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Whiteness and the Future of Artificial Intelligence

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Tracing the digital contours of the settler colony helps us understand how old inequalities will shape a future with artificial intelligence.

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Whiteness and the Future of Artificial Intelligence
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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 marginalsmisfitsNative 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.

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

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Ideas

A Holistic Grasp of Northern Drylands Is Key To Unlocking Potential

Despite the potential of the arid and semi-arid areas, the majority of the population in the drylands of northern Kenya lives in deep rural poverty.

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A Holistic Grasp of Northern Drylands Is Key To Unlocking Potential
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One afternoon in the heart of the Waso rangelands in Isiolo County, I was debating with Borana elders on the best measures to mitigate the effects of the recurrent droughts. An elder rose and gave wise counsel, saying he was nostalgic about the good old days, “when we had plenty of milk and households in Waso could effortlessly fend for themselves without help”.

The elder said that because of climate change and “external help”, they slaughter and sell part of the herd at a low price to be eaten by others for nutritional gain. He concluded, “if they share our concern, tell the external agents to outwit the vultures and come earlier”, implying that most support arrives too late, at the height of an emergency, when herds have been partly decimated by the drought and the vultures have already arrived to scavenge for carcasses.

While said tongue-in-cheek, the elder’s request underscores the frustration felt by the “beneficiaries” because of the external agencies’ apparent lack of a basic understanding of dryland dynamics and the challenges of getting needs right.

The drylands

The drylands are an extremely heterogeneous environment characterised by among others, low erratic rainfall, high inter-annual climate variability and ecological uncertainty. Globally, drylands occupy 41 per cent of the earth’s land surface and are home to approximately 35 per cent of its population. The dominant livelihood systems in the drylands are pastoralism, agro-pastoralism, and some rain-fed agriculture where the local communities tap into their knowledge to live with uncertainty. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, an estimated 50 million pastoralists rely on the drylands environment for their livelihoods.

Although historically these regions are considered to be of low economic potential, their diverse pastoral groups play an important role in the modern economy. For example, livestock production in the drylands contributes over 35 per cent of the agricultural sector’s contribution to Kenya’s GDP and accounts for over 80 per cent of household income in the drier regions, employing thousands of people in livestock production and marketing.

Yet despite the potential of the arid and semi-arid areas, the majority of the population in this regions of Kenya lives in deep rural poverty. According to a recently published socio-economic blueprint for Frontier Counties, about 20.5 per cent of Kenya’s poor live in the frontier counties and 64.2 per cent of this population lives below the poverty line, compared to a national average of 36.1 per cent.

The reasons for this lie in both how national planners and policymakers view dryland areas and how investment decisions are made in these regions. Although there have been some changes in some drylands counties following devolution, the knowledge base that has shaped development in this region largely remains the same.

Common misconceptions

Knowledge is key in the interaction of humans with the ecological system, especially in arid areas. However, understanding the challenges facing this important region has been impeded by a number of misconceptions including that: compared with other areas which have traditionally been recognised as “high potential areas”, drylands are remote, poor and degraded and are of little potential except for tourism; dryland areas have low biological productivity compared to the highlands and as such, they are of little economic value apart from providing a means of subsistence to those who live there; dryland communities are a helpless group with weak means and a low adaptive capacity to manage uncertainty; drylands cannot yield a satisfactory return on investment due to the climate risk associated with variable and erratic rainfall; dryland communities are weakly integrated into markets because of their remoteness, their poverty and their reluctance to sell their animals.

Most externally-driven technical solutions continue to be based on misconceptions, including critical elements of planning which are based on partial values of these areas, rather than their total economic value. Being unable to place a value on marketable assets in the arid and semi-arid areas of Kenya, decision-makers dwell much more on the erroneous narrative that pastoralists are not market-oriented. Substantial resources are spent on trying to make pastoralists responsive to the market without addressing the underlying structural challenges of the livestock value chains.

Over the years, the government’s attempts to tap the livestock wealth of pastoralists have not been systematic but have come in waves. These attempts started in the mid-1930s and provoked the famous Akamba Political Protest against forced destocking and the failed attempts to develop stock auctions. Then came the era of the ecological argument that is based on the carrying capacity of the range, and the efforts to force a higher offtake rate in the second half of the 1950s. There followed a number of disjointed livestock development programmes in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Scholars argue that “unfair terms of trade” made these government-led initiatives unattractive.

