In the wake of COVID-19 vaccine mandates (in which governments require citizens to be vaccinated regardless of their preferences), moral issues need to take centre stage. This is because we human beings are not simply matter, but also rational consciousness – we think and feel, and so it matters how we treat other people, and also how they treat us. Morality is the judging of human action in terms of rightness and wrongness, and human traits of character in terms of virtue (desirable quality) and vice (undesirable quality). While in everyday usage “morality” and “ethics” are considered to mean one and the same thing, we also use the term “ethics” to refer to philosophical reflections on morality, and this latter sense is my focus here.
Countries usually have various public health authorities that issue directives that should ideally enhance the overall well-being of their citizens. In Kenya, for example, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS), the Pharmacy and Poisons Board (PPB), and the Ministry of Health are among such bodies. Thus, the various COVID-19 protocols from the Ministry of Health are public health measures rather than medical care ones. At the global level, public health measures are currently mostly formulated and implemented under the auspices of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
As Hirschberg, Littmann and Strech explain in the edited volume Ethics in Public Health and Health Policy, central to both medical care (for ill individuals in health facilities) and public health measures (instituted by governmental authorities for the overall welfare of society) is the notion of the right to healthcare, which encompasses multiple dimensions, and ranges from concern for individual access to healthcare to the provision of a social structure conducive to healthy living. Yet the ultimate aim of public health measures is the overall well-being of the individuals who necessarily constitute the public — there can never be a public without the individuals who constitute it. Besides, both medical care policies and public health measures ought to be formulated and implemented with a deep commitment to respecting the dictates of morality, giving rise to medical ethics and public health ethics.
The ethical implications of COVID-19 vaccine mandates
As Hirschberg, Littmann and Strech explain, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, efforts aimed at improving and sustaining public health were primarily directed towards combating the spread of infectious diseases and plagues. However, as they further explain, the number of those falling ill and/or dying from infectious diseases was already on the decline before the discovery of the responsible pathogens (viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, etc.), and the development of effective treatments and/or vaccines. Hirschberg, Littmann and Strech further observe that this marked improvement in the quality of health can be explained by improvements in socioeconomic, environmental and living conditions, greater awareness of personal hygiene, and better nutrition. They point out that the nineteenth century thus saw the emergence of the sub-discipline of social medicine that focused on the effect that conditions such as poverty and relative social status had on the public’s health. Scholars of social medicine advocated for the establishment of a healthcare system that would not only attend to those who were already sick, but also promote health for the population.
Thus, public health policies are usually designed to address prevention and health promotion. Regarding this Hirschberg, Littmann and Strech write:
[P]ublic health measures can either target behaviour and lifestyle choices of the individual, or society more generally. The former applies to Public Health programmes such as the promotion of healthy diets, abstinence from tobacco or alcohol, and participation in medical screening programmes. Examples of the latter include immunisation programmes that achieve herd immunity and projects to eradicate certain pathogens regionally, nationally, or globally, e.g. by defining targets for lowering incidence of measles or polio.
Among the many ethical issues that arise from public health measures with regard to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, I highlight five below.
Individual liberty and well-being versus the public good
There are measures that might promote the well-being of a few individuals but hurt the public, and vice versa. While, in the name of public health, many would quickly resort to the principle that the majority ought to have their way, that principle disregards the dignity (infinite intrinsic worth), agency (capacity to act) and human rights (entitlements) of the minority by treating them as though they were of relatively little significance by virtue of their numbers.
In his On Liberty, John Stuart Mill, one of the greatest champions of liberal democracy, observed that the individual ought to be protected against the tyranny of the majority in the same way as he or she ought to be protected against political despotism. In fact, while many now think democracy is rule by the majority, in Considerations on Representative Government, Mill distinguished between true democracy in which all are represented, and false democracy in which only the majority is represented. Thus, COVID-19 vaccination ought not to be a requirement on the basis of the preferences or benefit of the majority, but ought rather to be made available to all those members of the public who choose to have it without the fear of losing their jobs or their access to public spaces and services.
Freedom to accept or decline a medical procedure
The notions of human dignity (infinite intrinsic worth), human agency (capacity to act) and human rights (entitlements) have usually been acknowledged in medical care through the principle of informed consent — that the doctor is morally obligated to explain in detail the implications of any medical procedure, and to let the patient decide whether or not to receive it. Anything less than this is paternalism, that is, the treating of adults as though they were children. Since public health measures, by promoting the health of a population ought to ultimately promote the overall well-being of the individuals that constitute that population, the principle of informed consent ought not to be violated in the name of public health.
In Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker argues that there is a type of injustice in which someone is wronged specifically in his or her capacity as a knower (“epistemic injustice”). She distinguishes two forms of epistemic injustice — testimonial injustice (the injustice that a speaker suffers in receiving deflated credibility from the hearer owing to identity prejudice on the hearer’s part), and hermeneutical injustice (suffered by people who participate unequally in the practices through which social meanings are generated). In the era of COVID-19, humanity is suffering both types of epistemic injustice, as the principle of informed consent is blatantly violated through manipulative social and traditional media, and through intimidation by public authorities issuing vaccine mandates. Indeed, populations are now regularly treated as though they are devoid of knowledge, and must therefore rely solely on instructions from political authorities purportedly to control the spread of the virus and to take care of those who fall ill from it. This approach challenges our belief in human dignity, human agency and human rights, as it reduces us to helpless, ignorant beings who must wait for government to tell us what to do, not only about our conduct in public, but also what to expose our bodies to (read “vaccine mandates”).
The individual ought to be protected against the tyranny of the majority in the same way as he or she ought to be protected against political despotism.
