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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

Development as Maendeleo and Its Undergirding Capitalist, Violent and Brutal Nature

Graham Harrison argues that all development is capitalist development. Based on his recent book, Developmentalism, he argues that development is not only risky and likely to fail but also very unpleasant. Contemporary notions of development see it is as a stable, incremental, and positive process but this is a fantasy in which capitalist development is reimagined as a planned, inclusive, and socially just modernisation.

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Development as Maendeleo and Its Undergirding Capitalist, Violent and Brutal Nature
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My book Developmentalism starts with speculation. It imagines Tanzania in 2090 as a middle-income country. Average incomes are an adjusted $12,000; wage labour has expanded and become more regulated; the fiscal effort of the state has improved; large-scale infrastructural investments have increased and generated a more densely connected national market; production has diversified; rates of saving have increased; technological innovations have taken place and been embedded in local production chains.

One might respond to this futurology by arguing that it is a fantasy that ignores well-known diagnostics of Tanzania’s—and more generally Africa’s—development problems and failures. The dependency-minded thinker might refute the optimistic 2090 prospective by arguing that Tanzania is locked into an exploitative global capitalism that makes this kind of transformation impossible. The outcome: Tanzania—and again by extrapolation many other African countries as well—cannot develop because of some combination of its own properties and its location in a global economy.

The book argues that these responses are misguided. There is nothing in Tanzania’s current condition that looks exceptional or categorically different to any other country. There is no need to foreclose the possibility that Tanzania will be a middle-income country in 2090. Yes: Tanzania is unique; it has its own troubled historical and geographical inheritance; and it faces very significant challenges. But, so does everywhere else.

Capitalist development

One of the most powerful bourgeois ideological sleights of hand has been the naming of capitalist development as simply development. ‘Development’ discursively serves to naturalise what is a profoundly disruptive and political transformation, a transformation based in an imposed reallocation of property and wealth that relies on an invigorated and restless putting to work of people, requiring sustained and muscular state action. A transformation, above all, that is extremely risky and unlikely to succeed.

Development is capitalist development. This means not only that it is very risky and likely to fail but also that it is very unpleasant. The bourgeois coinage of development is that it is stable, incremental, and positive sum. In a word: liberal. Liberal development strategies—operationalised through a massive institutionalisation of international aid from the late 1950s—is in essence a theatre of global fantasy, a fantasy in which capitalist development is reimagined as a planned, inclusive, and socially just modernisation. The ideological erasure of enclosure, corporal punishment in law, forced labour, slavery, genocidal frontier expansion, theft and fraud, and war from the concrete manifestations of capitalist development has been sustained through the rolling out of a multi-trillion-dollar aid industry underpinned by an international elite institutionalism.

The fact is that capitalist development is fundamentally Hobbesian: nasty and brutish; destructive of existing community and extremely exploitative. It is in the DNA of capital’s ascendance that it remakes societies for its own purpose and the foundation of that purpose is not ‘making money’ or ‘earning income’ (the liberal vocabulary) but maximising profit, and extracting surplus labour: again and again, maximally and forever.

This brings me to two cardinal points that address our focus back to Tanzania or many other African countries. Firstly, that capitalist development requires the emergence of strong, purposeful, and well-resourced capitals. Secondly, that the conditions under which these emerge are, vitally, politically secured. Let me comment briefly on each.

In relation to the first point, we should note that much of the more progressive mainstream development discourse revolves around capabilities, microfinance, poverty reduction strategies, participatory development, empowerment, and resilience. All of these aid-driven devices are variations on a theme which the book describes as strategies to allow mass populations to ‘enjoy poverty’. That is, to live in an enduring and untransformed condition of material scarcity in meagre relative comfort. This discourse is at heart—and despite the often pleasing imagery it purveys—neoliberal. The story goes something like this: the enhanced capabilities of an individual lead them to secure a loan that allows them to earn a little more money that brings them to purchase a second-hand motorbike, a solar panel, a corrugated roof or a three-month class at a night school to learn accounting methods. Often told in vignette, these narratives bear slender connection to the major engines of poverty reduction which reside in those zones of capitalist industrialisation in northeast Asia and elsewhere in which tens of millions of people have experienced increases in income. All of the evidence indicates that capitalist industrialisation generates poverty reduction not through individual or community vignettes but through the structural changes wrought by capitalist industrialisation.