Pastoralist value chains

Although livestock has traditionally constituted an important currency in most African societies, this is no longer the case in Kenya which has a “crop bias” where agricultural products like tea and coffee are priority export crops and are therefore given the necessary policy support.

This bias was introduced during the colonial era where the settler-occupied “White Highlands” constituted the political and economic core. While there was a fair demand for livestock products in the downcountry, the market was tailored to the needs of the white settlers who influenced the location of key infrastructure, regulations, and governance that barred African herd owners from integrating into the national marketing structure. A good example is the location and operation of the Kenya Meat Commission, which was purposely designed to support the movement of animals slaughtered by white settlers and had little consideration for African herd owners.

Little has changed since independence and post-liberalisation. Persisting elements of colonial legislation such as restrictive livestock movement permits, unfavourable movement schedules and restrictions on trading licences have historically skewed the pastoralist’s relationship to the market.

To date, markets are largely controlled through the organisation of ethnic trade networks where some non-pastoralist groups have better connections to the urban space and a more supportive business environment and subsequently control important activities downstream of the chain.

A good example is the trade network for sheep and goats that extends from Moyale to Kariobangi in Nairobi that systematically locks other pastoralist groups out of the downstream trade at the terminal market. The ownership of slaughter facilities and connection to specific clients for largescale slaughter offers members of this trade network certain preferential trade advantages.

Markets are largely controlled through the organisation of ethnic trade networks where some non-pastoralist groups have better connections to the urban space.

Generally, the trade in livestock from the arid north has always been risky and full of technical pitfalls. Even for today’s professionals, it is booby-trapped with many uncertainties that call for constant creativity and business shrewdness to survive the perennial losses.

The trade in live animals presents multiple risks in the form of quantity losses (reduced weight and number) and quality losses such as altered physical appearance. Animals have a limited shelf life, particularly in the urban environment; after being taken out of their production environment, their appearance deteriorates due to the different climatic conditions and lack of proper forage, which reduces their potential selling price. At times, major losses occur when the animals cannot be sold immediately and their upkeep at the terminal markets leads to high transaction costs.

There are also economic losses, which represent the difference between the potential and the actual economic benefits. In effect, at almost every stage, the livestock entrepreneur is faced with the daunting task of making risky decisions mostly based on incomplete information and under duress.

A second technical problem is the lack of clear demand and supply specifications. Different markets favour different types of livestock while the retail prices fluctuate all the time in tandem with changes in these forces of supply and demand. A trader must make delicate decisions almost every day as to what kind of animals they should buy, in which areas they can buy the livestock, and which of these areas offer supplies at the lowest price. At the same time, the trader must also have some knowledge of which terminal market in the downcountry will offer him the widest profit margin.

As the trade network extends towards the terminal markets in Nairobi, trade relations between the pastoralist traders and the clients who could share more precise market information are further weakened, widening the gap between supply and demand and increasing the economic losses of the traders. It is thus essential that traders have accurate day-to-day information about the shifting supply and demand.

The third problem that faces traders are the unfavourable terms of trade along the pastoral livestock value chain due to the many structural challenges related to price volatility, information asymmetry along the chain, high transaction costs and weak livestock marketing policies.

The long absence of a comprehensive livestock marketing policy (the livestock and livestock product marketing board bill was only passed in 2019) set the stage for minimal investments in marketing infrastructure such as meat processing facilities, cold chains, logistics, and limited coordination among actors.

This has resulted in weak governance of the value chain and contributed to post-harvest losses. Although some marketing aspects were incorporated into the National Livestock Policy Sessional Paper no. 2 of 2008, it still does not specify in detail ways to streamline livestock marketing investments and the sustainable integration of pastoralist livestock producers into the value chains.

Inclusive value chain

As the northern arid areas increasingly become indispensable to the national economy in the face of the emerging oil boom and the expansion of infrastructure corridors, there is a need to realign the value chain agenda with government, donor, and private sector investment priorities.

Already, many county governments in arid and semi-arid counties are leaning towards the regionalisation of livestock markets through the construction of large-scale abattoirs (in Marsabit, Isiolo, Samburu, Wajir and Garissa Counties) and targeting of high-value meat export markets in the Arabian Peninsula. While such efforts are welcome, they should be preceded by discussions on the governance of the value chain, particularly on the position of pastoralist producers in the chain, models of the proposed trading arrangements and opportunities to tap into livestock traceability and other associated opportunities for premium pricing of pastoralist livestock.

