Note from a resentful and sequestered journalist:
It’s a real downer to be so perpetually right about this man all the time. Years ago, on a cruel Wednesday in November, the morning after Trump ‘won’, I had a brief conversation via Facebook with a family member.
He stated: “What a disaster.”
To which I replied, “No, the disaster is yet to hit us.”
What a f***ing drag to be correct. The rally took place six months ago, for all I know, the VIRUS could have been banging around the corridors of that ugly squat Milwaukee structure already. At the time, it was one of the darkest eight hour periods of my life, a look into the other side only to find out that it was even worse than my ‘good liberal’ sensibilities could have fathomed.
At the time of writing, I thought, perhaps I’ve gone too far with this one, crossing the Rubicon of objectivity. It turns out, no one quite went far enough in putting this man back into his place, and because of it all wishes of him slithering away seem a distant hope.
The Trump supporter, the ones that attend such rallies and wear big middle fingers that read ‘HERE HILLARY!’, the ones who’d show up to a rally in the depths of a frozen January, seemed as though they’d follow the man of the long ties over a cliff if he’d merely pointed that way. There was something strange hanging in the air that day, like the feeling that the other shoe was about to drop, and do so squarely onto the bridge of one’s nose.
Sixth months later, the country lays tattered and beaten, split asunder by denial and modern political ineptitude swirled in with the Trump ethic’s engrained cruelty. It was certain then that this was going to be an absolute emotional suck of a presidential campaign – one that would drag the country backwards in some inexplicable way yet to be revealed. Turns out, it was every way imaginable, even some from a nightmare. The US now sits at the end of the barrel of one man’s ego, stuck in quarantine from the scourge of COVID-19, still arguing about masks for f***’s sake, the highest death tolls globally by far and Disney World throwing open its doors to keep the shareholders smiling via Zoom.
I thought at the time, watching that audience and their fervor, Trump would surely win the election. I no longer think that, but it might not matter. The damage was done a long time ago, it just took a germ, a knee in a man’s neck and decades of malignant systemic bullshit swirling together to prove it out.
It turns out some dumbness is terminal after all, but everyone was too worried about the “good of the country” to listen.
MILWAUKEE, January, 2020.
F*** Your Feelings: Donald Trump 2020. Indeed. A truer sentiment couldn’t have been more reflected in the teeming mass of humanity that writhed back and forth between segmented caution tape lines in the January deep freeze of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Now, such heinous slogans were made for opportunity; it was $20 (CASH ONLY!) and printed onto T-shirts, flying off a folded table as fast as wind-chapped hands could clamour for them.
It was the first thing that I saw as I came bounding out of Major Goolsby’s Bar and Grill. I’d ventured into it to use the toilet (to avoid the horrors of portable loos used by thousands of waiting Trump supporters, many of whom had camped out on an overnight drunk in the line). On my way to the exit, I bumped into a table with six sorority age women, all silently eating Authentic Tennessee honey BBQ chicken wings and staring off idly into space; one of them wore a sign draped around her neck that said: First Time Voter, All Time Republican. None of them even looked up as the table rocked violently.
There were some 5,000 people out in the line, even this early, some two hours before the doors were set to open. I was wearing Republican “cosplay”, a green polo shirt, pressed khakis and a backwards Milwaukee Brewers’ baseball cap (an effort to make me look like a good and decent suburban conservative). These items, along with my winter-pasty Irish whiteness would serve me well; I could slide right in with these people and blend in, as long as I didn’t say something tolerant and flag myself.
Within seconds of diving into the midst of the queue, flasks came zipping from hidden pockets; whiskey and vodka flowed out in bright red half litre frat-boy “solo cups”. This was it, the centre of the universe for those yearning for the long-dead America that President Ronald Reagan destroyed in the 80s and then took credit for inventing; this was a carnival for depressed suburban accountant dads, their well-coiffed wives and an assortment of Northern US weirdos (like rednecks, but with strange heavily-nasal accents), ones that looked as though they’d simply hopped out of deer-hunting season and hustled fixing carburetors to scrape together just enough gas money to get to the Tuesday day-drinking. All around me, people were pounding back booze like the end was nigh, and with the helicopters swirling back and forth overhead, I couldn’t say it seemed they were far off base.
Red. It was all I saw. Not just the colour, but also the blinding feeling of it. Guys were hyped, this was their guy, a rock star idol straight out of the late 1980s, throwing a free festival for them. Simply everyone had on some kind of apparel. They’d all bought in and thrown down cash on this shameless shill; paying a billionaire to sport his likeness.