So, capitalist development is nasty, brutish, and impoverishing and also the world’s most tenacious engine of poverty reduction. It might seem that there is a contradiction here, but it is only apparent, not substantive. Capitalist development is the rolling out of what Anwar Shaikh calls turbulent trends: a collision of disorders set in unstable social relations that in their own dynamics generate the conditions of possibility for a generalised improvement in mass material well-being. Conditions of possibility, no more than this. There is no modernisation-style certainty of mass consumption; there is, paceThe Economist, no inexorable rise of a global middle class. But, in a way that is historically unprecedented, capitalism presents the possibility that a level and breadth of shared wealth can be achieved. This possibility depends on levels of economic growth and productivity and the strength of social mobilisation to makes claims on the commonwealth that capitalism generates and alienates.

The second point indicates what is, intellectually, a considerable lacuna in studies of capitalist development: its normative foundations. The major attraction of liberal visions of (capitalist) development resides in its ability to suture over the violence. The liberal vision is, to twist Rousseau, all freedom, and no force. This is a seductive fiction. It evades what is the most important political question facing any state that aspires to achieve capitalist development: how to engineer the social transformation within which capital can ascend into a dominant position within a national political economy. But this question is unavoidable. The book goes through variants of an answer to this question: England, America, Japan, Taiwan, Israel, China. All different; all the same. All extreme, not exceptional. All coercive, all risky. Only enjoying success after generations of uncertainty, chaos, and violence, and even then, success is not permanent. Developmentalism argues that, in radically different geographical and historical circumstances, all of these states only succeeded in forging capitalist transformation when this transformation was seen as inextricably integrated into a major-order or existential threat to sovereignty. Forging a nation, securing a border, or consolidating a besieged elite’s rule… in these circumstances in which states are seen as inextricably part of a project to promote the ascendance of capital one can identify the emergence of ideologies where capitalist development is not desirable but necessary. This ideological family is developmentalism.

So, the core question for African states that wish to pursue capitalist development is political-strategic. It is not about ‘getting the institutions right’ or good governance. It is broader and more ambitious than that and set in a temporality that is generational, not what economists call medium-term. It requires authoritarian state action—as it did in almost all other cases.

The book’s argument here is unlikeable: that there is no implicit commensurability between capitalist development and rights. If a ruling elite wishes to promote capitalist development it will only succeed if it deploys top-down and coercive state action—through law, programmes of social engineering, and also police action—to reallocate property, discipline workforces, secure exploitation, and push money into ascending capitals. One of the most unhelpful conflations in development studies in Amartya Sen’s development as freedom. To see development as an expanding freedom is to define away the central feature of capitalist development.

This is, of course, normatively very troubling. Does this perspective serve as an apology for forced resettlement, the detention of labour leaders, the top-down enclosure of land and resources for capital? No, it does not. There are three co-ordinates here.

In the first place, a theoretical orientation towards political realism. Realism is not amoral—this is a caricature that cannot really be found centrally in major Realist texts. Realism simply argues that normative politics is contextual: the modes of address to justice and right are not ideally-derived but produced in specific circumstances. So: the normativity of development does not disappear, it simply relocates into the processes of struggle themselves. This orientation leads to a better awareness of the political norms and normative contestation that accompany capitalist development. This is because the focus on rights is enriched through a recognition that socially-embedded political normativity is only in part about rights. It is also about a stability that allows people to see a better future, a sense of value in community and/or nationhood, religious cosmologies, economic growth, and other situated values which can only be understood through actual research. From a Realist point of view, these other value-clusters enjoy equal status with equally contextualised manifestations of rights norms and their significance and value are empirical matters. As a result, normative investigations from a Realist perspective do not insist on an a priori and idealised derivation from universal and absolute rights. And, they are all the richer for that.