The key to unlocking the pastoralist value chain is establishing standards and linkages. The coordination of the value chain from upstream to downstream, improving the flow of market information and price accuracy, and providing a wider choice of potential buyers to livestock entrepreneurs and producers from arid areas are all necessary interventions. In some countries, more transparent trading arrangements, such as livestock auctions, have been tested and have proven successful at improving price transparency, coordination of sales and offering price competitiveness to livestock producers. To this end, the earlier we embrace an ICT trading platform as a step towards improving access to livestock market information the better.

The key to unlocking the pastoralist value chain is in establishing standards and linkages.

In effect, it is important to invest in appropriate ICT technologies that can offer a mechanism to crowdsource market prices to make real-time price information available to buyers and sellers, create a platform for open purchase and sales, improve logistics by maximizing availability and use of transport, and publicise the availability of water, vaccinations, breeding and financial services, among others.

Although still in their early stages, online livestock trading platforms such as Cowsoko are emerging to fix supply-side issues, address limited demand-side market information and improve accessibility to quality cattle.

Invest to produce quality animals

Improvement in rangeland management is another important aspect that needs proper investment. This should start with participatory rangeland mapping to articulate priorities such as the protection of key grazing resources and seasonal access. This could be complemented with a Geographical Information System (GIS) to produce digital maps displaying high spatial precision resource distribution.

Empowering local level governance systems such as Dhedha — the highest geographical unit for resource management among Borana herders — should follow such participatory mapping exercises. County assemblies should support these local grazing management institutions by developing appropriate by-laws. This will necessitate capacity building in by-law formulation and facilitating the by-law development process by the county assemblies. Investment in rangeland governance through agreements and the development of enforcement mechanisms in selected arid and semi-arid counties will also reduce incidences of conflict and foster peaceful coexistence within an agreed governance framework.

The earlier we embrace an ICT trading platform as a step towards improving access to livestock market information the better.

To improve the quality of animals, interventions in animal production should focus on boosting inputs and extension services. Input markets are flooded with sub-standard products, which expose livestock producers and affect the quality of their product. There is a need to streamline production support by embracing modern e-financing tools such as through the e-voucher, a customised debit (ATM) card containing different “e-wallets” which livestock owners can use to make purchases from selected agro-vets, enabling them to access various inputs such as vaccines, medicines, feed, feed supplements, extension services, veterinary care, Artificial Insemination services, among others.

In this regard, valuable lessons can be learned from the IFAD-financed Kenya Cereal Enhancement Programme – Climate-Resilient Agricultural Livelihoods Window (KCEP-CRAL) project where an electronic “e-voucher” scheme was extensively utilised to improve farmers’ access to Agri-inputs and to offer coordinated solutions through Public-Private-Producer Partnerships.

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Ideas

Pivoting to the East: Russia Considers China Its Ally but the Feelings Aren’t Mutual

Maxim Trudolyubov argues that the dramatic tension surrounding Russia’s position today stems from its history as a colonizer; while its main contemporary ally, China, is among those nations most affected by imperialism.

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Today, Russian ideologues and propagandists are raising alarms over the “West’s attempts to introduce ideals and norms alien to Russia. They denounce the Russian opposition, which allegedly operates under “orders from the West.” And they stoke fears among television audiences that the West is preparing “nothing short of a war” on Russia. In turn, American, British and Western European commentators accuse the Russian government of waging targeted attacks on Western institutions and conducting an information war against the West.

While all this noise can be tuned out, if you pay attention for just a moment, you quickly realize that the point of all this sensationalism isn’t the content itself but the feeling of comfort these ideologues and publicists evoke. Amid all thе accusations of “Western operatives” and “hybrid warfare,” there’s a nostalgia for the former bipolar order in which Russia — or perhaps more specifically, the post-war USSR — had a clear and leading role. Western politicians and authors, meanwhile, long for times past when they were triumphant champions of the twentieth century’s global conflict.

Preparing for a war gone by

All of these mutual threats hark back to the Cold War, which was more than just a frozen standoff between two superpowers (played out in regional wars). It was also a clear and comprehensible system of international relations, especially when viewed from Moscow and Washington. Each of these global poles flew a flag that other countries were compelled or enticed to rally around — cozying up to the (capitalist) West or to the (socialist) USSR.