Currently, the narrative in social and traditional media is that the vaccine is a must, and any information about its adverse effects is quickly suppressed or explained away. This manipulative approach is evident in the talk about “vaccine hesitancy”, as though all who have so far refrained from taking the “vaccine” will eventually “come round”. A more honest discourse would have acknowledged vaccine enthusiasm, vaccine hesitancy, and vaccine rejection. Besides, the individual’s freedom is often infringed on the grounds that members of the public are not adequately equipped to make informed decisions about their own health. This amounts to treating adults as though they were children (“paternalism”). The Ottawa Charter, which focuses on patient empowerment and the strengthening of health literacy, is relevant in this regard, as is health communication, encompassing multiple levels, from the formulation of written information on specific diseases to educational campaigns aimed at the general public.
Inadequate public health communication was evident when a Kenyan citizen filed a Constitutional Petition against the vaccine mandate issued by the Kenyan government on 21st November 2021. Mutahi Kagwe, Cabinet Secretary for Health, announced that there was no vaccine mandate, and that therefore no one needed to have gone to court. At the same time, he reiterated that the unvaccinated would be denied in-person access to government services from 21st December 2021. The import of that announcement was that “There is a vaccine mandate and there is no vaccine mandate”. Furthermore, on 22nd December 2021, Health Chief Administrative Secretary Mercy Mwangangi announced that one would have to show proof of vaccination to enter public spaces such as buses, grocery stores, restaurants and game reserves. This set of statements must surely be categorised as bad public health communication.
Besides, Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe had sought to justify the vaccine mandate on the basis of the Public Health Act. However, Section 36 (d) of the Act addresses situations in which Kenya appears to be existentially threatened by any formidable epidemic, endemic or infectious disease. Yet the public health data shows that COVID-19 is not leading to massive deaths that would warrant invoking these provisions. The Public Health Act is also subordinate to the Constitution of Kenya in which the Bill of Rights is enshrined. As such, it cannot legitimately serve as a basis for COVID-19 vaccine mandates, but only for vaccine programmes. Furthermore, the dominant COVID-19 narrative emphasizes that the vaccines do not rule out one getting infected, but rather reduce the chances of hospitalization and death. Thus, vaccine-free shoppers or travellers in public transport risk their own lives, not those of fellow shoppers or fellow travellers. As such, forcing them to be vaccinated is a violation of their personal freedoms entrenched in the Constitution of Kenya 2010.
In sum, public health authorities are violating the ethical principle of informed consent by compelling members of the public to take COVID-19 vaccines. Furthermore, by making online databases accessible to a large number of people to verify the vaccination status of individuals, health authorities are also violating the principle of patient confidentiality.
Responsibility for adverse effects of vaccines
It is common knowledge that each and every vaccine has adverse effects. As such, the individual has a right to accept or decline a vaccine because it is he or she who bears any adverse effects that it may produce. Yet by enforcing COVID-19 vaccine mandates, health authorities are blatantly disregarding this important consideration. As David Ngira and John Harrington explain, a system of quality control before the deployment and use of medicines in Kenya is set out in the Pharmacy and Poisons Act, the Standards Act, the Food, Drugs and Chemical Substances Act, and the Consumer Protection Act. They however point out that none of these Acts provides for comprehensive compensation after deployment and use of vaccines. Yet any monetary disbursements that citizens might receive for adverse effects of vaccines cannot possibly restore them to their previous state of health, and must therefore be viewed more as tokens than as adequate compensation.
A more honest discourse would have acknowledged vaccine enthusiasm, vaccine hesitancy, and vaccine rejection.
What is more, observe Ngira and Harrington, to minimise liability and incentivise research and development, pharmaceutical companies require states to undertake to meet any costs arising from successful suits against the pharmaceuticals for any harm caused by vaccines. Put simply, the victims would be awarded for damages through their own taxes rather than through the profits of the vaccine manufacturers. Besides, as Ngira and Harrington also explain, in Kenya’s legal environment, victims of adverse effects from vaccines would have to demonstrate that the vaccine maker or distributor fell below widely accepted best practice, and yet acquiring the evidence to prove this and finding experts in the sector willing to testify against the manufacturer can be very difficult.
Ngira and Harrington further note that while the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) have undertaken to honour a one-year compensation (“indemnity”) for adverse effects of AstraZeneca vaccines distributed in Kenya which allows victims to be compensated without litigation up to a maximum of US$40,000 (approx. KSh4 million), COVAX has indicated that the scheme will end once the allocated resources have been exhausted. This is a matter of concern, because there is no evidence that side effects of the vaccine fully manifest within a year. Besides, one wonders how the allocated resources for compensation were arrived at, bearing in mind that no one would have had information on how much resources would actually be needed for this purpose. Furthermore, according to Ngira and Harrington, beneficiaries of the COVAX compensation scheme are barred from pursuing compensation claims in court. COVAX also requires that before governments receive its vaccines, they undertake to pay any damages awarded to victims of adverse vaccine effects against manufacturers in any lawsuits.
The foregoing considerations lead to the conclusion that the individual, as the one who bears the full brunt of any adverse effects from COVID-19 vaccines, ought to be free to accept or decline them.
Debatable use of some primary prevention programmes
According to Hirschberg, Littmann and Strech, there is the question of the use of some primary preventive programmes such as vaccination campaigns, cancer screening, and assessment of psychological malfunctions. They further observe that problems that arise in this context include, but are not limited to, unnecessary treatment, financial interests of actors, and the role of pharmaceutical companies. For example, in Deadly Medicines and Organized Crime: How Big Pharma Has Corrupted Healthcare, Peter Gotzsche shows that drugs are the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer, and illustrates how pharmaceutical companies have developed toxic drugs that have caused untold suffering to many, and how law courts have awarded damages to the injured. Similarly, Neil Z. Miller discusses 400 scientific papers that show how vaccines have caused injuries, and how policy-makers ignore this information.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the public was told that once the vaccines are developed and procured, those who receive them would be safe from the virus; then more recently it has been announced that those who are fully vaccinated will need a “booster shot” after six months. The question arises as to whether the “booster shots” are really necessary, or simply the innovation of the big pharmaceutical companies to make more profits, which would be a case of conflict of interest. Besides, it is not clear if humanity will ever be free from the vaccines if people will be required to take boosters every time a new variant emerges. What is more, while there is wide consensus among virologists on the effectiveness of natural immunity, very little is being said about this, giving the false impression that humanity’s hope only lies in the vaccines, as though humanity has not weathered numerous viruses without vaccines for millennia.