Secondly, analytically, the book insists that there must be a separation of rights and development. They are not commensurable. They are antagonistic, or perhaps in the midst of capitalist transformation, highly strained: constantly requiring non-ideal play-offs. Capitalist development requires active deception from states; force strategically deployed; heavy ideological underlabour; secrecy and cronyism. In other words: politics… politics in the sense of making least-worst decisions in the midst of incomplete information and risk. Human rights scholars and activists work within a very well-specified moral universe that is founded on a meta-norm of justice. But this is not the province of the development scholar.

Thirdly, the political agencies that drive justice claims and indeed underpin the sustained demands for generalised material improvement emerge from concrete situations, not idealised norms. Consequently, we need to situate them in the very turbulence of capitalist transformation itself. As political economies change, so do the possibilities for political mobilisation. Normative agency itself develops within organisation, mobilisation, debate, and public action. This is, historically, a story of the changing organisation of labourers, but also of middle-class organisations, and mobilisations that intersect across poverty, race, gender, and other identities. None of these mobilisations exist because they are intrinsically or ideally right; they exist because they are produced within the transformations themselves.

In summary, the normativity of capitalist development is a non-ideal pluralised normativity that is composed within transition itself. It does not accept rights as its master norm because to do so would be to relinquish the necessary acceptance that capitalist development is not rights compatible.

All of which takes us to Rwanda, the African country that ends the case studies in the book. The Rwandan government is clearly not a ‘rights state’. What kind of a state it is, is still intensely contested. Rwanda does illustrate what a contemporary developmentalism might look like. Its future is very uncertain, but the government constantly and heavily claims otherwise, and portrays the government’s strategy as one of national revitalisation and esteem. It has used covert and extra-legal devices to allocate property and wealth in ways that have, arguably and in some instances, been based in securing expanded circuits of accumulation rather than simply graft. It has achieved a high degree of re-engineering of its rural areas through diktats on habitation, cropping, water usage, the formation of co-operatives, agrarian-ecological zoning, village governance, and performance management. It has invested in the infrastructure of an upgraded service economy: IT, hospitality, air freight, and national highways. It has done all of this whilst consistently reiterating a discourse of national economic transformation. The Rwandan government, in the midst of its authoritarianism and security obsessions, pins its legitimacy on its ability to generate development through an ascendance of capital. Its chances of success are slender; its record on human rights is poor; the challenges it faces are major-order or even existential. In short, it is, for now, developing.

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

Graham Harrison’s book Developmentalism: The Normative and Transformative within Capitalism is published by Oxford University Press.

 

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Ideas

Diversification and Decolonisation of Economics

Decolonisation requires collective critical critique of knowledge creation through a historical lens — by whom, where, why, and how — to illuminate the embedded colonial practices that are the foundations of existing gender, racial, ethnicity, disability, class, sexuality, geographic, and other divisions.

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The mission of D-Econ (Diversifying and Decolonising Economics) is to promote inclusivity within the content and institutions of the economics discipline due to the dominance of Eurocentric thinking. This situation has occurred because of the longstanding exclusion of alternate views — based on identity (gender, race, geography), and theoretical-methodological discrimination — from the teaching of economics in higher education institutions. Thus, D-Econ argues, the knowledge base and debate of issues to be relevant to the world’s majority needs to include non-white and non-male voices as well as heterodox approaches.

D-Econ’s mission is framed at countering mainstream (conventional) economics. I think this ambition needs to be bolder. It needs to extend beyond the mainstream to explicitly encompass the entire social science discipline of economics.

The mainstream is ‘guilty as charged’. I think many within our heterodox community can be similarly charged.

Many sites that determine ‘legitimate heterodox knowledge’ cannot be characterised as always displaying tolerance and respect for difference. Contributions to heterodox conferences, workshops, journals, teachings, and more, are marred — not just on the odd occasion — by one perspective asserted as the ‘truth’, or reluctance (sometimes even open hostility) for constructive dialogue about the contributions of alternative perspectives. These practices replicate orthodoxy’s ills.