From the Western point of view, the twentieth century was dedicated to a deadly standoff against the ideologies of fascism and communism, followed by another one between capitalism and communism as political and economic systems. All of these worldviews and doctrines were formed in Europe more than a hundred years ago. In this sense, Vladimir Putin — who never tires of evoking Russia’s triumph in World War II and the resulting repartition of the globe — holds a distinctly Western point of view. His position may be contentious, but it’s framing is rooted in Westernism all the same.

Meanwhile, hidden by the pall of conflict between capitalism and socialism was another confrontation entirely. The Cold War ruthlessly dragged in third countries, quashing their pursuit of decolonization, sovereign nation building, and the formation of their own political systems, writes Yale historian Odd Arne Westad in one of the best books on the history of the Cold War.

From the Western point of view, the twentieth century was dedicated to a deadly standoff against the ideologies of fascism and communism, followed by another one between capitalism and communism as political and economic systems

From a non-Western point of view — or more precisely, from the point of view of most non-Western people — the main global development of the twentieth century was the appearance of independent nation states from the ruins of European and Asian empires. Of course, people in Egypt, India, China, Pakistan, and Thailand, can imagine what worries Americans and Europeans (indeed, thanks to the ubiquitous spread of the English language, this isn’t so difficult for them to do). But the world looks different “from the other side.” From the perspective of those outside of Washington and Moscow, what’s important isn’t the conflicts “within the Western world,” but rather the relations between former colonies (or states caught in the orbits of these empires) and former colonizers.

Human rights and democracy as neocolonialism

In this prolonged and painful conflict with the West, which goes back much further than the Cold War, Russia occupies a unique and dualistic position in terms of both geography and history. In a recent meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signed a joint declaration, “on several issues of global governance,” which stated that human rights should be protected “in conformity with national specificities.”

Legal mechanisms aimed at protecting the rights of the individual first appeared in international agreements and legal documents in the 1940s, at the end of World War II and the beginning of the post-war era.

The authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Charter of the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal, the European Convention on Human Rights and other documents from that period were driven by an effort to protect the groups and nationalities that were victims of the crimes exposed at Nuremberg and in other post-war trials. It was therefore imperative to create a concept of human rights acceptable to conservatives simply because up until the 1940s, the idea of human rights itself was associated with the revolutionary tradition of droits de l’homme and the communist movement. It was important for the Christian Democrats and other centrist parties to create a “Judeo-Christian democratic” version of human rights that denied the communists (who were popular in post-war world) a monopoly on human rights.

The mass killing and widespread suffering of those persecuted during the war years was heightened by the exceptional difficulties Jews and other refugees had crossing borders. Some countries wouldn’t let them out, while others wouldn’t take them in (this included the United States, as evidenced by the unforgettable tragedy of the Voyage of the St. Louis). Human rights protection thus had to exist at a level above borders. The idea of human rights protection, which was established in the Universal Declaration and other post-war documents, arose from the existence of a moral absolute that reigned supreme above nations’ sovereignty over their territory.

This in turn became a predicament for the Soviet Union, even though it was founding member of the United Nations and its ambassador, Alexander Bogomolov, participated in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The leaders of the USSR and the leaders of other socialist states and countries, which in the second half of the twentieth century were called the “third world” (in the sense that they were initially neither capitalist nor communist) came to see “western” human rights as a pretext for interfering in their affairs.

The communists and their satellites saw their human rights not as political and civil rights, but as social rights: the right to have a roof over one’s head, clothes to wear, employment, and social services. While, the West reproached the communists for violating human rights (through suppression of opposition and lack of elections), the communists reproached the West for violating of social rights (due to unemployment and extreme inequality).

Even though Russia has grown closer to China and comes out on China’s side in the battle with the West, Russia still belongs to the “historical West” and, as such, faces grievances from China — and the exact scale of these grievances remains unknown.

Today’s Russian leaders are fond of emphasizing their conservatism and consider themselves guardians of traditional values. Yet the version of human rights they choose is not conservative democratic — it’s socialist. That is to say, it’s based on social rights, rather than civil or political ones.

China has long been at odds with its Western partners over human rights. “China, along with the rest of the developing world, chooses to first prioritize economic and social rights, as opposed to the Western focus on civil and political rights,” explains Phil Ma, a researcher at Duke University. “These rights emphasize collective values and opportunities for economic growth, not just democracy promotion.” More importantly, criticism for human rights violations in Tibet and Xinjiang are taken by Chinese politicians not in the context of the recent Cold War, but in the context of the Century of Humiliation, the period that ended with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.

