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.
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The Case for a Non-Violent Political Culture
A culture of violent political action by those who aspire to power or by those who wish to retain and enhance it risks plunging society into a swamp of self-destruction.
Just before Kenya’s 2007/2008 post-election crisis, a friend gave me an audio version of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. With my total visual disability, audio books and e-books are always a banquet. The novel features a group of middle-class British boys who find themselves on an island without adult supervision. At first they set up a liberal democratic type of government, with impressive standing orders for their deliberations. However, tensions build up after elections, leading to the formation of two mutually hostile tribes, and ultimately an orgy of violence that culminates in a fire that decimates the boys habitat. A British cruiser arrives just in time for a naval officer on board to call the boys to order and evacuate them from the now devastated island. It was not difficult to see an almost perfect correspondence between the characters in the novel and the ones who were splashed on the front pages of our newspapers during that dark chapter of our country’s history.
Around the world, politicians striving to get into power declare their unflinching commitment to peaceful demonstrations, but covertly, and sometimes even overtly, engage in violent activities. Similarly, although many regimes claim to be democratic, they ignore, muffle or suppress political dissent, often leading to political disobedience. In response, they often deploy security forces to crush such disobedience, resulting in a cycle of violence. Consequently, pertinent questions arise regarding the nature of truly non-violent political action, the moral justifications for it, and possible objections to it.
The nature of non-violent political action
There are authors that assume that “non-violent political action” is synonymous with “civil disobedience”. For example, in his seminal work, A Theory of Justice, the renowned American philosopher, John Rawls, defines civil disobedience as a public, non-violent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law, usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government. According to Rawls, by acting in this way one addresses the sense of justice of the majority of the community, and declares that in one’s considered opinion the principles of social cooperation among free and equal persons are not being respected. Nevertheless, in view of the fact that other writers consider the use of violence to be a type of civil disobedience, it is advisable to use the more specific term “non-violent civil disobedience” to eliminate the possibility of confusion.
One of the earliest articulations of non-violent civil disobedience is that by Plato in the Apology and the Crito. In the Apology, Plato presents Socrates as declaring that while he is committed to obeying the dictates of the state, he is obliged to disobey them whenever they conflict with the express will of the gods, even if the state threatens to put him to death for doing so. Socrates goes on to assert that if the Athenians were to sentence him to death, they would thereby injure themselves more than him. This position is pivotal to the doctrine of non-violent civil disobedience, which seeks to appeal to the conscience of the oppressor through the suffering he or she inflicts on the oppressed. In the Crito, Plato presents Socrates advancing three arguments in support of the view that it is virtuous to submit to the decision of the state to sentence him (Socrates) to death, and therefore that it is vicious for him to escape from prison: We ought not to harm anyone, yet escaping from prison would harm the state; we ought to keep our promises, yet escaping from prison would be tantamount to breaking the promise of loyalty to the state; we ought to obey and respect our parents and teachers, yet escaping from prison would be tantamount to disobedience and disrespect to the state, which enjoys the status of a parent or teacher.
As Roland Bleiker explains, Plato’s Socrates hence provided the precedent for a tradition of dissent that aims at resisting a specific authority, law, or policy considered unjust, while at the same time recognising the rulemaking prerogative of the existing political system as legitimate and generally binding. As indicated below, several other thinkers are associated with non-violent civil disobedience.
Étienne de La Boétie and David Hume
The basic assumption of non-violent civil disobedience is that governments are ultimately dependent on the fearful obedience and compliance of their subjects. This was succinctly stated by the sixteenth century French jurist and political philosopher, Étienne de La Boétie (1530–1563), who wrote his seminal essay, Discours de la Servitude Volontaire (The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude) in 1552–1553. For La Boétie, all that the oppressed masses need to do in order to overthrow the tyrant is to withdraw their cooperation from him:
He who … domineers over you has only two eyes, only two hands, only one body, no more than is possessed by the least man among the infinite numbers dwelling in your cities; he has indeed nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you. Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do not provide them yourselves? How can he have so many arms to beat you with, if he does not borrow them from you? The feet that trample down your cities, where does he get them if they are not your own? How does he have any power over you except through you? How would he dare assail you if he had no cooperation from you? What could he do to you if you yourselves did not connive with the thief who plunders you, if you were not accomplices of the murderer who kills you, if you were not traitors to yourselves? …. Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces.