Monitoring and evaluation of public health measures
According to Hirschberg, Littmann and Strech, public health measures ought to be analysed within a framework that takes into consideration how decisions to implement the measures were reached, and how the expected impact can be evaluated and regulated effectively. As such, write Hirschberg and her colleagues, all phases of planning, implementation and evaluation of a public health measure should take into account the available scientific evidence.
In the edited volume Ethics in Public Health and Health Policy, Marckmann and his colleagues address the question of what strategies are ethically appropriate to achieve sufficiently high rates of influenza vaccination among healthcare personnel in long-term care facilities for the protection of the elderly care home residents under their charge. They contend that mandatory influenza vaccination for healthcare personnel can only be justified if the available empirical evidence on the effectiveness of the vaccine is more conclusive, and if all other less restrictive measures have failed to achieve a sufficiently high vaccination rate.
Beneficiaries of the COVAX compensation scheme are barred from pursuing compensation claims in court.
In view of the foregoing considerations, monitoring and evaluation of COVID-19 vaccine mandates ought to address the following four questions: To what extent were decisions to implement COVID-19 vaccine mandates transparent and participatory? How effective have the COVID-19 vaccines been in limiting the spread of the virus? In the light of a holistic conception of health as entailing physical, social and mental well-being, are vaccine mandates the most effective way to deal with the spread and impact of COVID-19? What is the impact of COVID-19 vaccine mandates on the overall physical, social and mental well-being of citizens?
Which way forward?
In view of the foregoing considerations, it is high time we insisted on respect for the Bill of Rights in the Constitution of Kenya 2010 that upholds the autonomy of the person and proscribes discrimination. It is high time we upheld the national principle of public participation in the formulation of public health policies. It is high time we insisted on the right to information, which implies the right to uncensored information, including free access to all shades of opinion regarding the safety or danger of taking the COVID-19 vaccines, and personal testimonies of those who have taken them, as well as reasons advanced by those who have refrained from taking them. In the end, what we are dealing with here is not simply the right to accept or decline the COVID-19 vaccines, but rather the whole range of individual freedoms, which implies the limits of state action. In sum, it is squarely within the mandate of the state to institute vaccine programmes, in which it makes vaccines available and seeks to convince citizens to receive them. However, vaccine mandates are instances of state overreach, as they violate human dignity, human agency and human rights, thereby eroding the very foundation of democratic society. If government can determine what goes into my body, what remains of my personal liberty?
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The Case for a Non-Violent Political Culture
A culture of violent political action by those who aspire to power or by those who wish to retain and enhance it risks plunging society into a swamp of self-destruction.
Just before Kenya’s 2007/2008 post-election crisis, a friend gave me an audio version of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. With my total visual disability, audio books and e-books are always a banquet. The novel features a group of middle-class British boys who find themselves on an island without adult supervision. At first they set up a liberal democratic type of government, with impressive standing orders for their deliberations. However, tensions build up after elections, leading to the formation of two mutually hostile tribes, and ultimately an orgy of violence that culminates in a fire that decimates the boys habitat. A British cruiser arrives just in time for a naval officer on board to call the boys to order and evacuate them from the now devastated island. It was not difficult to see an almost perfect correspondence between the characters in the novel and the ones who were splashed on the front pages of our newspapers during that dark chapter of our country’s history.
Around the world, politicians striving to get into power declare their unflinching commitment to peaceful demonstrations, but covertly, and sometimes even overtly, engage in violent activities. Similarly, although many regimes claim to be democratic, they ignore, muffle or suppress political dissent, often leading to political disobedience. In response, they often deploy security forces to crush such disobedience, resulting in a cycle of violence. Consequently, pertinent questions arise regarding the nature of truly non-violent political action, the moral justifications for it, and possible objections to it.
The nature of non-violent political action
There are authors that assume that “non-violent political action” is synonymous with “civil disobedience”. For example, in his seminal work, A Theory of Justice, the renowned American philosopher, John Rawls, defines civil disobedience as a public, non-violent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law, usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government. According to Rawls, by acting in this way one addresses the sense of justice of the majority of the community, and declares that in one’s considered opinion the principles of social cooperation among free and equal persons are not being respected. Nevertheless, in view of the fact that other writers consider the use of violence to be a type of civil disobedience, it is advisable to use the more specific term “non-violent civil disobedience” to eliminate the possibility of confusion.
One of the earliest articulations of non-violent civil disobedience is that by Plato in the Apology and the Crito. In the Apology, Plato presents Socrates as declaring that while he is committed to obeying the dictates of the state, he is obliged to disobey them whenever they conflict with the express will of the gods, even if the state threatens to put him to death for doing so. Socrates goes on to assert that if the Athenians were to sentence him to death, they would thereby injure themselves more than him. This position is pivotal to the doctrine of non-violent civil disobedience, which seeks to appeal to the conscience of the oppressor through the suffering he or she inflicts on the oppressed. In the Crito, Plato presents Socrates advancing three arguments in support of the view that it is virtuous to submit to the decision of the state to sentence him (Socrates) to death, and therefore that it is vicious for him to escape from prison: We ought not to harm anyone, yet escaping from prison would harm the state; we ought to keep our promises, yet escaping from prison would be tantamount to breaking the promise of loyalty to the state; we ought to obey and respect our parents and teachers, yet escaping from prison would be tantamount to disobedience and disrespect to the state, which enjoys the status of a parent or teacher.
As Roland Bleiker explains, Plato’s Socrates hence provided the precedent for a tradition of dissent that aims at resisting a specific authority, law, or policy considered unjust, while at the same time recognising the rulemaking prerogative of the existing political system as legitimate and generally binding. As indicated below, several other thinkers are associated with non-violent civil disobedience.