The period from 1842 (the defeat of the Qing Dynasty in the First Opium War) to 1949 (the establishment of the People’s Republic of China), during which China lost a significant amount of territory and economic independence. China suffered one defeat after another at the hands of Western powers, which dictated trade conditions, including supplies of opium to China and taking Chinese cultural treasures to Europe. The destruction of the Old Summer Palace, burned and looted by the British and French during the Second Opium War in 1860, stands as a symbol of China’s foreign humiliation during this period.

In a broader context, contemporary Chinese state leaders act as representatives of a preeminent non-Western power trying to overcome challenges they inherited from the colonial period. These leaders therefore perceive human rights and the spread of democracy as nothing other than the West’s attempt to teach eastern barbarians to be “civilized.” Makau Mutua, a Kenyan-American professor at the SUNY Buffalo School of Law, calls this the “savages-victims-saviors” construction. This approach, in his opinion, is dangerously close to the old imperial notion that western civilizers are called to come and save eastern savages from themselves.

China’s Communist Party bases its legitimacy not in ideology, which lost its relevance when the Cold War ended, but in its role as a nation-building power. It was the party, after all, that brought an end to the era in which China suffered territorial and economic losses from the actions of great powers, namely Great Britain, France, the United States and, yes, Russia.

Celebrating victory over Russia

The Indian essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra opens his book “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” with a story of what the defeat of the Russian navy in the 1905 Battle of Tsushima meant to the world outside the West. Japan, which won the battle, was not the only country celebrating. This good news covered the pages of newspapers in Egypt, China, Persia, and Turkey. It marked the first time in the new era when a non-European country was able to defeat a European power in a full-scale military conflict.

Intellectuals and reformers from the non-European world have regarded that day as a pivotal milestone. Mustafa Kemal, who would later come to be known as Atatürk, wrote that he became convinced at that point that modernization according to the Japanese model could change his country. Jawaharlal Nehru, the then future first prime minister of independent India, recollected how news of Tsushima gave him a breath of inspiration and hope for Asia’s liberation from their subordination to Europe. American civil rights leader and intellectual William E. Dubois wrote of a worldwide surge of “colored pride.”

Historically, Russia has been one of the colonialist powers. At the dawn of the new era, Russia was part of the West; it acted like a Western empire and was regarded as such by the non-European world. China’s grievances towards Russia, which essentially remain in place to this very day, are the standard objections of a former colony to a former colonial empire. When Deng Xiaoping met with Mikhail Gorbachev in Beijing in 1989, the Soviet leader was taken back by the array of “old” issues raised by the Chinese leader. Gorbachev had arrived to iron out relations with the USSR’s partner, only for the Chinese leader to remind him of Russia’s Tsarist policies, humiliations from years past, the territories ceded to Russia in the Treaty of Aigun and the Treaty of Beijing, and China’s resulting territorial disputes.

The communists and their satellites saw their human rights not as political and civil rights, but as social rights: the right to have a roof over one’s head, clothes to wear, employment, and social services.

Gorbachev, like all Russian leaders existing within the Western political agenda, couldn’t come up with a response “Protocol dictated that Gorbachev reply by laying out our position, our vision, but he didn’t do that, as he wasn’t prepared for such a reception. He was silent, effectively agreeing with Deng Xiaoping’s rendition,” recalled Andrei Vinogradov, a China specialist from the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, in a recent interview. In China, the 1969 Sino-Soviet border conflict is also seen as a “pushback against the northern aggressors.” On a recent anniversary of the clash in China, participants of the events were honored with awards.

In March 1969, an armed conflict broke out between the USSR and China over Damansky Island (Zhenbao Island), which is located near Manchuria. The Soviet Union regarded the island as its own, while the PRC saw it as territory Russia obtained thanks to colonial treaties. The clash killed 58 Soviet military personnel and injured 94 others. Estimates of the Chinese casualties range from 100 to 300, though the exact number remains unknown.

The island went to China after the border demarcation in May 1991. China acquired several other islands and territory totaling more than 300 square kilometers (nearly 116 square miles) during demarcation in 2005.

A Different historical perspective

Although the European Union continues to be Russia’s main trading partner, trade with China is on the rise. While seven years ago, the volume of EU trade with Russia exceeded trade with China five times over, today it’s only twice as large. China has already overtaken Germany in the role of Russia’s primary supplier industrial equipment. The relatively modest amounts of Russian natural gas exported to China are now increasing. Military collaboration is becoming ever closer and is most evidently expressed in the form of joint drills. There are realistic prospects of Russia gaining entry into China’s technological sphere of influence, specifically in the area of 5G network construction.

