepreneurial lives often existed in symbiosis with the demands, responsibilities, and ethics of the wider culture.
Given this reality of multiple entrepreneurial trajectories and entwinements, it is perhaps more productive to speak of “entrepreneurial Africans” than of “African entrepreneurs”, a formulation at odds with the restrictive definitional criteria in normative capitalist thought. The term African entrepreneurs assumes a consistent, permanent occupational identity of people whose lives were consumed and defined solely by their entrepreneurial engagements. Entrepreneurial Africans advances a premise of entrepreneurial possibilities in multiple endeavours and professions.
Historically, African entrepreneurs occupied multiple positions and professions in society; entrepreneurship was only one of several elements that defined them. Moreover, their entrepreneurial lives often existed in symbiosis with the demands, responsibilities, and ethics of the wider culture.
This complex picture is further compounded by the existence of several “non-capitalist” systems of production, as well as the prevalence of hybrid practices in which self-interested capitalist rationalities coexisted with an ethos of value and reward. If the Schumpeterian model and its derivatives are applied uncritically to African entrepreneurial formations, they raise the question of whether, for instance, entrepreneurs could emerge and thrive outside capitalist relations in a communal African economic setting and, if so, whether the relationship between capitalism and entrepreneurship, which we have long taken for granted, can be sustained in the African context. This question is important because it alerts Africanist scholars of personal and group economies to what they might lose, what analytical opportunities they might miss, and what complexities and realities they might occlude or misread when they accord overarching analytical finality to concepts developed in other places and circumstances and deployed to explain African conditions. Elisio Macamo insightfully makes a similar argument in regard to the concept of capitalism and its conceptual work in African social science scholarship.
The entrepreneurial independence that, even if only rhetorically, marked the evolution of capitalism in Europe, defined the Euro-American industrial experience, and catalysed the emergence of a distinct entrepreneurial class in that context contrasts with the African entrepreneurial historical landscape. In precolonial times, African entrepreneurs operated at the intersection of profit and power, commerce and culture. Profitmaking was coextensive with social obligations. Entrepreneurs were mindful of societal expectations on them. Society, in turn, recognised that entrepreneurs had special gifts that had to be nurtured and liberated from the sociopolitical routines of daily life. Entrepreneurial pursuits were for-profit endeavours for the most part but profits and service to society were coterminous, as chapters by Gloria Chuku, Marta Musso, Martin Shanguhyia, and Chambi Chachage in the aforementioned Entrepreneurship in Africa volume demonstrate.
Political power holders cultivated entrepreneurs and were entrepreneurs in their own right. Entrepreneurs, on their part, accessed the protective, logistical, and spiritual resources deposited in the political realm. Ultimately, the idea that individual profitmaking could and should coexist with the provision of societal benefit and that entrepreneurial projects should catalyse society’s economic potentials was an unwritten but well understood rule of commerce. Entrepreneurship, which was mobile and malleable, was the defining character of precolonial African political economy.
To speak of a political economy of entrepreneurship or an entrepreneurial political economy is to signal a uniquely African iteration of entrepreneurship in which the political and mercantile realms were and are in conversation and cooperation. The case of the precolonial Wangara mercantile network in West Africa is an example of the entwinement of value creation and political power. There is clearly a contemporary continuity to this reality. The most consequential and successful African entrepreneurs of today, such as Aliko Dangote, Strive Masiyiwa, Patrice Motsepe, Tony Elumelu, and others have direct or indirect tentacles in the realm of power and politics. Their business empires relate with host governments and political formations in ways that would offend contrived, self-righteous, and hypocritical business sensibilities in the West. Text-bookish neoliberal Western formulations proclaim the autonomies of the business and political spheres, but these autonomous zones do not exist in the West, as many corporate and political corruption scandals have revealed. Although open to perversion and corruption, in their most productive manifestations, African entrepreneurial cultures that recognise the field of play between economics and politics stand in distinction from the neoliberal obsession with the idea of separating business and politics or protecting entrepreneurs from the alleged meddling and market distortions of political actors.
African scholars, businesspeople, and policymakers in search of an African business ethos will do well to consider this African historical partnership between profit and people.
Globalised capital that empowers and privileges
My second point concerns the limit of entrepreneurship, which needs to be stressed to counterbalance the narrative of multipurpose amelioration that has developed around African entrepreneurship. We live in a neoliberal moment in which entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs are celebrated as potent economic agents and catalysts for poverty reduction and economic growth. Whether entrepreneurs deserve this outsized reputation in our interconnected and interdependent economic ecosystem is a legitimate question. When we talk glibly, and with scholarly certitude, about the capacity of entrepreneurship to lift Africans out of poverty, we are ignoring the structural elements of globalised capital that empower and privilege some while impoverishing and dispossessing others. We are ignoring the ways that global capitalist configurations undercut and complicate entrepreneurial possibilities and opportunities in Africa.