Étienne de La Boétie and David Hume
The basic assumption of non-violent civil disobedience is that governments are ultimately dependent on the fearful obedience and compliance of their subjects. This was succinctly stated by the sixteenth century French jurist and political philosopher, Étienne de La Boétie (1530–1563), who wrote his seminal essay, Discours de la Servitude Volontaire (The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude) in 1552–1553. For La Boétie, all that the oppressed masses need to do in order to overthrow the tyrant is to withdraw their cooperation from him:
He who … domineers over you has only two eyes, only two hands, only one body, no more than is possessed by the least man among the infinite numbers dwelling in your cities; he has indeed nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you. Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do not provide them yourselves? How can he have so many arms to beat you with, if he does not borrow them from you? The feet that trample down your cities, where does he get them if they are not your own? How does he have any power over you except through you? How would he dare assail you if he had no cooperation from you? What could he do to you if you yourselves did not connive with the thief who plunders you, if you were not accomplices of the murderer who kills you, if you were not traitors to yourselves? …. Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces.
The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) independently discovered the principle of the goodwill of the populace as the ground of government two centuries after La Boétie, and stated it as follows:
Nothing is more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye than to see the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find that, as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is, therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.
Henry David Thoreau
While the thoughts of La Boétie and Hume on non-violence were purely theoretical, the 19th-century American thinker, Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), engaged in a non-violent action in an attempt to challenge a specific public policy. He refused to pay the state poll tax imposed by the US government to prosecute a war in Mexico and to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. Consequently, in July 1846, he was arrested and jailed. He was supposed to remain in jail until a fine was paid, which he also declined to pay. However, without his knowledge or consent, relatives settled the “debt”, and a disgruntled Thoreau was released after only one night. The incarceration was brief, but it has had enduring effects, as it prompted Thoreau to write his seminal 1848 essay, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Thoreau shared with La Boétie and Hume the view that states continue to exist because of the acquiescence of the citizenry.
Nothing is more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than to see the easiness with which the many are governed by the few.
Nevertheless, as Lawrence Rosenwald correctly observes, although proponents of non-violent action often cite Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” in support of their strategy, he did not rule out the use of violence in politics. Indeed, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, and still more after John Brown’s raid, Thoreau defended violent action on the same grounds as those on which he had defended non-violent action in On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. This is evident in Thoreau’s 1859 work, A Plea for Captain John Brown.
Mohandas Karmachand Gandhi
One of the best known organisers of non-violent civil disobedience is the Indian nationalist, Mohandas Karmachand Gandhi, commonly referred to as “Mahatma (“Great Soul”) Gandhi” (1869–1948). As a young lawyer in South Africa protesting the government’s treatment of immigrant Indian workers, Gandhi was deeply impressed by Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience. What is less known is that Gandhi believed that the Indians in South Africa deserved equal treatment with the Europeans in the country, and was in fact incensed that they were being treated like the majority indigenous peoples there. Thus in 2018, the University of Ghana removed Gandhi’s statue from its exalted place following protests from the university’s lecturers. For now, however, let us focus on Gandhi’s policy of non-violence.
Satyagraha is literally holding on to Truth and it means, therefore, Truth-force. Truth is soul or spirit. It is, therefore, known as soul-force. …. The word was coined in South Africa to distinguish the non-violent resistance of the Indians of South Africa from the contemporary ‘passive resistance’ of the suffragettes and others.
Gandhi was at pains to make a sharp distinction between “passive resistance” and Satyagraha. The main difference, according to him, is that passive resistance is not committed to love, but is rather an expedient strategy that can be easily abandoned whenever it was convenient to use violence. On the other hand, Satyagraha is committed to non-violence, considering itself to be the very opposite of violent resistance. He believed in confronting his opponents aggressively, in such a way that they could not avoid dealing with him. The difference, as Mark Shepard points out, was that the non-violent activist, while willing to die, was never willing to kill. In support of non-violent action, Gandhi argued that if the world were to pursue violence to its ultimate conclusion, the human race would have become extinct long ago. He is often quoted as having said that “an eye for an eye would make the world blind”.
Mark Shepard notes that Gandhi practised two types of Satyagraha in his mass campaigns. The first was civil disobedience, which entailed breaking a law and courting arrest. The second was non-cooperation, that is, refusing to submit to the injustice being fought. It took such forms as strikes, economic boycotts and tax refusals.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Gandhi’s thought and practice greatly influenced the thinking of the African-American Civil Rights Movement leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968). According to Andrew Altman, in contemporary political thought, the term “civil rights” is indissolubly linked to the struggle for equality of African Americans during the 1950s and 1960s, whose aim was to secure the status of equal citizenship between African and European Americans. After slavery was abolished, the US federal Constitution was amended to secure basic rights for African Americans. In 1877, however, the federal government moved to frustrate efforts to enforce those rights. As a result, state constitutions and laws were modified to exclude African Americans from the political process.
Martin Luther King, Jr. catapulted to fame when he came to the assistance of Rosa Parks, the Montgomery, Alabama African American seamstress who, on the 1st of December, 1955, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery bus to a European American passenger. In Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, King Jr. was emphatic that he was not the founder of non-violent civil disobedience among African Americans; rather, he merely served as their spokesman. Like Gandhi, King, Jr. states that his adoption of non-violent civil disobedience was inspired by Thoreau’s On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Nevertheless, he attributes the details of his strategy to the work of Mohandas K. Gandhi.
Thoreau shared with La Boétie and Hume the view that states continue to exist because of the acquiescence of the citizenry.
In Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King, Jr., like Gandhi before him, advanced the view that the purpose of direct mass action is to attain a situation in which the opponent is willing to negotiate. In Stride Toward Freedom, he outlines several basic aspects of the doctrine of non-violence as follows: It is not for cowards, but is actually a method of resistance; it seeks to win the friendship and understanding of the opponent; it attacks forces of evil rather than persons who happen to be doing the evil; it is willing to accept suffering without retaliation; it avoids not only external physical violence, but also internal violence of spirit; it is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice.