Heterodox economic scholars also have an ethical and moral obligation — thus responsibility — to ‘diversify and decolonise’ their teaching, research, and other practices given our own experiences of marginalisation, exclusion, and disregard by the mainstream. To not do so is tantamount to condoning the discriminatory practices that have buttressed the mainstream’s hegemony.

Diversification and decolonisation will not be — but should be — innate to all members of the heterodox economics community. Deliberative actions are required that require more than — as needed with the mainstream — ‘changing the narrative’.

The praxis of many heterodox economists needs to change. By praxis, I mean the activity of human beings (in this case, heterodox economists) that directly shapes both aspects of social reality (in this case, the teaching of economics and its application to explaining social reality) and themselves as producers of knowledge.

Decolonialisation is not about rewriting or erasing history. Nor can it be achieved by academics and students completing an anti-slavery awareness training module. Decolonisation is also more than the revision of curriculum content, assessment tasks, and reading lists to include scholarly works by women and persons of colour.

Decolonisation requires collective critical critique of knowledge creation through an historical lens — by whom, where, why, and how — to illuminate the embedded colonial practices that are the foundations of existing gender, racial, ethnicity, disability, class, sexuality, geographic, and other divisions.

Decolonisation also requires the ‘practice’ of an ongoing reflexive process given the institutionalised nature, and reproduction, of inequalities in the higher education sector, the primary site of knowledge production.

Decolonisation should not be conflated with diversification. Diversification is more than moving beyond the dominance of white heterosexual Eurocentric male voices in the creation and dissemination of knowledge.

Diversification is also much more deliberative than job advertisements stating that ‘women and minorities are encouraged to apply’, much more than an institution providing training in ‘conscious bias’, and much more than special journal issues, editorial boards, conference panels and workshops including women, persons of colour, or scholars from the Global South. These actions are mere tokenism, as is the advocacy and not the overt practice of theoretical-methodological pluralism in knowledge production and pluralism in the topics investigated.

To achieve and maintain substantive and authentic diversification and decolonisation of economics, the praxis of all heterodox economists needs to embrace a conjunction of interrelated actions. A single action is inadequate for the task. Moreover, unending vigilance is required to embed the ‘gains’ so that these become conceived as ‘norms’.

There are, I contend, four key interrelated actions for heterodoxy to ‘detoxify’ and lead the way on diversifying and decolonising the social science discipline of economics.

One key action is transparency about one’s ‘positionality’.  I am referring to a scholar’s social ontology — her ‘world view’ of the nature, character, basic features, structures, and constituents of social reality — and her epistemological views (how knowledge is created by, for example, observation and induction or model building and deduction). Analytical constructs reflect a chosen research methodology which, in turn, reflects ontological and epistemological beliefs. These should be rendered explicit.

The purpose of social inquiry, and the practice of economics as a social science, should be to explain an ever-changing and increasingly complex social reality. The knowledge produced needs to accord with social reality to be relevant to the many and be able to address persistent issues and crises such as the climate emergency, inequality, and global pandemics. The analytical approach of the mainstream denotes reality as a closed system devoid of social, political, and historical contexts. Thus, issues are falsely framed, and the approach is the antithesis of the research task at hand. Positional transparency evokes openness about the ‘methodological position’ the researcher has taken to the problem under investigation and thus, appropriateness to explain social reality.

Positionality reflects a scholar’s gender, race, ethnicity, history, nationality, geographic location, political views and more. Thus, positional transparency is interrelated with a second action — acknowledgement of the social construction of knowledge, and the exclusionary role that language can play.

Knowledge is situated. Any knowledge created is inevitably framed by the lives and experiences of the knowledge producers (and reflected through their positionality). The language of mainstream scholarship presents it as ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’, and thus authoritative, not influenced by the positions and lives of its creators. This is inherently dishonest and should be always called out.

Explicit acknowledgment that knowledge creation is situated in lived experiences — and thus, are arguments/analyses — recognises that a plurality of explanations is possible. As Sheila Dow wrote 25 years ago, ‘no one knowledge system can capture totality because each is partial, reflecting a vision of reality’.  Visibility of the positioned nature of knowledge will mean greater integrity in scholarship.