In his research examining the prospects of Russian integration into Pax Sinica (China’s geopolitical space), Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, has found that for the time being China is exploiting its economic advantage, mostly by extracting better terms of trade — specifically, reduced prices for oil and gas. As Russia’s dependence on China grows, Chinese politicians could very well start to pressure Russia in areas other than commerce, for example to end military alliances with PRC antagonists, or to convince Central Asian countries to permit Chinese military presence on their territory as security for the Belt and Road Initiative. Short-term gains for Russia could turn into long-term losses.

While it’s still expedient for Kremlin politicians to play the role of zealous warriors against the West, Moscow’s non-Western partners have a much longer memory than the Russians do. The Kremlin’s logic is clear, but it’s dictated by views that were formulated during the Cold War years. The Russian perspective encompasses merely several decades, while Chinese politicians view Russia — and the rest of the world — from a centuries-long perspective. Thus, even though Russia has grown closer to China and comes out on China’s side in the battle with the West, Russia still belongs to the “historical West” and, as such, faces grievances from China — and the exact scale of these grievances remains unknown.

Editors note: This article was first published in English by the Russian publication, Meduza.

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On the Sins of Colonialism and Insurgent Decolonisation

Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni writes how war, violence and extractivism defined the legacy of the empire in Africa, and why recent attempts to explore the ‘ethical’ contributions of colonialism is rewriting history.

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On the Sins of Colonialism and Insurgent Decolonisation
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In 2017, a professor at Oxford University in the United Kingdom proposed a research project. The key thesis: that the empire as a historical phenomenon – distinct from an ideological construct – has made ethical contributions and that its legacy cannot be reduced to that of genocides, exploitations, domination and repression.

Predictably, such a project raised a lot of controversies to the extent that other scholars at Oxford penned an open letter dissociating themselves from such intended revisionism and whitewashing of the crimes of the empire. One leading member of the project resigned from it, citing personal reasons.

Historically, theoretically and empirically, it should be clear that the empire was a “death project” rather than an ethical force outside Europe; that war, violence and extractivism rather than any ethics defined the legacy of the empire in Africa.

But it is the continuation of revisionist thinking that beckons a revisiting of the question of colonialism and its impact on the continent from a decolonial perspective, challenging the colonial and liberal desire to rearticulate the empire as an ethical phenomenon.

The ‘ethics’ of empire?

In the Oxford research project, entitled Ethics and Empire (2017-22), Nigel Biggar, the university’s regius professor of moral and pastoral theology and director of the MacDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Life, sought to do two important interventions: to measure apologias and critiques of the empire against historical data from antiquity to modernity across the world; and to challenge the idea that empire is imperialist, imperialism is wicked, and empire is therefore unethical.

In support of its thesis, the description of the research project lists “examples” of the ethics of the empire: the British empire’s suppression of the “Atlantic and African slave trades” after 1807; granting Black Africans the vote at the Cape Colony 17 years before the United States granted it to African Americans; and offering “the only armed centre of armed resistance to European fascism between May 1940 and June 1941”.

But the selective use of such examples does not paint an accurate picture. Any attempt to credit the British empire for the abolition of slavery, for instance, ignores the ongoing resistance of enslaved Africans from the moment of capture right up to the plantations in the Americas. The Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 still stands as a symbol of this resistance: enslaved African people rose against racism, slavery and colonialism – demonstrating beyond doubt that the European institution of slavery was not sustainable.

The very fact that, in the Oxford research project, the chosen description is “the Atlantic and African slave trades” reveals an attempt to distance itself from the crime of slavery, to attribute it to the “ocean” (the Atlantic), and to the “Africans” as though they enslaved themselves. Where is the British empire in this description of the heinous kidnapping and commodification of the lives of Africans?

The second example, which highlights the very skewed granting of the franchise to a small number of so-called “civilised” Africans at the Cape Colony in South Africa as a gift of the empire, further demonstrates a misunderstanding of how colonialism dismembered and dehumanised African people. The fact is that African struggles were  fought for decolonisation and rehumanisation.

The third example, that the British empire became the nerve centre of armed resistance to fascism during the second world war (1939-45), may be accurate. But it also ignores the fact that fascism became so repugnant to the British mainly because Adolf Hitler practised and applied the racism that was meant for “those people” in the colonies and brought it to the centre of Europe.