The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) independently discovered the principle of the goodwill of the populace as the ground of government two centuries after La Boétie, and stated it as follows:
Nothing is more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye than to see the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find that, as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is, therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.
Henry David Thoreau
While the thoughts of La Boétie and Hume on non-violence were purely theoretical, the 19th-century American thinker, Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), engaged in a non-violent action in an attempt to challenge a specific public policy. He refused to pay the state poll tax imposed by the US government to prosecute a war in Mexico and to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. Consequently, in July 1846, he was arrested and jailed. He was supposed to remain in jail until a fine was paid, which he also declined to pay. However, without his knowledge or consent, relatives settled the “debt”, and a disgruntled Thoreau was released after only one night. The incarceration was brief, but it has had enduring effects, as it prompted Thoreau to write his seminal 1848 essay, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Thoreau shared with La Boétie and Hume the view that states continue to exist because of the acquiescence of the citizenry.
Nothing is more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than to see the easiness with which the many are governed by the few.
Nevertheless, as Lawrence Rosenwald correctly observes, although proponents of non-violent action often cite Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” in support of their strategy, he did not rule out the use of violence in politics. Indeed, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, and still more after John Brown’s raid, Thoreau defended violent action on the same grounds as those on which he had defended non-violent action in On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. This is evident in Thoreau’s 1859 work, A Plea for Captain John Brown.
Mohandas Karmachand Gandhi
One of the best known organisers of non-violent civil disobedience is the Indian nationalist, Mohandas Karmachand Gandhi, commonly referred to as “Mahatma (“Great Soul”) Gandhi” (1869–1948). As a young lawyer in South Africa protesting the government’s treatment of immigrant Indian workers, Gandhi was deeply impressed by Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience. What is less known is that Gandhi believed that the Indians in South Africa deserved equal treatment with the Europeans in the country, and was in fact incensed that they were being treated like the majority indigenous peoples there. Thus in 2018, the University of Ghana removed Gandhi’s statue from its exalted place following protests from the university’s lecturers. For now, however, let us focus on Gandhi’s policy of non-violence.
Satyagraha is literally holding on to Truth and it means, therefore, Truth-force. Truth is soul or spirit. It is, therefore, known as soul-force. …. The word was coined in South Africa to distinguish the non-violent resistance of the Indians of South Africa from the contemporary ‘passive resistance’ of the suffragettes and others.
Gandhi was at pains to make a sharp distinction between “passive resistance” and Satyagraha. The main difference, according to him, is that passive resistance is not committed to love, but is rather an expedient strategy that can be easily abandoned whenever it was convenient to use violence. On the other hand, Satyagraha is committed to non-violence, considering itself to be the very opposite of violent resistance. He believed in confronting his opponents aggressively, in such a way that they could not avoid dealing with him. The difference, as Mark Shepard points out, was that the non-violent activist, while willing to die, was never willing to kill. In support of non-violent action, Gandhi argued that if the world were to pursue violence to its ultimate conclusion, the human race would have become extinct long ago. He is often quoted as having said that “an eye for an eye would make the world blind”.
Mark Shepard notes that Gandhi practised two types of Satyagraha in his mass campaigns. The first was civil disobedience, which entailed breaking a law and courting arrest. The second was non-cooperation, that is, refusing to submit to the injustice being fought. It took such forms as strikes, economic boycotts and tax refusals.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Gandhi’s thought and practice greatly influenced the thinking of the African-American Civil Rights Movement leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968). According to Andrew Altman, in contemporary political thought, the term “civil rights” is indissolubly linked to the struggle for equality of African Americans during the 1950s and 1960s, whose aim was to secure the status of equal citizenship between African and European Americans. After slavery was abolished, the US federal Constitution was amended to secure basic rights for African Americans. In 1877, however, the federal government moved to frustrate efforts to enforce those rights. As a result, state constitutions and laws were modified to exclude African Americans from the political process.