Moral justifications for non-violent political action
As Bernard Gert explains, to justify an action is to show that it is rational. Besides, George Fletcher points out that a justification speaks to the rightness of the act, while an excuse focuses on whether or not the actor is accountable for a concededly wrongful act. An unflinching commitment to non-violent political action can be morally justified on at least nine counts.
Violence breeds violence by stimulating the desire for revenge, with the grim possibility of an endless cycle of violence. Because of the physical and psychological harm caused by violence, it often leaves the two sides as longstanding enemies. Even when an armed insurgency is victorious, the final outcome is often disastrous, yet no such losses are associated with non-violent political action.
Armed resistance tends to push undecided elements of the population towards the government, as any effects of the violence they suffer serves to convince them that the purported “liberators” are actually “terrorists”. In sharp contrast to this, government repression against unarmed resistance movements usually creates greater popular sympathy for the regime’s opponents. According to Jerry Tinker, this explains the tendency of many governments, when faced with non-violent resistance, to emphasise any violent fringes that may emerge.
As Stephen Zunes cautions, quite frequently, regimes which come to power through violent means soon forget their pledges to uphold personal liberties. According to Kimberley Brownlee, throughout history, acts of non-violent political action have helped to force a reassessment of society’s moral parameters. Indeed, it is partly for this reason that today’s dissidents are often tomorrow’s heroes.
Like Gandhi before him, advanced the view that the purpose of direct mass action is to attain a situation in which the opponent is willing to negotiate.
In his autobiography, the British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, observes that engaging in civil disobedience often leads to wide dissemination of a position which would have otherwise received inadequate coverage in mass media. Mark Shepard notes that even in revolutions that are primarily violent, the successful ones usually include non-violent civilian actions. Shepard further observes that there are other cases in which violence would work, but so would non-violent action with much less harm. Kelley Ross observes that by refraining from causing physical damage which is, by its very nature irreversible, non-violent political action caters for the fact that we may very well be wrong in holding a particular political position.
Answering objections to non-violent political action
At least six objections have been levelled against non-violent political action, but answers to them are readily available.
First, objectors point out that non-violent political action results in harm, and any harm is undesirable. However, proponents of non-violent political action reply that the kind of harm it causes is much less grievous than that from violent political action. Nevertheless, some critics have questioned this assertion. Yet, while the issue may not be conclusive, our intuitions suggest that this is the case: a stone hurled at the police or a tear gas canister hurled at a crowd are much more harmful than a peaceful sit-in.
Second, some critics claim that non-violent political action is unbearably slow in achieving the desired results. Yet, as Mark Shepard observes, even violent actions take long to produce the desired results. Shepard quotes Theodore Roszak as having once commented: “People try non-violence for a week, and when it ‘doesn’t work’, they go back to violence, which hasn’t worked for centuries.”
Engaging in civil disobedience often leads to wide dissemination of a position which would have otherwise received inadequate coverage in mass media.
Third, some thinkers have charged that there are cases in which non-violence cannot produce the desired results, as has been experienced in highly repressive regimes. Nevertheless, the cases in which non-violent action would not work are also often cases in which violence would prove pointless or worse. Indeed, Mark Shepard points out that where violent efforts would be easily contained or instantly crushed, non-violent action may be the only realistic choice.
Fourth, according to David Lyons, some objectors contend that even those who are treated unjustly can have moral reason to comply with unjust laws – as when non-violent political action would expose some persons such as children and the very old to risks they have not agreed to assume. However, such casualties are to be found both in instances of violent and non-violent political action, as long as at least one side in a political contest shows no commitment to non-violence.
Fifth, according to Roland Bleiker, some critics charge that non-violent political action is merely a manipulative strategy by the Western liberal democratic establishment to maintain the status quo. However, there is evidence that it has the potential to effect radical change in any society, as was the case with Gandhi in India, and, to an extent, with Martin Luther King Jr. in the US.
The culture of violent political action by those who aspire to power, as well as by those who have power and wish to retain and enhance it, risks plunging society into a swamp of self-destruction; and unlike the case of the boys in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, there is no assurance that the cruiser will arrive just in time. In fact, in several cases on our continent, it did not arrive at all.
The Continued Relevance of Pan-African Marxism in a Time of Crisis
Do we look back to the Pan-African Marxism of the moment of flag independence to address contemporary challenges to Pan-African liberation or do we need new ideas and new guiding insights in order to truly usher in the liberation that independence promised but has yet to deliver?
To celebrate African Liberation Day, I encourage us to revisit Pan-African Marxist theory to assess what it might offer us in the continued struggle for liberation. During the 20th century, as national independence movements were gaining ground on the African continent, anti-colonial intellectuals devised new ways of thinking about liberation in a Pan-African context. This theoretical tradition, sometimes called Black Marxism, Pan-African Marxism, or Anti-colonial Marxism, was developed to aid national independence movements in their more revolutionary aims through an analysis of the political economy and culture of Africa in the world system. Through an analysis of the history and political economy of the African continent, Pan-African Marxists rethought European narratives of Africa’s integration into the capitalist world system through European imperialism, revealing economic development to be a relative concept that hinged on the exploitation of Africa by Europe through colonialism and neo-imperialism.
Not only did Pan-African Marxist theorists describe the long history of African political economy as a way to build strategy for national independence movements in their fight against colonialism, but they also took up the question of how true liberation might be realised across the continent. One of the main tensions among Pan-African Marxists in thinking through the question of liberation after the end of formal colonial rule was between those who saw a return to pre-colonial cultural formations as a way toward liberation versus those who contended that the way forward was to embrace “the new”.
For Marxist thinkers such as Chiekh Anta Diop and Walter Rodney, recovering pre-colonial histories and culture was an important assertion of national identity and a way to overcome the colonial mentality that lingered after flag independence. Walter Rodney wrote that, “to know ourselves we must learn about African history and culture. This is one of the most important steps towards” liberation. For those who subscribed to this position, the process of recovering history and culture was, ultimately, the way to recover one’s humanity.