Projects like Briggar’s, and others with similar thought trajectories, risk endangering the truth about the crimes of the empire in Africa.

Afro-pessimism: Seeing disorder as the norm

What, fundamentally, is colonialism? Aimé Césaire, the Mantiniquean intellectual and poet, posed this deep and necessary question in his classical treatise Discourse on Colonialism, published in 1955. In it, he argues that the colonial project was never benevolent and always motivated by self-interest and economic exploitation of the colonised.

But without a real comprehension of the true meaning of colonialism, there are all sorts of dangers of developing a complacent if not ahistorical and apologetic view of it, including the one that argues it was a moral evil with economic benefits to its victims. This view of colonialism is re-emerging within a context where some conservative metropolitan-based scholars of the empire are calling for a “balance sheet of the empire”, which weighs up the costs and benefits of colonialism. Meanwhile, some beneficiaries of the empire based in Africa are also adopting a revisionist approach, such as Helen Zille, the white former leader of South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance party, who caused a storm when she said that apartheid colonialism was beneficial – by building the infrastructure and governance systems that Black Africans now use.

Both conservative and liberal revisionism in the studies of the empire and the impact of colonialism reflect shared pessimistic views about African development. The economic failures, and indeed elusive development, in Africa get blamed on the victims. The disorder is said to be the norm in Africa. Eating, that is, filling the “belly” is said to be the characteristic of African politics. African leadership is roundly blamed for the mismanagement of economies in Africa.

While it is true that African leaders contribute to economic and development challenges through things like corruption, the key problems on the continent are structural, systemic and institutional. That is why even leaders like Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, who were not corrupt, did not succeed in changing the character of inherited colonial economies so as to benefit the majority of African peoples.

Today, what exacerbates these ahistorical, apologetic and patronising views of the impact of colonialism on Africa is the return of crude right-wing politics – the kind embodied by former US President Donald Trump. It is the strong belief in inherent white supremacy and in the inherent inferiority of the rest.

But right-wing politics is also locking horns with resurgent and insurgent decolonisation of the 21st century, symbolised by global movements such as Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall. However, to mount a credible critique to apologias for the empire, the starting point is to clearly define colonialism.

On colonisation, colonialism, coloniality

Three terms – colonisation, colonialism and coloniality – if correctly clarified, help in gaining a deeper understanding of the empire and the damage colonialism has had on African economies and indeed on African lives.

Colonisation names the event of conquest and administration of the conquered. It can be dated in the case of South Africa from 1652 to 1994; in the case of Zimbabwe from 1890 to 1980; and in the case of Western and Eastern Africa from 1884 to 1960. Those who confused colonisation and colonialism conceptually, ended up pushing forward a very complacent view of colonialism which define it as a mere “episode in African history” (a short interlude: 1884-1960). While this intervention from the Ibadan African Nationalist School of History was informed by the noble desire to dethrone imperialist/colonialist historiography which denied the existence of African history prior to the continent’s encounter with Europeans, it ended up minimising the epochal impact of colonialism on Africa.

It was Peter Ekeh of the University of Ibadan, in his Professorial Inaugural Lecture: Colonialism and Social Structure of 1980, who directly challenged the notion that colonialism was an episode in African history. He posited that colonialism was epochal in its impact as it was and is a system of power that is multifaceted in character. It is a power structure that subverts, destroys, reinvents, appropriates, and replaces anything it deems an obstacle to the agenda of colonial domination and exploitation.

Eke’s definition of colonialism resonated with that of Frantz Fanon who explained, in The Wretched of the Earth, that colonialism was never satisfied with the conquest of the colonised, it also worked to steal the colonised people’s history and to epistemically intervene in their psyche.

Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe is also correct in positing that the fundamental question in colonialism was a planetary one: to whom does the earth belong? Thus, as a planetary phenomenon, its storm troopers, the European colonialists, were driven by the imperial idea of the earth as belonging to them. This is why at the centre of colonialism is the “coloniality of being”, that is, the colonisation of the very idea and meaning of being human.

This was achieved through two processes: first, the social classification of the human population; and second, the racial hierarchisation of the classified human population. This was a necessary colonial process to distinguish those who had to be subjected to enslavement, genocide and colonisation.