Martin Luther King, Jr. catapulted to fame when he came to the assistance of Rosa Parks, the Montgomery, Alabama African American seamstress who, on the 1st of December, 1955, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery bus to a European American passenger. In Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, King Jr. was emphatic that he was not the founder of non-violent civil disobedience among African Americans; rather, he merely served as their spokesman. Like Gandhi, King, Jr. states that his adoption of non-violent civil disobedience was inspired by Thoreau’s On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Nevertheless, he attributes the details of his strategy to the work of Mohandas K. Gandhi.
Thoreau shared with La Boétie and Hume the view that states continue to exist because of the acquiescence of the citizenry.
In Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King, Jr., like Gandhi before him, advanced the view that the purpose of direct mass action is to attain a situation in which the opponent is willing to negotiate. In Stride Toward Freedom, he outlines several basic aspects of the doctrine of non-violence as follows: It is not for cowards, but is actually a method of resistance; it seeks to win the friendship and understanding of the opponent; it attacks forces of evil rather than persons who happen to be doing the evil; it is willing to accept suffering without retaliation; it avoids not only external physical violence, but also internal violence of spirit; it is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice.
Moral justifications for non-violent political action
As Bernard Gert explains, to justify an action is to show that it is rational. Besides, George Fletcher points out that a justification speaks to the rightness of the act, while an excuse focuses on whether or not the actor is accountable for a concededly wrongful act. An unflinching commitment to non-violent political action can be morally justified on at least nine counts.
Violence breeds violence by stimulating the desire for revenge, with the grim possibility of an endless cycle of violence. Because of the physical and psychological harm caused by violence, it often leaves the two sides as longstanding enemies. Even when an armed insurgency is victorious, the final outcome is often disastrous, yet no such losses are associated with non-violent political action.
Armed resistance tends to push undecided elements of the population towards the government, as any effects of the violence they suffer serves to convince them that the purported “liberators” are actually “terrorists”. In sharp contrast to this, government repression against unarmed resistance movements usually creates greater popular sympathy for the regime’s opponents. According to Jerry Tinker, this explains the tendency of many governments, when faced with non-violent resistance, to emphasise any violent fringes that may emerge.
As Stephen Zunes cautions, quite frequently, regimes which come to power through violent means soon forget their pledges to uphold personal liberties. According to Kimberley Brownlee, throughout history, acts of non-violent political action have helped to force a reassessment of society’s moral parameters. Indeed, it is partly for this reason that today’s dissidents are often tomorrow’s heroes.
Like Gandhi before him, advanced the view that the purpose of direct mass action is to attain a situation in which the opponent is willing to negotiate.
In his autobiography, the British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, observes that engaging in civil disobedience often leads to wide dissemination of a position which would have otherwise received inadequate coverage in mass media. Mark Shepard notes that even in revolutions that are primarily violent, the successful ones usually include non-violent civilian actions. Shepard further observes that there are other cases in which violence would work, but so would non-violent action with much less harm. Kelley Ross observes that by refraining from causing physical damage which is, by its very nature irreversible, non-violent political action caters for the fact that we may very well be wrong in holding a particular political position.
Answering objections to non-violent political action
At least six objections have been levelled against non-violent political action, but answers to them are readily available.
First, objectors point out that non-violent political action results in harm, and any harm is undesirable. However, proponents of non-violent political action reply that the kind of harm it causes is much less grievous than that from violent political action. Nevertheless, some critics have questioned this assertion. Yet, while the issue may not be conclusive, our intuitions suggest that this is the case: a stone hurled at the police or a tear gas canister hurled at a crowd are much more harmful than a peaceful sit-in.
Second, some critics claim that non-violent political action is unbearably slow in achieving the desired results. Yet, as Mark Shepard observes, even violent actions take long to produce the desired results. Shepard quotes Theodore Roszak as having once commented: “People try non-violence for a week, and when it ‘doesn’t work’, they go back to violence, which hasn’t worked for centuries.”
Engaging in civil disobedience often leads to wide dissemination of a position which would have otherwise received inadequate coverage in mass media.
Third, some thinkers have charged that there are cases in which non-violence cannot produce the desired results, as has been experienced in highly repressive regimes. Nevertheless, the cases in which non-violent action would not work are also often cases in which violence would prove pointless or worse. Indeed, Mark Shepard points out that where violent efforts would be easily contained or instantly crushed, non-violent action may be the only realistic choice.