Further, the rhetoric deployed by knowledge producers plays a significant role in silencing underrepresented voices, and the reproduction of insular communities. Rhetoric can act as a social control mechanism by dismissing the scholarship of others as ‘biased’ or ‘unscientific’. This should not only be revealed but heterodox economists should consciously seek not to replicate. This, in turn, means clear recognition that the English language actively creates, not just conveys, the message.

Acknowledgment of the social construction of knowledge and language use leads to a third action—a transformative approach to knowledge building and learning. With the inclusion of new information and different perspectives, frank, open conversations can expose the realities of marginalisation, discrimination, and power relations, and societal privilege (not necessarily intellectual superiority) resulting in the ubiquity of white, male, Eurocentric voices.  Knowledge creation and learning then become transformative processes of mutual critique and discovery.

Transparency about positionality, meaningful recognition of the social construction of knowledge and language, and transformative processes for knowledge production and learning are the foundations to enable achievement of a fourth critical action — a decolonised economic pedagogy.

As posited by Kvangraven and Kesar, a decolonised economic pedagogy is effectively structured around at least the following: the economy is consistently treated as embedded within the social sphere; explicit acknowledgement of the bias and values inherent to different perspectives, and the repression of some epistemologies by others; not relying on one perspective or approach nor advocating universality of explanation; exposing students to the Eurocentric underpinnings of different theoretical perspectives; the presentation of knowledge within its colonial and post-colonial contexts; exposing the spectrum of power inequalities within communities; and, taking a student-centred approach to pedagogy requiring teacher-student co-responsibility to create a common co-operative learning space and to create knowledge.

Ongoing attention and effort focused on these four interrelated actions as a conjunction — by all heterodox economists, not a few — will drive meaningful change to the practice and teaching of economics through authentic diversification and decolonisation. If not, the praxis of heterodoxy will remain as susceptible to charges of insularity, bias, and discrimination as the mainstream.

This is article was first published by D-Econ.

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Frantz Fanon: 60 years On

Sixty years after his death from leukemia at the age of 36 on 6 December 1961, and the publication of The Wretched of the Earth, Timothy Wild reviews a new book which reminds us of the relevance of Frantz Fanon. Fanon’s work, Wild argues, continues to engage people by its brilliance, rage, analysis, and hope that the poor can be the authors of their own destiny.

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Frantz Fanon: 60 years On
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From the end of May until a few days before Remembrance Day (November 11) flags at Canadian public buildings were flown at half-mast. This unusual occurrence was in recognition of the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves containing the remains of Indigenous children on the sites of former Indian Residential Schools. The unearthing of the graves shocked many non-Indigenous Canadians, but it came as no surprise to Indigenous Peoples themselves who had long maintained that the graves were there and more would be discovered. They knew that some of their children never came home from these institutions; but their concerns went unheard or were dismissed. Many of the children who did return home were scarred for life, and this trauma then had an impact on the psychosocial wellbeing of future generations. Overall, this chapter is yet another tragic dimension in the history of settler colonialism in Canada.

Residential Schools, the last of which closed in the mid-1990s, were an instrument purposefully designed to undermine the culture and nuanced connections of Indigenous Peoples to time, each other, and the environment. The government and mainstream Christian Churches acted in strategic solidarity in a long campaign structured to annihilate Indigenous cultures, both figuratively and literally.  The schools were just one of the tools used by settlers, and their superstructure, to impose control over the totality of economic, social, cultural, and extractive relations. This campaign has resulted in social dislocation, loss of resources (including land and natural resources) and inter-generational trauma and marks the fact that the dark history of colonialism is still an eternal present in post-colonial Canada.