The conceptual impact of Africa’s long encounter with neoliberalism on discourses of African entrepreneurship is profound. The nexus of neoliberalism and entrepreneurship is not far-fetched. The neoliberal economic regime imposed on African economies by the Bretton Woods institutions in the 1980s and 1990s dictated an economic paradigm shift for African countries, one that redefined the relationships, obligations, and responsibilities between states and their citizens. One of the most remarkable outcomes of this shift has been the increasing dominance of the figure of the entrepreneur. A corollary development has been the substitution of entrepreneurial self-help for redistributive, reconstructive, and structural economic reforms.
When we talk glibly, and with scholarly certitude, about the capacity of entrepreneurship to lift Africans out of poverty, we are ignoring the structural elements of globalised capital that empower and privilege some while impoverishing and dispossessing others.
This lionisation of the entrepreneur is a symptom of a deeper rhetorical, philosophical, and policy gesture in the direction of producing citizen-entrepreneurs who pursue thrift and profits, creatively take charge of their own welfare, innovatively add value to the economy, and thus relieving the state of financial obligations. Neoliberal attempts to engineer into existence ideal entrepreneurial citizens that are self-reliant and removed from the nodes of state obligation were authorised by a new fetish of personal economic responsibility. These interventions absolved the African state of its developmental responsibilities, demanding that poor Africans pull themselves out of poverty by their own entrepreneurial bootstraps.
Neoliberal fetishisation of African entrepreneurship
By seeking to transform postcolonial Africans into entrepreneurs, neoliberal economic interventions misread Africa’s past as one in which Africans were pampered by states and as a result ceased to create value through entrepreneurial activity. In truth, there was never such a cessation of entrepreneurial ingenuity in African communities. Nor did states, despite their paternalistic rhetoric and claims, provide robust welfare protections to citizens. Neoliberal entrepreneurial initiatives were cast against a foundational ignorance of the fact that value creation in most African societies is an organic social endeavor and not the intensely individualised enterprise intelligible to neoclassical and neoliberal frames of analysis. Birthed in this original misunderstanding of Africa, the political economy of neoliberalism has entrenched the entrepreneurial figure venerated by International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank policy documents as the discursive referent in studies of African economic revival. One outcome has been a profound transformation in the very vocabulary we use to designate some Africans as entrepreneurs and to withhold that designation from others.
The damage done by the neoliberal fetishisation of African entrepreneurship is both discursive and practical. Important as entrepreneurs are to the present and future of Africa, all Africans cannot become entrepreneurs, at least not in the neoliberal sense of the word. This sober recognition, which is missing from most external economic reform prescriptions, ought to be a serious preoccupation of Africanist scholars of entrepreneurship. It is the task of Africanists who study capitalism, business, and entrepreneurship in Africa to modulate and critique the exaggerated instrumentalities of African entrepreneurship. This task is necessary to balance the analytical books because we have created a zero sum analytical calculus in which talking more about entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial catalysts results in less talk about structural inequalities inherent in the global capitalist system into which Africans, to varying degrees, have long been integrated.
I want to conclude this reflection with a proposal wrapped in a critique. There is a need to develop a new mode of African scholarship on business and enterprise. This proposed new field of qualitative African business and entrepreneurial studies must necessarily adopt a relaxed analytical framework capable of exploring complex economic lives in ways that traditional scholarship in African economic history – with its neat dichotomies between worker and merchant, king and commoner, bourgeoisie and peasant – is incapable of doing. This kind of study should be able to analyse African entrepreneurial lives that cross class divides and socioeconomic categories.
Traditional debates in the field of African economic history have rarely acknowledged, let alone theorised, the entrepreneurial ingenuity of Africans in a sustained way and in terms independent of other categories of analysis. This erasure is particularly common in the field of colonial economic history. Neoclassical and neoliberal scholars of modern African economic history overstate the instrumental agency of African entrepreneurs. On the opposite side, neo-Marxist and dependency theorists shun or dismiss entrepreneurs as a petit bourgeoisie class undermining the revolutionary struggles of workers and peasants. By lionising or diminishing the figure of the African entrepreneur, the dominant schools of African economic history orphaned the African entrepreneur into a strange category where s/he is either overburdened with the task of saving dysfunctional economies or tossed aside as an economic saboteur.