Fourth, according to David Lyons, some objectors contend that even those who are treated unjustly can have moral reason to comply with unjust laws – as when non-violent political action would expose some persons such as children and the very old to risks they have not agreed to assume. However, such casualties are to be found both in instances of violent and non-violent political action, as long as at least one side in a political contest shows no commitment to non-violence.
Fifth, according to Roland Bleiker, some critics charge that non-violent political action is merely a manipulative strategy by the Western liberal democratic establishment to maintain the status quo. However, there is evidence that it has the potential to effect radical change in any society, as was the case with Gandhi in India, and, to an extent, with Martin Luther King Jr. in the US.
The culture of violent political action by those who aspire to power, as well as by those who have power and wish to retain and enhance it, risks plunging society into a swamp of self-destruction; and unlike the case of the boys in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, there is no assurance that the cruiser will arrive just in time. In fact, in several cases on our continent, it did not arrive at all.
The Continued Relevance of Pan-African Marxism in a Time of Crisis
Do we look back to the Pan-African Marxism of the moment of flag independence to address contemporary challenges to Pan-African liberation or do we need new ideas and new guiding insights in order to truly usher in the liberation that independence promised but has yet to deliver?
To celebrate African Liberation Day, I encourage us to revisit Pan-African Marxist theory to assess what it might offer us in the continued struggle for liberation. During the 20th century, as national independence movements were gaining ground on the African continent, anti-colonial intellectuals devised new ways of thinking about liberation in a Pan-African context. This theoretical tradition, sometimes called Black Marxism, Pan-African Marxism, or Anti-colonial Marxism, was developed to aid national independence movements in their more revolutionary aims through an analysis of the political economy and culture of Africa in the world system. Through an analysis of the history and political economy of the African continent, Pan-African Marxists rethought European narratives of Africa’s integration into the capitalist world system through European imperialism, revealing economic development to be a relative concept that hinged on the exploitation of Africa by Europe through colonialism and neo-imperialism.
Not only did Pan-African Marxist theorists describe the long history of African political economy as a way to build strategy for national independence movements in their fight against colonialism, but they also took up the question of how true liberation might be realised across the continent. One of the main tensions among Pan-African Marxists in thinking through the question of liberation after the end of formal colonial rule was between those who saw a return to pre-colonial cultural formations as a way toward liberation versus those who contended that the way forward was to embrace “the new”.
For Marxist thinkers such as Chiekh Anta Diop and Walter Rodney, recovering pre-colonial histories and culture was an important assertion of national identity and a way to overcome the colonial mentality that lingered after flag independence. Walter Rodney wrote that, “to know ourselves we must learn about African history and culture. This is one of the most important steps towards” liberation. For those who subscribed to this position, the process of recovering history and culture was, ultimately, the way to recover one’s humanity.
Other Pan-African Marxists, however, such as Aquino de Bragança, Thomas Sankara, Amilcar Cabral and Frantz Fanon, for example, emphasised “newness” as the means to liberation. Fanon believed that recovering pre-colonial culture was not an effective strategy for liberation. In the face of systematic structures that assert the inferiority of the culture of the colonised, he contended, culture “solidifies into a formalism which is more and more stereotyped”. Instead of engaging in critique and evolution, the postcolonial intellectual who looks to the past for inspiration has a tendency to reify older cultural forms by combatting the colonial project to devalue culture on the terms delineated by the colonizer. In such reification, Fanon asserted, “there is no real creativity and no overflowing life”. In other words, in looking to the pre-colonial past for inspiration, the African intellectual renders themselves incapable of creating the new movements that will best critique colonialism and its remnants.
Fanon tells us that recovering a pre-colonial past is not enough to counteract the harm done by colonialism. Instead, he contends that we must be forward-looking and envision a future in which liberation triumphs over colonialism and its remnants. This vision for a new future must also look to other places within the Global South for affinity in grappling with similar problems such as “trade union questions” or economic issues stemming from a common colonial legacy.