Scarves, hats, stars and stripes, camouflage MAGA jackets, signs, lewd buttons, T-shirts (several of them) that read in bold letters: Hillary Sucks, but Monica BLOWS.
That’s what it was, although I realised it too late: I didn’t match the crowd. For one hundred metres in any direction, everyone was branded and I wasn’t.
People were slapping each other on the back. They were at ease here. They could really let loose and say how they really felt about jobs, Mexicans, the prospect of “war with those towel-heads in that sand-pit Iran”, and their own collective victimisation. They were able to breathe out and send out FOX News talking points along with every liquor-tinged breath.
A fifty-five year old goateed man, while pulling a canned beer (the fifth I’d seen, but judging by his slur, the thirteenth of the day) from a cooler, saw this lack of conformity and my long hair and started in: “Man, I bet one of those liberals is going to raise their dumb f***ing head and say something. They always have to talk about their stupid feelings.”
People were slapping each other on the back. They were at ease here. They could really let loose and say how they really felt about jobs, Mexicans, the prospect of “war with those towel-heads in that sand-pit Iran”, and their own collective victimisation. They were able to breathe out and send out FOX News talking points along with every liquor-tinged breath.
I grinned a shit-eating grin and shot back, “I bet it’ll be a whole bunch of them.”
He lifted his shades and glared at me, beers and years of boredom behind his eyes. “You’re not one of them, are you?”
I had a vision of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, when people who don’t match up with the aliens are pointed and shrieked at by gaping horrific mouths. I looked back at him stone-faced. “My man, I’m a Christian soul, but you couldn’t pay me to pray for that bitch Hillary.”
He glared back, reading my face for a long moment before smiling slightly and tilting his Bud Light: Lime beer.
There was a lot of fear in this crowd; it was almost palpable. Several attendees made comments about having to “come out” as Trump supporters to family, friends, and co-workers. They all gave stories of heavy alienation. I’d had similar conversations with young and gay kids from the Deep South state of Georgia – tales of shunning and fearing disownment.
Perhaps this wasn’t quite the audience for an impassioned discussion on historical disenfranchisement of minorities; to this line, they were the marginalised. It was obvious that they finally felt listened to, they all seemed to have the same giddy expression of a secondary school student who just found out that she had a date to the dance.
The irony was thoroughly lost on all of these Trump supporters, however, as they failed to realise that victimisation isn’t equal. It is clear from the crowd that a chief principle of a Trump crowd is playing to that ugly “woe-is-me” part of the lizard brain. In Trumpville, you really did get a raw deal all your life; you sad-sap white-male-of-the-first-world-making-60K-USD-a-year you.
Not only this, but it was probably a Honduran who delivered that shitty bargain up hot and steaming while stealing your jobs while you kept going to work every day.
Life, for some, just isn’t fair.
Dear God, these well-fed victims were all drinking like it was pre-prom and it was all downhill from here in life. I watched five middle-aged women in matching navy blue TRUMP 2020 shirts shotgun beers and then immediately throw the cans to the ground, only to pass a bottle of Fleischman’s: Wisconsin’s Number 1 Vodka! around in a circle; polishing it off in a mere two laps.
The scene outside was, to put it mildly, deeply strange. It was the same kind of weirdness that one would encounter heading into a rock-metal concert in the deep American South – shit always gets heavy in the event’s parking lot; it is where the broke get loaded and the swag hustlers push their wares.
Now the feeling echoed eerily similar. Seven songs played in a sort of ramshackle list, but not in any rational order – songs by Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kid Rock would play twice in four tracks, followed by Elton John (not with permission to play his music) and, most jarringly, the Village People’s Macho Man, a famous gay anthem of the 70s.
Such musical eclecticism led to tableaus playing out before me; such as watching two pot-bellied, white-goateed men wearing matching ‘hristians for Trump! T-shirts, dancing and smiling with each other whilst holding hands in a sort of circular country jig.
I should have brought a flask myself, especially as I saw a young girl with an Iranians for Trump sign pose for selfies with overtly fascinated war-mongers in the line.
The music was split through every thirteen minutes or so by a pre-recorded public announcement. A woman with a voice similar in tone to Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale would suddenly exclaim:
“Hi and Welcome to this patriotic campaign rally to re-elect Donald Trump, featuring your Commander-in-Chief, Donald J. Trump! We thank you for coming out to show your patriotism and your pride. Donald Trump cares about your First Amendment Rights….almost as much as he cares about your Second Amendment Rights! But there are some people who want to take advantage of Donald Trump’s patriotism by interrupting his speech during the rally! If you see protesters, don’t get violent, just hold up your complementary Trump signs and yell TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP! The police will be around to collect them shortly! Thank you and Keep America Great!”