The third important concept is that of coloniality. It was developed by Latin American decolonial theorists, particularly Anibal Quijano. Coloniality names the transhistoric expansion of colonial domination and its replication in contemporary times. It links very well with the African epic school of colonialism articulated by Ekeh and dovetails well with Kwame Nkrumah’s concept of neo-colonialism. All this speaks to the epochal impact of colonialism. One therefore wonders how Africa could develop economically under this structure of power and how could colonialism be of benefit to Africa. To understand the negative economic impact of colonialism on Africa, there is a need to appreciate the four journeys of capital and its implications for Africa.

Four journeys of colonial capital and entrapment

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, in his Secure the Base: Making Africa Visible in the Globe, distilled the four journeys of capital from its mercantile period to its current financial form and in each of the journeys, he plotted the fate of Africa.

The first is the epoch of enslavement of Africans and their shipment as cargo out of the continent. This drained Africa of its most robust labour needed for its economic development. The second was the exploitation of African labour in the plantations and mines in the Americas without any payment so as to enable the very project of Euro-modernity and its coloniality. The third is the colonial moment where Africa was scrambled for and partitioned among seven European colonial powers (Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal) and its resources (both natural and human) were exploited for the benefit of Europe. The fourth moment is the current one characterised by “debt slavery” whereby a poor continent finances the developed countries of the world. Overseeing this debt slavery is the global financial republic constituted by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other financial institutions. All these exploitative journeys of capital were enabled by colonialism and coloniality.

Empirically and concretely, colonialism radically ordered Africa into economic zones of exploitation. This reality is well expressed by Samir Amin who identified three main colonial zones. The first is the “cash crops zone” covering Western and Eastern Africa, where colonialism inaugurated “peasant trade colonies” whereby Africans were forced to abandon cultivation of food crops and instead produce cash crops for an industrialising Europe.

The second zone was that of extractive colonial plantations symbolised by the Congo Free State which was owned by King Leopold II of Belgium; Africans were forced to produce rubber, and extreme violence including the removal of limbs was used to enforce this colonial system.

The third zone was that of “labour reserves” inaugurated by settler colonialism. The Southern Africa region was the central space of settler colonies, where Africans were physically removed from their lands and the lands taken over by the white settlers. Those African who survived the wars of conquest were pushed into crowded reserves where they existed as a source of cheap labour for mines, farms, plantations, factories, and even domestic work.

This colonial ordering of economies in Africa has remained intact even after more than 60 years of decolonisation. This is because achieving political independence did not include attaining economic decolonisation. At the moment of political decolonisation, Europe actively worked to develop strategies such as Eurafrica, Françafrique, Lomé Conventions, the Commonwealth and others to maintain its economic domination over Africa.

Roadblocks to development

Like all human beings, Africans were born into valid and legitimate knowledge systems which enabled them to survive as a people, to benefit from their environment, to invent tools, and to organise themselves socially on their own terms.

The success story of the people of Egypt to utilise the resources of the Nile River to build the Egyptian civilisation, which is older than the birth of modern Europe, is a testimony of how the people and the continent were self-developing and self-improving on their own terms.

The invention of stone tools and the revolutionary shift to the iron tools prior to colonialism is another indication of African people making their own history. The domestication of plants and animals is another evidence of African revolutions. This is what colonialism destroyed as it created a colonial order and economy that had no African interests at its centre.

Flourishing pre-colonial African economies and societies of the Kingdom of Kongo, Songhai, Mali, Ancient Ghana, Dahomey were first of all exposed to the devastating impact of the slave trade and later subjected to violent colonialism. What this birthed were economies in Africa rather than African economies – economies that were outside-looking-in in orientation – to sustain the development of Europe.

Fundamentally, the economies in Africa became extractive in nature. By the time direct colonialism was rolled back after 1945, African leaders inherited colonial economies where Africans participated as providers of cheap labour rather than owners of the economies. These externally oriented economies could not survive as anything else but providers of cheap raw materials. They were and are entrapped in well-crafted colonial matrices of power with a well-planned division of labour.

Today, the economies in Africa remain artificial and fragile to the extent that any attempt to reorient them to serve the majority of African people, sees them flounder and collapse. This is because their scaffold and pivot are colonial relations of exploitation, not decolonial relations of empowerment and equitable distribution of resources.

For real future development and a successful move from economies in Africa towards true African economies, there is a need to revolutionise the asymmetrical colonial power structures that still govern the fate of the continent.

Editors Note: This is an edited version of an article first published by Al Jazeera English. It is republished here as part of our partnership with the Review of African Political Economy.

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