Admittedly, the two different positions in this debate aren’t really that distinct. Both sides ultimately agree that the goal of recovering the history and pre-colonial culture of Africa is secondary to the revolutionary movement against capitalism and neo-imperialism. What is distinct, in these two positions, however is the means to this end of true liberation for Africa. And the key question around which this debate was centred remains: Is the way forward to liberation through recovering the past or is it found in creating completely new ways of thinking about the current situation?
Let us recall Marx’s famous quote from the 18th Brumaire; Marx writes that history happens, first as tragedy then as farce… The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things, in creating something that had never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them their names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.
Is the way forward to liberation through recovering the past or is it found in creating completely new ways of thinking about the current situation?
Here, Marx gestures to repetition through the cyclical nature of time, but each repetition, for Marx, is not a return, but instead a mimicry of previous moments of history. In attempts to create “the new” there is always necessarily a borrowing from and a simulation of the past. Jacques Derrida termed this genre of repetition hauntology. In this framework, Marxism is then a ghost whose expected return repeats itself again and again. That recurring return is not solely a reappearance, but also, each time, a new beginning.
To question what Pan-African Marxism still is, we need to understand how time operates within this concept of hauntology. Hauntology implies two temporalities: that which is no longer, but remains, and that which has not yet happened, but the idea of it exists. Marx describes a cyclical return where each new phase of the cycle is borrowed from the previous phase but is different from its previous incarnation because of our desire for newness coupled with an inability to conjure it without the old surviving within the new. Derrida delineates an expected return that never happens, but nonetheless clears the way for newness because there cannot be a return, only a new beginning in the guise of the old. But Mark Fisher sees hauntology as “a failed mourning. It is about refusing to give up the ghost or… the refusal of the ghost to give up on us”. Are we failing in our endeavour for a completely new politics, as Marx claims, or creating the new through the ghosts of the old as Derrida posits, or mourning the new futures we expected that never materialised as Mark Fisher suggests?
The key question is, then, what is the way forward? Do we look back to the Pan-African Marxism of the moment of flag independence to address contemporary challenges to Pan-African liberation or do we need new ideas and new guiding insights in order to truly usher in the liberation that independence promised but has yet to deliver? We need to revisit, assess, and debate this critical question on whether Pan-African Marxism can provide a way forward to liberation. As a launching point, I offer two examples through which we can start to think through how Pan-African Marxism might still be relevant in helping us develop solutions to pressing contemporary problems.
Frantz Fanon famously wrote about inequities in global health stemming from the colonial legacy in his essay, “Medicine and Colonialism”. This essay demonstrates, through several historical examples from colonial Algeria, how the relationship between African people and colonial healthcare is structured by the colonial relationship. Fanon points to “the inhuman methods” of colonialism that mediate African people’s experiences with the latest medical technology whether it’s through medical experiments conducted on colonial subjects, the historical legacy of French doctors aiding the colonial police and military in torturing FLN members, or through the denial of treatment to Africans in need. Based on what Fanon witnessed as a health care professional in Algeria, he concluded that one of the many key objectives for liberation and decolonisation involves disrupting Europe as an intermediary in bringing medical technology to Africa.
We see today, in the case of COVID-19, that Fanon’s assessment of the healthcare system in colonial Algeria is markedly pertinent. Access to COVID-19 vaccines is mostly mediated through the United States and Europe. This situation in which African countries have to go through the former colonial power for access to vaccines is something that Fanon’s essay predicted. Preventing such a situation in which Africa needed to go through Europe to access the latest medical technologies is something that, furthermore, Fanon identified in the late 1950s as a key problem that African liberation movements should take up in order to ensure Africans’ access to just and plentiful healthcare. While he may not have predicted the specificities of vaccine hoarding by the Global North along with patent laws that restrict the ability of Global South countries to produce their own affordable vaccines, Fanon did warn us in the 1950s of the pressing need to be able to access the latest medical technology without having to rely on Europe as a mediator.
One of the many key objectives for liberation and decolonisation involves disrupting Europe as an intermediary in bringing medical technology to Africa.
But the failure of national liberation to be realised today is not for lack of trying. In the contemporary period we have witnessed many movements for liberation in North Africa, Sudan, and elsewhere, along with vibrant student movements across Sub-Saharan Africa and a variety of other contemporary movements aimed at realising liberation of various forms. But contemporary movements, particularly political movements aimed at regime change, have been limited by authoritarian rule and particularly by religious nationalist forces that have hijacked the more revolutionary aims of contemporary movements.