Other Pan-African Marxists, however, such as Aquino de Bragança, Thomas Sankara, Amilcar Cabral and Frantz Fanon, for example, emphasised “newness” as the means to liberation. Fanon believed that recovering pre-colonial culture was not an effective strategy for liberation. In the face of systematic structures that assert the inferiority of the culture of the colonised, he contended, culture “solidifies into a formalism which is more and more stereotyped”. Instead of engaging in critique and evolution, the postcolonial intellectual who looks to the past for inspiration has a tendency to reify older cultural forms by combatting the colonial project to devalue culture on the terms delineated by the colonizer. In such reification, Fanon asserted, “there is no real creativity and no overflowing life”. In other words, in looking to the pre-colonial past for inspiration, the African intellectual renders themselves incapable of creating the new movements that will best critique colonialism and its remnants.
Fanon tells us that recovering a pre-colonial past is not enough to counteract the harm done by colonialism. Instead, he contends that we must be forward-looking and envision a future in which liberation triumphs over colonialism and its remnants. This vision for a new future must also look to other places within the Global South for affinity in grappling with similar problems such as “trade union questions” or economic issues stemming from a common colonial legacy.
Admittedly, the two different positions in this debate aren’t really that distinct. Both sides ultimately agree that the goal of recovering the history and pre-colonial culture of Africa is secondary to the revolutionary movement against capitalism and neo-imperialism. What is distinct, in these two positions, however is the means to this end of true liberation for Africa. And the key question around which this debate was centred remains: Is the way forward to liberation through recovering the past or is it found in creating completely new ways of thinking about the current situation?
Let us recall Marx’s famous quote from the 18th Brumaire; Marx writes that history happens, first as tragedy then as farce… The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things, in creating something that had never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them their names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.
Is the way forward to liberation through recovering the past or is it found in creating completely new ways of thinking about the current situation?
Here, Marx gestures to repetition through the cyclical nature of time, but each repetition, for Marx, is not a return, but instead a mimicry of previous moments of history. In attempts to create “the new” there is always necessarily a borrowing from and a simulation of the past. Jacques Derrida termed this genre of repetition hauntology. In this framework, Marxism is then a ghost whose expected return repeats itself again and again. That recurring return is not solely a reappearance, but also, each time, a new beginning.
To question what Pan-African Marxism still is, we need to understand how time operates within this concept of hauntology. Hauntology implies two temporalities: that which is no longer, but remains, and that which has not yet happened, but the idea of it exists. Marx describes a cyclical return where each new phase of the cycle is borrowed from the previous phase but is different from its previous incarnation because of our desire for newness coupled with an inability to conjure it without the old surviving within the new. Derrida delineates an expected return that never happens, but nonetheless clears the way for newness because there cannot be a return, only a new beginning in the guise of the old. But Mark Fisher sees hauntology as “a failed mourning. It is about refusing to give up the ghost or… the refusal of the ghost to give up on us”. Are we failing in our endeavour for a completely new politics, as Marx claims, or creating the new through the ghosts of the old as Derrida posits, or mourning the new futures we expected that never materialised as Mark Fisher suggests?
The key question is, then, what is the way forward? Do we look back to the Pan-African Marxism of the moment of flag independence to address contemporary challenges to Pan-African liberation or do we need new ideas and new guiding insights in order to truly usher in the liberation that independence promised but has yet to deliver? We need to revisit, assess, and debate this critical question on whether Pan-African Marxism can provide a way forward to liberation. As a launching point, I offer two examples through which we can start to think through how Pan-African Marxism might still be relevant in helping us develop solutions to pressing contemporary problems.
Frantz Fanon famously wrote about inequities in global health stemming from the colonial legacy in his essay, “Medicine and Colonialism”. This essay demonstrates, through several historical examples from colonial Algeria, how the relationship between African people and colonial healthcare is structured by the colonial relationship. Fanon points to “the inhuman methods” of colonialism that mediate African people’s experiences with the latest medical technology whether it’s through medical experiments conducted on colonial subjects, the historical legacy of French doctors aiding the colonial police and military in torturing FLN members, or through the denial of treatment to Africans in need. Based on what Fanon witnessed as a health care professional in Algeria, he concluded that one of the many key objectives for liberation and decolonisation involves disrupting Europe as an intermediary in bringing medical technology to Africa.
We see today, in the case of COVID-19, that Fanon’s assessment of the healthcare system in colonial Algeria is markedly pertinent. Access to COVID-19 vaccines is mostly mediated through the United States and Europe. This situation in which African countries have to go through the former colonial power for access to vaccines is something that Fanon’s essay predicted. Preventing such a situation in which Africa needed to go through Europe to access the latest medical technologies is something that, furthermore, Fanon identified in the late 1950s as a key problem that African liberation movements should take up in order to ensure Africans’ access to just and plentiful healthcare. While he may not have predicted the specificities of vaccine hoarding by the Global North along with patent laws that restrict the ability of Global South countries to produce their own affordable vaccines, Fanon did warn us in the 1950s of the pressing need to be able to access the latest medical technology without having to rely on Europe as a mediator.
One of the many key objectives for liberation and decolonisation involves disrupting Europe as an intermediary in bringing medical technology to Africa.
But the failure of national liberation to be realised today is not for lack of trying. In the contemporary period we have witnessed many movements for liberation in North Africa, Sudan, and elsewhere, along with vibrant student movements across Sub-Saharan Africa and a variety of other contemporary movements aimed at realising liberation of various forms. But contemporary movements, particularly political movements aimed at regime change, have been limited by authoritarian rule and particularly by religious nationalist forces that have hijacked the more revolutionary aims of contemporary movements.