In the end, the innovative ingenuity of Africans in many entrepreneurial fields is either denied or sensationalised by those who purport to speak for and about African entrepreneurs. What is lacking are stories of African entrepreneurship told by entrepreneurs themselves. We need African entrepreneurial stories curated by the entrepreneurs themselves or at least informed by their perspectives, their self-representation, and their understanding of their own struggles, aspirations, and visions. These stories have to go beyond “How I Made It” memoirs and autobiographies of entrepreneurial success and hagiographic scholarly narratives of problem-solving, self-redeeming African entrepreneurs.
Finally, the question of how we are telling the African entrepreneurship story is as important as who is telling it. The current triumphalist and hyperbolic tone of the conversation has produced a restrictive exercise in navel-gazing. It has also led to an explosion of self-validating, self-fulfilling rhetoric, in which the concept of entrepreneurship is not only advanced as a fail-safe substitute for the idea of the African developmental state posited compellingly by the late Thandika Mkandawire and others but is also used as a stand-in for more substantive debates about external and internal structural constraints on African development.
This article was first published by Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE).
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Whiteness and the Future of Artificial Intelligence
Tracing the digital contours of the settler colony helps us understand how old inequalities will shape a future with artificial intelligence.
For much of the nineteenth century, Sundays in an open field at the gates of New Orleans saw a spectacular congregation of human activity. Picture a hot, humid, swampy Louisiana summer day, the Spanish moss dripping from the trees, and the bass drum pulse reverberating as you approach a mass gathering at the fringe of the United States’s most Caribbean city.
You’d see New Orleaneans of all stripes, dressed in everything from the latest Parisian fashions to simple rags, standing around in circles, watching the most talented musicians, dancers, actors, and diviners of their city on full display.
If you could have angled your head to see inside the circle, you would be privileged to witness the diversity of humanity coming together. People from across Africa and the Americas co-mingling, sharing their culture, celebrating the arrival of the one day they can express their home and ancestral cultures in public.
Unaware that their communing would one day birth a novel culture, which would in turn branch out to influence cultures in the rest of the world, there must have been an urgent feeling to the gatherings, fleeting if not quite ephemeral, but temporary enough to make them feel dreamlike, religious even. As soon as that feverish dream of a day would break, they would be returning to unpaid labor, toiling in fields or answering to the whims of their white masters. Because they were not, in the society in which they lived, human.
In 2018, after returning to the US from living in Brazil, I visited New Orleans for the first time. While there, I picked up a book on the history of Congo Square, and in the following months I couldn’t help from periodically daydreaming about the historical Sunday gatherings in that city. I drew parallels to the basement house party or the rented community center of my childhood in Milwaukee, where immigrants would dance the night away, speak in their own language, eat their own food, even worship in their own cosmos.
They were also there at the nightclub that I frequented as a student in Madrid, filled with young men who may have risked their lives crossing deserts and seas to arrive in Europe, and who now danced in the center of circles to Youssou N’Dour. Or they were in the hidden away bars and nightclubs of New York and San Francisco, where migrants of a variety of classes and national origins brushed up against each other, catching up on the latest sounds from their various home lands. They were also in online spaces, in which young people across the world found a foothold for expression, with various permutations of digital soul music pulsing on the parallel circuits of a global capitalism still guided by the logic of white supremacy.
Connecting a historical moment like Congo Square to my own experiences helped to challenge lingering colonial logics embedded within my imaginings of America’s past. It particularly helped to destroy an invisible line that tends to be drawn between those whose ancestors arrived on these shores from Africa in bondage hundreds of years ago, and those who arrived more recently for other purposes. It forced me to recognize that African migration to the Americas (or elsewhere) can and should be thought of as a continuum, and the humanity of those who migrate, forced or by choice, is unbroken across space and time.
Last summer, I sat in a parking lot in King City, California, a small town surrounded by mountains and endless fields of fruit and vegetables, listening to a local Spanish language radio broadcast. On it, alongside various Mexican regional musics, they had public service announcements about COVID-19 and ads for English language classes. King City sits in the heart of one of the centers of industrial agriculture in the United States.
The manual labor performed in this region is done by workers from Mexico and Central America, some undocumented, but all descended from people who occupied and moved around these lands freely for thousands of years. Largely invisible in nearby wealthy urban enclaves, they are an integral labor force that save for a periodic scapegoating, demonization, and dehumanization in the media, isn’t normally seen as part of the nation—let alone having their hopes, joys, or individual expressions considered in mainstream discourse.