Part of my journey of understanding this dark history has involved reading and re-reading books on this ever-present historical tragedy, and that’s how I approached a closer study of Glen Sean Coulthard’s book Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Legacies of Recognition (2014).  Using the work of the Martiniquen born, French educated and Algerian by choice psychiatrist Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) as a foundation – particularly Black Skin, White Masks – Coulthard argues that the conventional politics of recognition currently undertaken in Canada needs to evolve into “a resurgent politics of recognition premised on self-actualization, direct action and the resurgence of cultural practices that are attentive to the subjective and structural composition of settler-colonial power”.  In expanding on Marx by, for example, considering the impact of dispossession of land, as opposed to implementation of proletarian status on Indigenous Peoples, Coulthard applies a Fanonist framework to the current operation of neo-colonialism in Canada, and blends the psychology of the individual with the structural of the collective in his trenchant analysis and, equally important, call for action.

Obviously, the need for attention to the ongoing alienation and dislocation caused by colonialism in postcolonial societies is not only a Canadian phenomenon. The ongoing importance and wide-spread influence of Frantz Fanon in terms of both theory and practice reflects that fact.  Admittedly, there have been highs and lows in terms of Fanon’s place in the academic canon, due in large part to criticism regarding his framing of the role of violence in the process of decolonization, together with the fashionable disregard for meta-theories of liberation.  However, his works continue to inform counter-hegemonic theory and practice around the world, and his words and ideas are as refreshing as ever. Fanon continues to engage people by his brilliance, his candour, his analysis, his guarded optimism and his sense of people being agents in their own destiny.

Coming sixty years after the publication of The Wretched of the Earth and his death from leukemia at the age of 36, Fanon Today: Reason and Revolt of the Wretched of the Earth, edited by activist and scholar Nigel Gibson, provides a solid overview of the relevance of Frantz Fanon to the work of those of us who still believe that a just and humane world is both necessary and possible.  Throughout the volume the contributors provide space and examples of a Fanonist development of radical humanism, which provides for the psychological development of the person within the context of consciousness raising, collective action and structural change. Through a variety of examples, the book also clearly demonstrates the fact that the agents of change do not simply have to be the usual suspects of the industrial working class but includes – and must include – the peasantry and the various manifestations of the lumpenproletariat.  As noted by Gibson, “Fanon’s new humanism is a politics of becoming, based on the fundamental transformation of paralyzed Black and colonized subjects into new human beings through the liberation struggle” (p. 300).

Gibson then modestly concedes that the volume is “by no means exhaustive: it is rather something fragmentary, reflecting the moment” (p. 9). While that is a fair statement – I will comment on some of the gaps later – the bottom line is that this is an excellent book and marks Gibson’s long-standing commitment to ensuring that Fanon remains accessible and relevant to a wide-range of audiences, academic and popular. The theory is certainly there.  All the chapters, for example, pay attention to the role of consciousness-raising, the psychological trauma (indeed mental illness) caused by oppression, the blend of individual development and collective growth, the need for democratic discourse and leadership, and the destructive role played by the national bourgeoisie in alliance with outside forces.

However, in line with Fanon and respect for the development of mass support and organic intellectuals, the theoretical content of the book is woven together in a wonderfully accessible collection of essays demonstrating the ongoing importance of Fanon in a range of settings and on a diversity of social issues. Taken together the work provides multiple examples of the emancipatory potential of the “living politic” which is “the thought from the ground about the reality of our lives” as discussed by the South African activist S’bu Zikode (p. 124).

The book is divided into three sections. The first section contains several chapters written by ‘Fanon Militants’ and provides essays on Fanonist practices in a number of settings including Kenya, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, and Palestine. For me, the core element of this section can be found in the idea of “consciousness raising”. Subjects covered include the use of radio by a diverse group of women in England as a means of developing a person’s optimal psycho-social functioning, the deconstruction of the class and gender ridden term “White Syrian” and what it means to confronting the brutal Assad regime, and the experience of being Black facing daily racism, “systematic terror” and micro-aggressions in an overtly racist Portugal and Trinidad and Tobago, casting people into a zone of “non-being”.