Here too, however, Fanon provides a way forward. In his essay “On Violence” (1961), he posed a very critical question for independence movements, that is, to paraphrase, what was the point of fighting for independence if not much had changed in the period following? Fanon, of course, was talking about the class structure that remained in place after flag independence and posed this question as a critique that while formal political rule by Europe may have ended, independence movements did little to combat capitalism and imperialism. In several of my books and essays, I’ve contended that we need to push this important question a bit further and also need to consider how the revolutionary promise of national independence soon eroded into the proliferation of dictatorships across the continent. Local-born leaders oppressed the very people who had just won their independence in a manner similar to that of the colonial rulers they fought for freedom from. And today we see a resurgence in movements looking to now realise the quality of freedom independence promised but in so many instances has failed to deliver. Yet, in the current moment, this political freedom still remains an open question as far-right forces seek to limit political freedom but movements for liberation wage on.
There are infinite possibilities for the future and the goal of political action is to begin with a workable possible and then transform that possible into the future real. In this endeavour to imagine possible futures, theory is crucial. Futures are not “waiting for us ready-made like heavenly bodies… They must be invented, fabricated, or rather created”. Through Pan-African Marxist theory, we can begin to imagine new possibilities outside of historical capitalism and imperialism. Capitalist imperialism may seem insurmountable but that is only because of our inability to imagine. We can’t imagine liberation because we are unable to conceive of new possibilities.
Samir Amin’s Radical Political Economy
Samir Amin’s legacy provides a lighthouse for those who not only want to understand the world, but fundamentally change it, by combining rigorous scholarship with political commitment and action.
In moments of great uncertainty there is refuge to be found in the work of intellectual titans like Samir Amin. After the sad news of his passing in August 2018 in Paris, aged 86, we began thinking about how best to explore the enduring relevance of his analysis and concepts to make sense of contemporary crises.
The pertinence and analytical heft of Amin’s work is particularly important in the contemporary period marked by the interconnected crises related to COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, the climate emergency, and looming debt crises across the periphery. In the years ahead, confronting these multiple and intertwined crises will require the kind of commitment to combining research with political engagement that Amin demonstrated.
Amin’s ability to weave together thorough analysis of the polarising effects of capitalism with concrete political projects for an international radical left makes his work particularly relevant in our quest to understand capitalism, its particularities across the world, and oppositions to it. There is a younger generation of scholars, of which we are a part, that is particularly hungry for Amin’s perspectives, one that came of age in a time where the universities have been thoroughly marketised and moulded by neoliberal processes, and where intellectual production and debates are not necessarily embedded within social struggles.
What is Samir Amin’s approach to Political Economy?
Amin pushes us to think creatively in structural, temporal, and political ways that often defy disciplinary boundaries. The combination of truly global perspectives with analysis that is finely contextualised within particular geographical locations, and mindful of the complex nature of political conflicts and different class interests, makes his contributions to dependency theory especially rich.
While Amin developed many concrete concepts and shed light on many concrete issues, it is his approach to political economy that is the most inspiring for us and that we believe holds the most promise for driving radical political economy in his spirit forward. His approach entails thinking structurally, thinking temporally, thinking politically, and thinking creatively.
At a time when much of social science has come to be centred around either methodological individualism or methodological nationalism – the notions that individuals and nation states, respectfully, are the most relevant units of analysis – Amin’s attention to global structures, that underpin an international system of exploitation, is a much needed contrast. In Amin’s work, both the structure of the global economy and the structural prejudice of eurocentrism, are key.
Taking the structure of the global economy as a starting point led Amin to explore concepts such as core-periphery relations, imperialism and unequal exchange. He recognised that the global capitalist system is polarising and that the polarisation between the centre and the periphery was a key part of this. Note that Amin went beyond thinking only in core-periphery terms – which dependency theorists are often critiqued for – as he identified a range of classes of importance across both the core and periphery. It is also worth noting that thinking structurally does not mean thinking deterministically. While Amin was ‘capable of a very high level of abstraction’, as Ghosh has written, and some could see his characterisations as sweeping, he was always ready to adapt his categories and understandings as the world changed, and his understanding of how outcomes were shaped was first and foremost dialectical – which led him to critique World Systems Theory for being static and for prioritising global relations over domestic.
In this issue, Fathima Musthaq’s and Ndongo Samba Sylla’s articles apply a structural way of thinking about financial and monetary dependencies. Mushtaq explores how Amin’s work on imperialist rent can be extended to understand financial dependencies and hierarchies in a financialised global economy, while Sylla explores Amin’s approach to the monetary mechanisms and functioning of the banking sectors in peripheral countries which contribute to keeping them underdeveloped, with a specific focus on the CFA Zone. Similarly, Macheda and Nadalini’s investigation into how China was able to integrate itself into the global economy without abandoning its strategy of delinking from imperialism opens up space for further research and theorising about how different strategies for national development can be anti-imperialist.
What’s more, identifying eurocentrism as a structural prejudice allowed Amin to show how social theories disguise the imperialist and racist foundations of the capitalist system. This allows us to see that the Enlightenment values and promise of rationality and universality are actually heavily biased and founded on a colonial and racist project. This is key for understanding why societies cannot develop by imitating the West. Generally, eurocentrism has been taken as an important starting point for scholars who build further on Amin as well as critics. Ndlovu-Gatsheni in the Special Issue, for example, revisits Marxism and decolonisation via the legacy of Amin to re-evaluate Amin’s critical Marxist political economy in the context of epistemology, to unmask racism and the trans-historic expansion of colonial domination.
Thinking temporally was key for Samir Amin’s understanding of the world, and more specifically, thinking in longue durée terms. This is an important entry point for exploring contemporary problems, because it opens the door for analysing how imperialist relations have historically and contemporarily shaped the possibilities for development in the Global South. In this issue, Jayati Ghosh lays out how Amin’s approach to imperialism remains relevant across key axes such as technology, finance, and the search for and effort to control new markets, despite changing global configurations such as the ‘rise’ of the BRICS.