So I sat there, listening to the bright horn choruses and upbeat snare drum rolls, and imagined that these local radio broadcasts served to provide a sense of community and humanity to their audiences, not unlike those of the Sunday gatherings in New Orleans two hundred years ago. Humanity denied, humanity reclaimed, the contours of citizenship and their interplay with labor are perpetually dancing at the edges of the settler colony.
Contemporaneous to the gatherings at Congo Square, the American settler colony was in an expansive phase moving west across the North American continent. Around the same time, European powers were doling out territories for themselves in Africa, and across the world they accomplished these “civilizing missions” by pushing the existing inhabitants off of the land, killing or imprisoning them, or attempting to wipe out their way of life. The privileges of white settlers in these extensions of Europe were fortified by the legal structures of the colonial state. In the United States, laws like the Homestead Act and the Second Amendment to the Constitution turned white frontier families into state-sponsored militias, their structural advantage scrawled across the physical landscape of the continent.
In the wake of the guns and military campaigns (sometimes manned by colonised peoples themselves), urban professionals of the colonial metropoles followed with their pens, phonographs, and cameras and became the documentarians of the folk culture of the marginals, misfits, Native Americans and Africans at the frontier (as well in the working class neighborhoods of cities). These state agents and entrepreneurs would chronicle the transition from an Atlantic society based on slave labor to capitalism. The legends they constructed would become the foundation for an imperialist ideology that continues to this day.
Starting around the mid-1800s, the US witnessed the rise in popularity of the blackface minstrel show. Through the medium of vaudeville, and with Congo Square as one of the direct source materials, the minstrel show denigrated people of African descent (or anyone deemed other at the time), mocking the expressions of humanity that they managed, while simultaneously integrating them into the identity of the nation. This form of entertainment would produce America’s first pop stars who would in turn become global ambassadors for the new American society that was emerging.
The legal mechanisms for enclosure in the world of ideas mirrored those of physical territory. As communication technology rapidly advanced, the mechanical copyright emerged to protect property in the cultural realm. This mechanism ensured a structural advantage for those with the resources to extract and define the value of the culture of those at the margins. The owners of patents and copyrights did more than just document their changing world, they also ossified racial categories and ushered racism along from the biological realm into the cultural one. This was the foundation on which the global entertainment industries of today were built.
After the very slow and wrought process of abolishing Atlantic slavery, and the violent consolidation of the colonial territories, by the turn of the twentieth century debates about citizenship and civil rights would arise to mask the battlefield over humanity. As Native Americans were cordoned off to reservations, Africans in the Americas would be folded into the nation as Black (Negro, Colored, etc). And as the western literary genre moved from the written word to the screen, and the minstrel show moved from live theater, to radio and phonograph, to film and television, the twin legacies of the fascination with and denigration of a dehumanized other would leave their mark on each.
White capitalist copyright owners would position themselves as the authoritative gatekeepers on the pure folk cultures of the inferior races, or white performers, on stage with their actual faces, would insert themselves as the individual genius responsible for the synthesis of a unique cultural innovation, the social relations behind the slick final product forever obscured. While various cultural rebellions have arisen throughout the years to counter these processes of dehumanization, the tools of extraction inherited from the nineteenth century have proven to be more than effective in upholding the logic of empire and racial capitalism.
In parallel to this cultural push and pull, a political debate would arise amongst Black Americans over how to (or whether to) integrate into the settler colonial society. Visions of a return to Africa would wax and wane, while an anti-colonial politics was violently repressed. Ultimately, the call to own property as a way to secure one’s rightful place within the nation, the ghosts of 40 acres and a mule, would ring out loud over the decades. This echo has found new life in today’s discourse around race, resulting in an ascendant black nationalist purism, particularly online. This trend is unfortunate. While there is certainly agency within the beauty and virtuosity that has come into the world as a result of the cultural resilience of African descended peoples in the Americas, it doesn’t mean that it is the result of some intrinsic quality unique to one racial group or national historical context.
In fact, it could be argued that the African retentions that remain in the Americas survived because the dominant systems either tolerated them or weren’t able to read them as such. In other words: Black American cultures have arisen as a result of both black resilience and white supremacy. Still, America’s Blackness is one of the most important cultural expressions of resilience and resistance in modern society. To put an enclosure around it only reinforces the settler colonial mentality, leaving the aims of universal humanism incomplete. Even those Africans at Congo Square, who helped start this whole thing in the first place, would likely remain outside of the gates.
Just over an hour drive from that King City parking lot where I was listening to the radio in Spanish, and on the western edge of the continental territory colonised by the United States, sits the headquarters of the world’s most valuable companies: Google, Facebook, Tesla, Apple—the heart of the global information economy. Even though the bubble of the California Gold Rush has long since burst (a process that seems to repeat itself every few decades), it has turned into a region with one of the largest concentrations of wealth in the world. If mass media was born amongst the colonization project of Euro-American imperialism, the dehumanization of non-European peoples, and the consolidation of racial capitalism, then today’s information economy is also built upon that same infrastructure.