The impact of Fanon on Black Consciousness is also clearly animated in this initial section of the book. Chapters on Fanon and the emergence of “New Afrikan Communism” and his influence of Black people imprisoned by the prison-industrial complex are two of the themes specifically associated with that longstanding link. A particular highlight of this section was contained in a chapter written by Toussaint Losier where he discussed the role played by Owusu Yaki Yakubu and how he developed a way to closely read Fanon which would engage his fellow prisoners, including those held largely incommunicado in the brutality of long-term solidarity confinement. The extension of Marxist thought, together with a dash of Freud and Hegel, shines through in this section in the intersection of race, gender and class. Taken together this section provides a mix of those structural variables, and how they fit together as an organic whole rather than a linear progression of mutually exclusive sociological categories.

The second section – ‘Still Fanon’ – moves into a more theoretical approach to the application of Fanon to transformative change and provides a number of excellent examples of why Fanon is still relevant and, perhaps more importantly, needed as a guide to engaged mass political action. As noted by, for example, David Pavon-Cuellar, in a passionate call for change and justice makes the important point that the “Wretched of the Earth are still here”. Pavon-Cuellar does not mince words and he insists on using the term “Third World” as opposed to “Global South” in his analysis. He argues the point that the historical example of de jure decolonization has not actually provided for the wellbeing of the rural and urban poor. Building upon the remarkable resilience of capitalism to do what it needs to ensure its domination and insatiable appetite, Pavon-Cuellar notes that “Colonialism had to change to stay the same” (p. 233). He puts it bluntly when he argues that the “current globalization of this neoliberal capitalism is the consummation of colonialism. Similarly, imperialism triumphs and disguises itself in the new global consensus” (p. 246).

Building upon this blend of passion and informed analysis, a major theme in this section of the book is related to the role played by the “national bourgeoisie” in terms of propping up the systems of oppression, exactly as highlighted by Fanon himself. The article by Ayyaz Mallick on Pakistan gives clear examples of the role played by national governments in terms of meeting the similar needs of a variety of global players, such as China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States, and the crises that result from this difficult balance.

Nigel Gibson contributes an important contextualizing chapter to this section of the book where he locates Fanon as both “a clinical practitioner and as a political practitioner” within the dynamic of movement. By paying attention to both the internalization of colonial messages and the environment constructed by post-colonial capitalist relations, Fanon provides a way to support the development of “disalienation” and the common good. As noted by Gibson, reflecting the dynamic of theory and practice has to be undertaken in unity with the people and is related to an evolving and tentative process of becoming, rather than a static case of being “…a moment of becoming is always incomplete. For me, this is an essential element of Fanon’s anti-formalist dialectic” (p. 283).

The final section of the book is loosely arranged around the idea of Fanon’s homes, essentially places he lived (such as Algeria in “The New Algerian Revolution”, the chapter by Hamza Hamouchene) together with places where his thinking has had a significant impact. These include the influence Fanon had on Black Consciousness in America, excellently chronicled by Lou Turner and Kurtis Kelley and on the growth of the Irish Language in the North of Ireland, powerfully presented by Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh. To me, however, this section was the most uneven in terms of readability. For example, I found the essay on postcolonial criticism and theory too academic for a book that attempted to make Fanon more accessible.

This may also have been related to the fact that this section also contained the transcription of a meeting between some of the leaders of the South African landless activist group Abahlali baseMjondolo and Nigel Gibson, which was beautiful in its integrity, honesty and dignity. What spoke to me most about this particular chapter was that it provided a sense of Fanon happening in real time and spoke to Gibson’s demonstrated desire to link Fanon with “the reader’s own lived experience” (p. 10). In this discussion, Gibson provided an overview of certain sections of The Wretched of the Earth  – which he prefers to call Les damnes de la terre in its original French – and then members of Abahlali baseMjondolo spoke about concrete application of Fanon’s works. To my mind at least, this chapter made the essential point that “awakening is a constant process” (p. 433). By putting Fanon into this process, and extending our understanding of Marxism, the argument is made that this can result in a “living communism” (p. 433).