Here too, however, Fanon provides a way forward. In his essay “On Violence” (1961), he posed a very critical question for independence movements, that is, to paraphrase, what was the point of fighting for independence if not much had changed in the period following? Fanon, of course, was talking about the class structure that remained in place after flag independence and posed this question as a critique that while formal political rule by Europe may have ended, independence movements did little to combat capitalism and imperialism. In several of my books and essays, I’ve contended that we need to push this important question a bit further and also need to consider how the revolutionary promise of national independence soon eroded into the proliferation of dictatorships across the continent. Local-born leaders oppressed the very people who had just won their independence in a manner similar to that of the colonial rulers they fought for freedom from. And today we see a resurgence in movements looking to now realise the quality of freedom independence promised but in so many instances has failed to deliver. Yet, in the current moment, this political freedom still remains an open question as far-right forces seek to limit political freedom but movements for liberation wage on.
There are infinite possibilities for the future and the goal of political action is to begin with a workable possible and then transform that possible into the future real. In this endeavour to imagine possible futures, theory is crucial. Futures are not “waiting for us ready-made like heavenly bodies… They must be invented, fabricated, or rather created”. Through Pan-African Marxist theory, we can begin to imagine new possibilities outside of historical capitalism and imperialism. Capitalist imperialism may seem insurmountable but that is only because of our inability to imagine. We can’t imagine liberation because we are unable to conceive of new possibilities.
Samir Amin’s Radical Political Economy
Samir Amin’s legacy provides a lighthouse for those who not only want to understand the world, but fundamentally change it, by combining rigorous scholarship with political commitment and action.
In moments of great uncertainty there is refuge to be found in the work of intellectual titans like Samir Amin. After the sad news of his passing in August 2018 in Paris, aged 86, we began thinking about how best to explore the enduring relevance of his analysis and concepts to make sense of contemporary crises.
The pertinence and analytical heft of Amin’s work is particularly important in the contemporary period marked by the interconnected crises related to COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, the climate emergency, and looming debt crises across the periphery. In the years ahead, confronting these multiple and intertwined crises will require the kind of commitment to combining research with political engagement that Amin demonstrated.
Amin’s ability to weave together thorough analysis of the polarising effects of capitalism with concrete political projects for an international radical left makes his work particularly relevant in our quest to understand capitalism, its particularities across the world, and oppositions to it. There is a younger generation of scholars, of which we are a part, that is particularly hungry for Amin’s perspectives, one that came of age in a time where the universities have been thoroughly marketised and moulded by neoliberal processes, and where intellectual production and debates are not necessarily embedded within social struggles.
What is Samir Amin’s approach to Political Economy?
Amin pushes us to think creatively in structural, temporal, and political ways that often defy disciplinary boundaries. The combination of truly global perspectives with analysis that is finely contextualised within particular geographical locations, and mindful of the complex nature of political conflicts and different class interests, makes his contributions to dependency theory especially rich.
While Amin developed many concrete concepts and shed light on many concrete issues, it is his approach to political economy that is the most inspiring for us and that we believe holds the most promise for driving radical political economy in his spirit forward. His approach entails thinking structurally, thinking temporally, thinking politically, and thinking creatively.
At a time when much of social science has come to be centred around either methodological individualism or methodological nationalism – the notions that individuals and nation states, respectfully, are the most relevant units of analysis – Amin’s attention to global structures, that underpin an international system of exploitation, is a much needed contrast. In Amin’s work, both the structure of the global economy and the structural prejudice of eurocentrism, are key.
Taking the structure of the global economy as a starting point led Amin to explore concepts such as core-periphery relations, imperialism and unequal exchange. He recognised that the global capitalist system is polarising and that the polarisation between the centre and the periphery was a key part of this. Note that Amin went beyond thinking only in core-periphery terms – which dependency theorists are often critiqued for – as he identified a range of classes of importance across both the core and periphery. It is also worth noting that thinking structurally does not mean thinking deterministically. While Amin was ‘capable of a very high level of abstraction’, as Ghosh has written, and some could see his characterisations as sweeping, he was always ready to adapt his categories and understandings as the world changed, and his understanding of how outcomes were shaped was first and foremost dialectical – which led him to critique World Systems Theory for being static and for prioritising global relations over domestic.