On the wild frontiers of the early internet, online communities emerged that would freely exchange infinitely replicable digital material. In what many thought was a new reality of a post-scarce digitally permanent world, the reign of the regime of copyright briefly found itself in crisis. Music was the most fertile ground from which to declare one’s liberation, but it wasn’t the only one.
And while interaction with the old guard of racial capitalism allowed a tradition of gatekeeping and cultural appropriation inherited from vaudeville to continue, what had emerged within the confines of the virtual world—torrent libraries, file sharing sites, personal blogs, forums and chat rooms—collectively could be thought of as a sort of digital Congo Square. The response from the United States Department of Homeland Security, alongside other policing efforts, was to raid the safe houses of free exchange and try and put an end to it all through intimidation.
Before the average uploader became familiar with the DMCA takedown, some big companies looked at the anarchistic landscape and lured the loosely organized scattering of digital cultural producers onto their free platforms. Soundcloud, Youtube, Instagram, Twitter, etc all provided sleek design, convenience, and a veneer of protection from the harshest crackdowns by the state.
Yet, these platforms were not immune to the demands of capital or its watchdogs. Perhaps, they never were meant to be. Investors eventually wanted returns, and the landed copyright elite needed their cut too, and whether planned or not, all the platforms would eventually make concessions that favored the biggest property owners over the public. These concessions would eventually evolve into the phenomenon now popularly known as surveillance capitalism.
Eventually, the ideological struggles of our time would also move on to the individualized “feeds” and “timelines” of the Silicon Valley platforms. No longer reserved for the stage of fights between or within nations, political speech is tailored, tracked, and manipulated in the interest of generating more interaction with minimal regard to the real world consequences. We may constantly measure ourselves against how we think other people might see us online, but when you strip us back down to our most human needs and desires, the questions that concern much of the population of this planet are fairly simple: What is the right of any individual human to exist wherever they are on Earth? And, under what conditions do they have a right to do so?
So today, across the world, young people leave rural communities to work in the fields, mines, and factories that fuel the supply chains of multinational corporations with the slightest hope that integration into the global economy will provide a better future for them and their families. Masses from the urban margins take to the streets with the belief that by facing state violence head on they might bring about a more just reality for their communities.
And, when members of both groups feel like they have no alternative but to hit the unmarked highways of the world’s most dangerous migration routes and seek a better future elsewhere, they are doing so with the idea that the same world that can beam images and sounds via satellite to a mobile phone in their pocket must be able to recognize a humanity denied as a result of neocolonial economic, environmental, and military policy.
Like in the post-Reconstruction era in the US, many of the proposed solutions to the injustices that have emerged in the digital age have concentrated on finding technological fixes to restore (old) systems of fair(er) compensation for the output (input) of online denizens. However, rather than provide solutions to the structural inequalities inherent to capitalism, technological fixes such as blockchain capitalism, cash app mutual aid, personalized sponsorship accounts, and other enclosure-oriented solutions ultimately retrofit the infrastructures of exploitation against the claims of universal humanism. While there certainly is value in building community online, especially as a form of resistance or resilience, the question remains: What forms of online participation emerge from the claims to humanity of the marginals, misfits, Native Americans and Africans at the frontier?
And in our resistance, we should also never forget that the reality of surveillance capitalism is that one person’s individual wealth, clout, or social relevance is insignificant in comparison to the aggregate picture of all the behaviors of the world’s population.
By the time the platforms had a monopoly on audiences, they no longer needed the cultural products they claimed to be supporting to have any exchange value at all (with human moderation becoming fertile ground for corruption or payola). While influencers try to squeeze out a few pennies from sponsors or trickle down monetization schemes based on clout they’ve managed to accumulate in their online and real world social networks, the runways of the digital future are paved with the promise of returns from the proprietary algorithms built on data hoarded from the behavior of the masses.
As it stands, a few companies, concentrated in specific geographic locations, fortified by an accumulated wealth never seen before, defended by the largest military force ever to exist, swallow and secure all the information we give them: our behaviors, our desires, all of our humanistic acts and expressions, and employ small armies to sort, categorize, process and program, with the end goal of creating an “artificial intelligence” that can ultimately stake a claim to humanity too.
However, unlike the popular science fiction fantasy in which the future battles for humanity will happen between robots and humans, as big tech plans an exit from a planet in crisis, our future struggles are more likely to look like the age old one of humans who can harvest the fruits of their enclosures versus those of us who can’t. So, if blackness is the foundational currency on which the capitalist information economy is built, what will whiteness mean to a cyborg.