The second section of the third part of the volume, dealt exclusively with Brazil, and contained essays on COVID-19 and the impact on Black people in Brazil together with pieces on “Black Female Intellectual Production” and one on the economic exploitation of Amazonia. These were undoubtedly interesting pieces, and they dealt with pressing socio-political issues related to the daily operation of both neocolonialism and neoliberalism. However, it is still unclear to me why Brazil was chosen as a focused topic for this section. Fanon noted that Rio as a city and construct was an offence to Indigenous people, and talked about the exploitation of young Brazilian women, but why three chapters were devoted to specific issues in Brazil was not immediately apparent. As mentioned, the issues are important, but they could have been examined within other contexts, particularly given Gibson’s previous comment about the content not being exhaustive.

Inevitably a lot is left out, and the list of what should or could have been included will be large, depending on one’s area(s) of interest. For example, I felt that more attention could have been given to Indigenous politics and Fanon in North America. As I have suggested, Coulthard has made a solid contribution to this nexus and that foundation could certainly be built upon, and it would have blended well with the work of Abahlali baseMjondolo and the need for a decommodification of land.

Furthermore, although there was an essay on racial and class-based injustice in Trinidad and Tobago, a chapter on current events in the Caribbean would have been useful, especially given Fanon’s relationship to the area, particularly the French Caribbean. I would also like to have seen greater attention to the ongoing influence of Fanon in southern Africa. I know that this was neither a history nor a biography, and Gibson has commented significantly elsewhere on Fanon and South Africa, but the influence of Bantu Stephen Biko was tremendous, both in and out of the country. In the South African Communist Party, though they continue to maintain the idea of a two-stage revolution, there were individuals who had read and digested Fanon – Chris Hani for one. Further analysis of this in relationship to the neocolonial project of white monopoly capital would certainly have been welcomed. I would also have liked to read about what role, if any, Fanon has played on the political consciousness of Zambians and civil society, given their almost textbook experience with neocolonial relations, extractive commodity dependence, the wrath of international funders, the IMF’s Structural Adjustment forays and, most lately, crippling foreign debt to both China and Europe.

Finally, in light of the selfies, compromises, the self-serving displays of Clinton, Blair and Obama, and empty promises of COP26 in Glasgow, I think a discussion of Fanon and his impact on eco-socialism would have been of considerable merit and could also serve to engage a new field of activists, especially younger people. I believe that Fanon’s notions of consciousness raising, and healthy ego functioning, lend themselves directly to a green movement. I regard this as a missed opportunity in the book, especially when issues related to the alienation of land, the neocolonial extraction of resources and the psychosocial implications of environmental change for the rural poor and lumpenproletariat where themes raised throughout the book. Fanon can certainly inform the eco-socialist movement, by literally placing the person within their environment.

Still, Gibson’s volume is an excellent companion to Fanon’s works. It is not only suggestive of how one can read Fanon, but also how it can be applied in a transformative politics. The bibliographies accompanying many of the chapters provide the reader with specific area and topic guides.

Ultimately, though, the major point is that Fanon is still relevant sixty years after his death in 1961. As he wrote in The Wretched of the Earth “[e]ach generation must discover its mission, fulfill or betray it, in relative opacity”. Certainly, a much-needed call to action. Individuals continue to be subject to the daily pain of alienation, they experience the daily indignity of threats to their various and multiple experiences of well-being. Millions face very real threats to their survival, both physical and psychological. Despite the hope that existed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, decolonialization did not help people on the social, cultural, and economic margins of these newly “independent” nations. The national bourgeoisie mimicked their colonial masters and enriched themselves at the expense of the poor. The brutality simply took another form, and the exploitation continues apace.

Nigel Gibson and the other contributors to the book remind us that Fanon can help support the process of disalienation and promote opportunities for hope over fear; but this needs democratic relationships and the ability to listen. It also requires not only consciousness but the will to collectively act on that collective awareness. Following from this it requires organization. As suggested by Pavon-Cueller, “The still wretched of the earth need from their allied intellectuals the continued reading of Fanon in a militant, politically committed way, and not just for academic research or reflection” (p. 246). As the book constantly reminds us, we need Fanon to help animate the struggle so we can all breathe more freely and easily.

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

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