In this issue, Fathima Musthaq’s and Ndongo Samba Sylla’s articles apply a structural way of thinking about financial and monetary dependencies. Mushtaq explores how Amin’s work on imperialist rent can be extended to understand financial dependencies and hierarchies in a financialised global economy, while Sylla explores Amin’s approach to the monetary mechanisms and functioning of the banking sectors in peripheral countries which contribute to keeping them underdeveloped, with a specific focus on the CFA Zone. Similarly, Macheda and Nadalini’s investigation into how China was able to integrate itself into the global economy without abandoning its strategy of delinking from imperialism opens up space for further research and theorising about how different strategies for national development can be anti-imperialist.
What’s more, identifying eurocentrism as a structural prejudice allowed Amin to show how social theories disguise the imperialist and racist foundations of the capitalist system. This allows us to see that the Enlightenment values and promise of rationality and universality are actually heavily biased and founded on a colonial and racist project. This is key for understanding why societies cannot develop by imitating the West. Generally, eurocentrism has been taken as an important starting point for scholars who build further on Amin as well as critics. Ndlovu-Gatsheni in the Special Issue, for example, revisits Marxism and decolonisation via the legacy of Amin to re-evaluate Amin’s critical Marxist political economy in the context of epistemology, to unmask racism and the trans-historic expansion of colonial domination.
Thinking temporally was key for Samir Amin’s understanding of the world, and more specifically, thinking in longue durée terms. This is an important entry point for exploring contemporary problems, because it opens the door for analysing how imperialist relations have historically and contemporarily shaped the possibilities for development in the Global South. In this issue, Jayati Ghosh lays out how Amin’s approach to imperialism remains relevant across key axes such as technology, finance, and the search for and effort to control new markets, despite changing global configurations such as the ‘rise’ of the BRICS.
Francisco Pérez’s and Ndongo Samba Sylla’s articles are also particularly good illustrations of how a historical perspective is important for understanding contemporary problems. For example, Pérez’s explanation of the East Asian ‘miracle’ starts from how those countries developed historically and geopolitically. Pérez also demonstrates how China’s contemporary delinking must be understood by starting from their attempt at socialist delinking in 1949, and the complex battle between statist, capitalist, and socialist forces that played out since then. Similarly, Sylla’s article shows how the colonial origins of the CFA is key for understanding how it operates today. Tracing the history of the CFA also makes it painfully clear why defending the monetary status quo for Amin amounts to defending the perpetuation of the old colonial order.
In line with Marx’s famous phrase, interpreting the world is important, but ‘the point, however, is to change it,’ Amin never shied away from admitting that his work was driven by political ambitions to change the world. Indeed, Amin was a socialist from an early age and was concerned with responding to and building emancipatory social movements throughout his life.This was reflected in his life-long organising efforts and activism, across a wide range of platforms and organisations, including the establishment of the Third World Forum in Dakar, where he helped set practical and intellectual agendas for socialist transformation on the continent, the establishment of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), which became an important vehicle of radical social science research and analysis in Africa, and his active engagement in the World Social Forum.
We find such explicit acknowledgement of political commitment especially inspiring and necessary at a time when the economics field in particular likes to cloak itself in deceitfully ‘objective’ language, even though knowledge production in the social sciences is necessarily ideological.
In Amin’s book on Delinking, he provides a tangible and critical assessment of ways to promote autonomous development in the periphery. Far from any call for autarky, delinking entails “the refusal to submit national-development strategy to the imperatives of ‘globalization’” and the promotion of popular and auto-centred development rather than unilaterally adjusting to the demands of the global economic system. Both Pérez’ and Macheda and Nadalini’s articles in this issue, which centre on delinking strategies, demonstrate how social science research is often used for political ends given how Chinese and East Asian delinking strategies are often misunderstood (or miscommunicated) in mainstream narratives about their ‘success’.