Combatting the Desert Locust Menace
In January 2020 Kenya experienced the worst locust invasion in 70 years. So intense were the infestations that they posed a serious risk of food insecurity to the country and the region.
Locusts are small creatures measuring approximately 0.5 to 3 inches long and weighing 0.07 ounces that belong to the grasshopper family. The average lifecycle of a locust is three to six months. In normal circumstances they are solitary but can change their behaviour and become gregarious under certain conditions. During the dry season, they tend to swarm together in the scant patches of vegetation. The swarming causes serotonin to release into their central nervous system, promoting rapid movement, giving them appetite for a more varied diet leading to their rapid spread.
The onset of rains brings with it an increase in lush vegetation, favouring the rapid increase of the insects and triggering their gregarious phase during which the desert locust can be devastating, consuming its weight in food in a day. In each square kilometre of a swarm there can be as many as 40 million individuals capable of destroying in day enough food to feed more than 35,000 people.
Towards the end of 2019, the East African region experienced an invasion of desert locusts of a scale not witnessed in the region in decades. The desert locusts descended on farmland in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia in their hundreds of millions.
According to scientists, two cyclones in 2018 — Cyclone Mekunu in May and Cyclone Luban in October — caused massive rainfall in the Arabian Desert, a factor that facilitated the breeding of desert locusts. The rains were enough to create ephemeral lakes in the desert, a favourable breeding ground for desert locusts. It is believed that this phenomenon is likely to have enabled the formation of three generations of locust deserts, increasing the number of the swarming locusts 8,000-fold.
As is the nature of the desert locust, the swarms began to migrate and by the summer of 2019 they were crossing the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden into the Eastern Africa countries of Ethiopia and Somalia. The desert locusts continued to breed for several months, with the autumn rains experienced in the East Africa region — capped by cyclonic storm Pawan, experienced in December of 2019 and responsible for rainfall in Somalia — triggering another reproductive cycle of the desert locusts.
The swarms of locusts continued to grow and arrived in Kenya towards the end of December 2019, rapidly moving through the northern and central parts of the country. By the end of January 2020, Kenya was experiencing the worst locust invasion in 70 years. So intense were the infestations — which moved through the neighbouring countries of Eritrea and Djibouti, finding their way to northern Tanzania and northeast Uganda in mid-February — that they posed a serious risk of food insecurity in the region.
The impact of the locust invasion was severe and continues to be felt to this day. In as much as Kenya has made significant steps in combating desert locusts infestations, new infestations continue swarming into the country and farmers in the north and in some parts of central Kenya continue to grapple with the huge losses caused by the invasions.
According to reports by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), about 20.2 million people in the Eastern Africa region faced acute food insecurity in 2020 alone, a condition that was worsened by the desert locust infestations and the Covid-19 pandemic. Further, according to the FAO, desert locusts have the potential to affect 20 per cent of the earth’s land and put into jeopardy the livelihoods of a tenth of the world’s population.
As explained at the beginning of this article, the desert locust has the potential to destroy in one day food that can feed over 35,000 people, threatening a country with food insecurity. But while this might be the immediate impact of a desert locust invasion, infestations have other long short- and long-term effects.
It is said that a healthy nation is a productive nation. However, locust invasions have the potential to nullify this statement in less than a week of their landing in a region. The recent and ongoing wave of locust infestations has driven families and vulnerable groups into poverty and hunger, a situation that has been worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Desert locusts have the potential to affect 20 per cent of the earth’s land and put into jeopardy the livelihoods of a tenth of the world’s population.
Desert locust infestations are not only a threat to crops but they also threaten the survival of livestock. The FAO reported that in Ethiopia alone, an early assessment of the impact of the wave of locust invasions showed that more than 5,000 square miles of pastureland and 800 square miles of cropland were destroyed. The infestation also caused the loss of over 350,000 metric tonnes of dry grains and cereal, resulting in over one million people experiencing hunger and needing food aid.
A nation that is not food secure is a nation that is not secure at all. Hunger and poverty contribute to increased crime in a country, driving people to engage in all manner of vice in an effort to survive.
Food insecurity is also a leading cause of increased government borrowing in a bid to alleviate the suffering of the population. The borrowing, which is meant to cushion the nation from the effects of the invasion and other resultant challenges, leads to a ballooning national debt and a high cost of living. Locust invasions also seriously affect a country’s export earnings which has a direct effect on previously planned expenditures. Locust infestations also tend to derail the development agenda of a country as it is forced to put scheduled plans on hold in order to deal with the invasion.