Francisco Pérez’s and Ndongo Samba Sylla’s articles are also particularly good illustrations of how a historical perspective is important for understanding contemporary problems. For example, Pérez’s explanation of the East Asian ‘miracle’ starts from how those countries developed historically and geopolitically. Pérez also demonstrates how China’s contemporary delinking must be understood by starting from their attempt at socialist delinking in 1949, and the complex battle between statist, capitalist, and socialist forces that played out since then. Similarly, Sylla’s article shows how the colonial origins of the CFA is key for understanding how it operates today. Tracing the history of the CFA also makes it painfully clear why defending the monetary status quo for Amin amounts to defending the perpetuation of the old colonial order.
In line with Marx’s famous phrase, interpreting the world is important, but ‘the point, however, is to change it,’ Amin never shied away from admitting that his work was driven by political ambitions to change the world. Indeed, Amin was a socialist from an early age and was concerned with responding to and building emancipatory social movements throughout his life.This was reflected in his life-long organising efforts and activism, across a wide range of platforms and organisations, including the establishment of the Third World Forum in Dakar, where he helped set practical and intellectual agendas for socialist transformation on the continent, the establishment of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), which became an important vehicle of radical social science research and analysis in Africa, and his active engagement in the World Social Forum.
We find such explicit acknowledgement of political commitment especially inspiring and necessary at a time when the economics field in particular likes to cloak itself in deceitfully ‘objective’ language, even though knowledge production in the social sciences is necessarily ideological.
In Amin’s book on Delinking, he provides a tangible and critical assessment of ways to promote autonomous development in the periphery. Far from any call for autarky, delinking entails “the refusal to submit national-development strategy to the imperatives of ‘globalization’” and the promotion of popular and auto-centred development rather than unilaterally adjusting to the demands of the global economic system. Both Pérez’ and Macheda and Nadalini’s articles in this issue, which centre on delinking strategies, demonstrate how social science research is often used for political ends given how Chinese and East Asian delinking strategies are often misunderstood (or miscommunicated) in mainstream narratives about their ‘success’.
Finally, it is important to be creative in the way we apply Amin’s method to understand social phenomena. Amin called himself a ‘creative Marxist’, by which he meant he would start from, rather than to stop at Marx. We find this approach from Amin to be particularly relevant to understand contemporary problems and especially from a Global South perspective. Starting from Marx allows for an understanding of class struggle, exploitation, and the polarising tendencies of capitalism, while going deeper into structural inequalities associated with imperialism, sexism and racism. Amin started this work, but we believe it is relevant to go beyond Amin. Indeed, we find it relevant to start from Amin, not to stop at Amin.
Beyond Samir Amin
Several contributions to this special issue take Amin as a starting point for further exploration and theoretical development. Some also point in the direction of key critiques that have been levelled at Amin’s work, notwithstanding his powerful and incisive theoretical and analytical interventions on how developing economies relate with the North.
For example, although Amin himself did not include gender in his analysis – indeed, his analysis had glaring blind spots related to gender – his analysis can be enriched and extended to include gender hierarchies and a fuller recognition of gender’s place in the mode of production. Catherine Scott’s article is crucial for opening this door to understanding both the limitations to Amin and how gender can be approached from within his framework of analysis. She asks, for example, how gender may be included in analyses of delinking and the importance of discussions about relations in the households when considering how a revolution may occur.
Furthermore, in a historical moment where we cannot speak about autonomous industrialisation without considering ecological destruction, the need to explore how the two are interrelated and both shaped by imperialism is more important than ever. Max Ajl’s article starts from Amin’s theories of ecology to make broader analyses of the currents of ecological dependency that developed out of North African dependency analysis. He shows how Amin’s theoretical framework can be connected to that of Mohamed Dowidar, Fawzy Mansour and Slaheddine el-Amami and their advancement of the case for smallholder-centred national development. Given the urgent need to tackle climate change, its imperial characteristics, and the uneven geographical impacts of the destruction it causes, Amin’s framework serves as a useful starting point for thinking about ecological unequal exchange. As Ajl writes, ‘If Amin could not see the entirety of the necessary developmental path, he still illuminated its borders with a brilliant radiance…’.
What’s more, given the partial retreat and limited autonomy of the peripheral state in the context of the increasing power of international finance, Amin’s view of the state’s power to delink and stimulate auto-centric industrialisation must be scrutinised. We appreciate Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s contribution here, as he takes Amin as a point of departure while also somewhat diverging from Amin’s political orientation towards the nation state. He points to Amin’s commitment to a polycentric world as a departure point towards de-imperialisation, deracialisation, depatriarchisation, decorporatisation, detribalisation and democratisation, where the core is the internationalism of people, not of states. This is important in light of critiques of Amin’s conceptualisation of delinking as a process that holds the state as the locus of change.
Meanwhile, Fathima Mushtaq creatively adapts Amin’s categories to a financialised global economy, as she explores how imperialist rent is not limited to labour arbitrage but also includes financial arbitrage. Her article thus provides “an updated understanding of dependency in the context of financialisation,” as she centres financial factors to demonstrate how they contribute to reproducing global inequalities and the periphery’s subordinate position. This is of particular relevance given the important role that capital flows, interest rates, and exchange rates play in reproducing subordinate relations today.
What’s more, Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s work on decoloniality shows the need for decolonial knowledge production in order to break with eurocentric approaches, which is especially important given that Amin’s work on Eurocentrism has itself been criticised for demonstrating economic reductionism. This is yet another area where we believe Amin opens the door for important reflections and debates about how racism, eurocentrism, and capitalism are intertwined, but that we must move beyond his initial reflections to broaden the debates about how racism and imperialism shape society.
We hope this Special Issue will inspire more scholars and activists to engage with Amin’s ideas and also explore their relevance for emerging social and political problems. Amin’s methods of inquiry provide avenues towards doing research that transverses disciplinary boundaries and that aims to interrogate the social world as a whole. Notwithstanding important critiques of Amin’s work, the articles in this issue engage with his core concepts and demonstrate both their potency and how they can be creatively expanded and built upon. Amin’s legacy provides a lighthouse for those who not only want to understand the world, but fundamentally change it, by combining rigorous scholarship with political commitment and action.
The full Special Issue can be accessed for free until the end of March here.
This article was first published by ROAPE.
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