Finally, it is important to be creative in the way we apply Amin’s method to understand social phenomena. Amin called himself a ‘creative Marxist’, by which he meant he would start from, rather than to stop at Marx. We find this approach from Amin to be particularly relevant to understand contemporary problems and especially from a Global South perspective. Starting from Marx allows for an understanding of class struggle, exploitation, and the polarising tendencies of capitalism, while going deeper into structural inequalities associated with imperialism, sexism and racism. Amin started this work, but we believe it is relevant to go beyond Amin. Indeed, we find it relevant to start from Amin, not to stop at Amin.
Beyond Samir Amin
Several contributions to this special issue take Amin as a starting point for further exploration and theoretical development. Some also point in the direction of key critiques that have been levelled at Amin’s work, notwithstanding his powerful and incisive theoretical and analytical interventions on how developing economies relate with the North.
For example, although Amin himself did not include gender in his analysis – indeed, his analysis had glaring blind spots related to gender – his analysis can be enriched and extended to include gender hierarchies and a fuller recognition of gender’s place in the mode of production. Catherine Scott’s article is crucial for opening this door to understanding both the limitations to Amin and how gender can be approached from within his framework of analysis. She asks, for example, how gender may be included in analyses of delinking and the importance of discussions about relations in the households when considering how a revolution may occur.
Furthermore, in a historical moment where we cannot speak about autonomous industrialisation without considering ecological destruction, the need to explore how the two are interrelated and both shaped by imperialism is more important than ever. Max Ajl’s article starts from Amin’s theories of ecology to make broader analyses of the currents of ecological dependency that developed out of North African dependency analysis. He shows how Amin’s theoretical framework can be connected to that of Mohamed Dowidar, Fawzy Mansour and Slaheddine el-Amami and their advancement of the case for smallholder-centred national development. Given the urgent need to tackle climate change, its imperial characteristics, and the uneven geographical impacts of the destruction it causes, Amin’s framework serves as a useful starting point for thinking about ecological unequal exchange. As Ajl writes, ‘If Amin could not see the entirety of the necessary developmental path, he still illuminated its borders with a brilliant radiance…’.
What’s more, given the partial retreat and limited autonomy of the peripheral state in the context of the increasing power of international finance, Amin’s view of the state’s power to delink and stimulate auto-centric industrialisation must be scrutinised. We appreciate Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s contribution here, as he takes Amin as a point of departure while also somewhat diverging from Amin’s political orientation towards the nation state. He points to Amin’s commitment to a polycentric world as a departure point towards de-imperialisation, deracialisation, depatriarchisation, decorporatisation, detribalisation and democratisation, where the core is the internationalism of people, not of states. This is important in light of critiques of Amin’s conceptualisation of delinking as a process that holds the state as the locus of change.
Meanwhile, Fathima Mushtaq creatively adapts Amin’s categories to a financialised global economy, as she explores how imperialist rent is not limited to labour arbitrage but also includes financial arbitrage. Her article thus provides “an updated understanding of dependency in the context of financialisation,” as she centres financial factors to demonstrate how they contribute to reproducing global inequalities and the periphery’s subordinate position. This is of particular relevance given the important role that capital flows, interest rates, and exchange rates play in reproducing subordinate relations today.
What’s more, Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s work on decoloniality shows the need for decolonial knowledge production in order to break with eurocentric approaches, which is especially important given that Amin’s work on Eurocentrism has itself been criticised for demonstrating economic reductionism. This is yet another area where we believe Amin opens the door for important reflections and debates about how racism, eurocentrism, and capitalism are intertwined, but that we must move beyond his initial reflections to broaden the debates about how racism and imperialism shape society.
We hope this Special Issue will inspire more scholars and activists to engage with Amin’s ideas and also explore their relevance for emerging social and political problems. Amin’s methods of inquiry provide avenues towards doing research that transverses disciplinary boundaries and that aims to interrogate the social world as a whole. Notwithstanding important critiques of Amin’s work, the articles in this issue engage with his core concepts and demonstrate both their potency and how they can be creatively expanded and built upon. Amin’s legacy provides a lighthouse for those who not only want to understand the world, but fundamentally change it, by combining rigorous scholarship with political commitment and action.
The full Special Issue can be accessed for free until the end of March here.
This article was first published by ROAPE.
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