How then can a country deal with locust infestations to guarantee its food security and avert the challenges associated with such invasions? Biological methods of pest control are safest, both for the environment and for humans. However, biological methods of desert locust control may not be effective, especially in cases where swarms are involved.
The most commonly used biological method of pest control is the use of a predator to eliminate the pest. However, the challenge with this method is that it cannot be effective in controlling large swarms of locusts as they can easily fly away from their predators. Another challenge is that locusts barely stay put for more than a day or two since they are constantly looking for food and therefore cannot be easily contained and controlled.
A nation that is not food secure is a nation that is not secure at all.
The other option of locust control would be to use of nets to capture swarms. However, this method of control can only be effective on a small scale since large swarms of locusts can fly above and past the nets.
Scaring the swarms away is yet another method of locust control. However, it can only be implemented in small areas since scaring the pests away only drives them to the next available vegetation for them to devour.
Consequently, the most effective method of controlling large swarms of desert locusts is to spray organophosphate chemicals in small, concentrated volumes using aerial sprayers, vehicle-mounted sprayers, or from knapsack or handheld sprayers in smaller areas.
However, spraying chemicals to control locusts also has adverse effects on nature and on living organisms. For instance, while the use of the Metarhizium biopesticide was found to be 70 to 90 per cent effective in the control of locusts, with no measurable impact on non-target organisms, this is not the case with other chemical formulations that wipe out both the target and non-target organisms, immensely impacting the ecological balance.
During the recent wave of locust invasions experienced in Kenya and the larger East African region, the FAO has collaborated with the local and national governments to mitigate the spread of these swarms to other areas by spraying pesticides both on the ground (to kill any eggs or nymphs) and aerially in areas where it is safe to do so. Research is ongoing to develop formulations that have the least impact on non-target organisms.
Notably, the FAO is working closely with 51 Degrees Ltd. to bring the desert locust situation under control using a hotline system integrated with tracking software, trained scouts, and aircraft. The EarthRanger system captures and transmits locust sightings and movements, making it easier to control the warms. Initially developed to track poaching, the method has been yielding positive results in locust control in Kenya.
Planning by governments is essential in ensuring that a country is not caught off-guard by infestations in the future. Having mitigation measures in place to reduce the impact of locust infestations on a country’s economy is crucial.
Locusts are an important part of the grassland ecosystem as they stimulate nutrient cycling and play a crucial role in food chains. As such, governments should think of balanced ways to control these insects while at the same time maintaining the much-needed balance in the ecosystem. Controlling the locusts ensures that a country enjoys food security and also averts other challenges brought on by locust invasions.
While biological control may prove hard to implement, especially where large swarms of locusts are involved, the government can come up with other safe control mechanisms that do not affect the environment and ecological balance. For instance, finding a way of preventing swarms of locusts from landing on crops as they migrate can be a good way to ensure that a country’s food security is safeguarded.
Planning by governments is essential in ensuring that a country is not caught off-guard by infestations in the future.
Additionally, investing in research to better understand the biology of locusts, their breeding habits and migratory patterns, and applying the ecological niche modeling approach to predict the breeding sites of locusts can be very useful in controlling these insects. Institutions such as the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Kenya have been at the forefront in researching better ways to combat locust infestations using this approach.
The model proposes the use of historical datasets of the breeding patterns of desert locusts in the Middle East and in the Sahel region to predict the probability of locusts breeding in the East African region. This type of research identifies the desert locust breeding hotspots and better prepares a country to combat the menace. Through such an approach, the government can come up with a cost-effective, site-specific, and targeted management of crawling hoppers before they become gregarious adults, thus minimising the risk of an outbreak.
Kenya: Will Recognising Ethnic Identities Lead To Positive Outcomes?
Countries that adopt ethnic recognition go on to experience less violence, more economic vitality, and more democratic politics.
Kenyans are preparing to amend the country’s 2010 constitution, with a referendum tentatively scheduled for June 2021. The amendments focus on ensuring shared prosperity, managing ethnic diversity, and avoiding divisive elections.
After two rejected polls, increasing tensions and pockets of violence, opposition leader Raila Odinga and presidential victor Uhuru Kenyatta shook hands in March 2018 and agreed to work together under what they termed the Building Bridges Initiative.
Its report has a section on “Ethnic Antagonism and Competition which highlights the need to “find ways of managing … diversity” and preventing “ethnic conflicts in Kenya.”
The report holds that the ethnicised winner-takes-all nature of Kenyan politics has been at the root of the country’s election instability. But debate over its proposals, which are now included in the Constitution of Kenya (Amendment) Bill, continues.
Much of the debate is around ethnic representation in government, equitable sharing of resources among Kenya’s diverse ethnic communities, and the role of the current political elite in future governance structures.
In our book, Diversity, Violence, and Recognition: How Recognizing Ethnic Identity Promotes Peace, we investigate some of the same issues debated in Kenya today.
We focus on contexts around the world that, like Kenya, are ethnically diverse and have experienced violent conflict on so-called ethnic lines. This means the religious, tribal, caste, racial, or other descent-based characteristics along which politics and society have been structured.
We examine the strategies that different countries have chosen to manage such conflict. In particular we study how and why leaders choose to recognise or avoid reference to ethnic identities in government institutions and the effects of this choice on peace.
Our findings were surprisingly clear: countries that adopt ethnic recognition go on to experience less violence, more economic vitality, and more democratic politics. But these effects depend on which ethnic group is in power.
We studied constitutions and peace agreements from 57 countries around the world from Afghanistan to Ethiopia, Burundi to the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland). The countries we studied experienced violent conflict between 1990 and 2012. We searched each document to determine whether or not they named different ethnic groups as part of the body politic.
We found that globally, 43% of post-conflict constitutions and peace agreements named ethnic groups. Sometimes this ethnic recognition comes with group differentiated rights like representation quotas or autonomy arrangements. But in other cases it is largely symbolic.
In Kenya’s case, the 2010 constitution mentions “ethnic diversity” but it does not name specific ethnic groups. The same is true of the Building Bridges Initiative proposals and the constitution amendment bill.
We also found that there was a pattern that distinguished the contexts where ethnic recognition was adopted: the leader was typically from the largest ethnic group. When leaders from the largest ethnic group were in power, ethnic recognition was adopted 60% of the time. However, in contexts of minority ethnic rule, ethnic recognition was adopted only 24% of the time.
Ethnic recognition is less common in Africa than in other regions. Still, there are notable instances of recognition on the continent like Burundi and Ethiopia.
Why it matters
We used statistical analysis to compare trends in countries with and without ethnic recognition. On average, countries that explicitly recognise different ethnic groups in their constitutions or peace agreements go on to experience less violence, more economic vitality, and greater democracy than countries that did not.
We believe that this is because ethnic recognition, and policies connected to it, help to manage mistrust between groups.
Recognition allows groups to know how they are doing compared to others through metrics like group-based statistics. This brings issues pertaining to inequality or exclusion out of the sphere of rumour and speculation. In addition, group-based rights such as representation quotas dampen fears that one group will dominate state institutions.
While recognition leads to a number of positive societal effects, we found that these effects depend on the ethnic group in power. The beneficial effects of recognition have been most powerful for countries where the leader is from the largest ethnic group. In contexts of minority ethnic rule, leaders have to balance the rights that recognition offers with countermeasures to prevent larger ethnic groups from winning power.
Take for example, Burundi. It’s last three presidents have been from the majority Hutu ethnic group. Some may worry that formally recognising ethnic identities could entrench mobilisation along ethnic lines. But political dynamics in Burundi illustrate the opposite.
It also named ethnic groups in its 2005 constitution. The constitution established ethnically based quotas for parliament, political parties, the military, and other state institutions. As a result, inter-ethnic conflict has become increasingly less relevant politically.
This has not been the case in neighbouring Rwanda, which is led by an ethnic minority leader. Rwanda’s post-genocide constitution seeks to “eradicate ethnic identity”. But deep inter-ethnic mistrust persists. This is despite laws that restrict references to ethnic identity except when commemorating genocide victims.
Ethnic recognition policies can appear in different sectors from the executive, legislative or judiciary, civil service and the security sector, to education and language. It can be the basis for different types of national strategies to build social cohesion.
For example, Burundi’s approach since the enactment of its 2005 constitution has been to use ethnic quotas to balance and integrate groups within state institutions. This has promoted cooperative intergroup contact, which has helped to reduce inter-ethnic mistrust.
Since its 1995 constitution Ethiopia has also taken an ‘ethnic recognition’ approach to governance. However, its ethno-federal regime has put more emphasis on granting regional autonomy rights, including a right to secession.
It is conceivable that an autonomy-based strategy could offer assurances that promote national unity, but the current dynamics in Ethiopia suggest a high degree of volatility.
Many wish for a foolproof recipe for managing diversity in conflict-affected contexts. There isn’t one. But Kenyans are not alone in debating best strategies. Our book offers accounts of other countries’ experimentation and reminds us that constitutional moments are high stakes and that institutional choices matter.
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