A nearby bystander muttered, “The Iranians are smart man, they knew we’d have blown them into a sandbox, just like those f***ing terrorists in Iraq.”
Jesus, this was going to be a long several hours out here, and the temperature was starting to drop. The wind picking up and sucking through the office blocks along the Milwaukee River, before swooping downwards to smack us.
Any faithful Midwesterner will tell you that the winters here are an atrocity, enough to make you curse your ancestors. Anyone you catch outside enjoying themselves in such foul climate is to be avoided, as they are probably up to no good. The bitter cold brings out the bitterness in people, a sentiment that was now being leaned into heavily.
Towards the front of the line, assorted hired security heavies were yelling, “WHATEVER YOU HAVE TO EAT, DISPOSE OF IT NOW! THERE ARE NO HANDWARMERS ALLOWED. THROW THEM AWAY NOW!” Soccer moms began to heft back entire sachets of wine; Skinny Girl Margaritas, martinis in water bottles, whatever their acrylic nails could reach.
The dirtiness was astounding towards the end of the queue; garbage cans overflowed three-fold their capacity and it was clear that many had brought chairs with the full intention of abandoning them. Folded camping chairs lay in piles, covered with soon-to-rot picnic platters of mysterious orange cheeses with Wisconsin-Made! processed beef summer sausage. Glass was everywhere, smashed into near dust on the ground. I had a terrible vision of being knocked to the ground by an overzealous ca -mechanic sporting a MAG’ Hat, crushed under feet pounding towards seeing their false idol spit foul-smelling lies through a loudspeaker.
Now was not the time for such thoughts; it was time to smile and nod. Agree tacitly, scream inwardly: individual thought is strongly frowned upon in such crowds.
Three hours in and I finally made it to the door, a great inward wind tunnel sucking us all into its void towards several polo shirt-wearing ex-military types guarding a metal detector.
Now, when I’d heard of this spectacle guised as a legitimate political campaign rally, I acted quickly, signing up for a ticket online and spelling all of my details out with precision. If I were to subject myself to this Trumpian f***ery, I planned on coming correct and not being turned back rudely at the door.
I had assumed that security would be bordering on a prison camp, a Kafkaesque mess of purity-by-campaign-slogan hat. I’d scrubbed my pockets of all potential liberalisms and half-suspected to be found out for malicious statements I’d made about the “administration” in mid-2017 while drunk on White Cap in Nairobi.
Instead, there was no check – I was simply whisked through and searched thoroughly, pushed along further down the tunnel, like they needed the numbers and were filling the seats with any hapless idiot dumb enough to cut back on their hourly wages long enough to attend.
It played into the sudden rush of realisation as to just how disjointed and chaotic the whole thing was. Just like that, I was in, surrounded by cowboy hats and camo, although I noticed that all talk of “open carry” and “2nd Amendment Liberty” was quickly discarded in the name of the safety of The Republican Party.
There was a strong sense of unity in the Panther Arena, a bizarre squat throwback to 1960s’ mid-size- market indoor coliseums; a beautiful modern facade outside, but once in, a droll concrete oval, with little character, only awkward scarlet TRUMP! posters to dot the walls.
Every 60 feet, tables with the exact same gaudy merchandise were placed. That same ugly feeling that used to come around when I’d been whisked around to curio shops in Kenya washed over me: that some faceless puppet master was pulling the strings, fleecing money out of pockets looking for an “authentic experience”.
I found a seat to the stage left of the podium, some twenty metres away. I wedged myself between middle-aged conspiracy theorists and pondered my options. Who could I kick aside if someone yelled “GAY!” in the middle of this throng and caused a fear-driven stampede? The 60 year old singing I’m Proud to be an American! off-key while ogling the blonde FOX News anchor standing at the crowd fence down towards the floor seemed a prime target to trample over.
“God damn, would you look at her, she’s got the tits of an angel!” the singer was whispering in my ear. He was the kind of awkward older Midwestern man you never want to be spiraled downwards into a conversational hole with, “She’s fair and balanced alright. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”
I suddenly had the bad image of tens of thousands of once-decent Middle Americans being seduced by electric sex and overt racism over the entire eight-year run time of the Bush administration. I swallowed a grimace and leaned back towards him. “I heard that Roger Ailes (the now deceased CEO of FOX News) willed them to her.”
He looked back at me, slightly perturbed. It was a gentle reminder that this was not the crowd for sarcasm.
And what was this crowd exactly? Down on the floor seemed to be the most “out there”; the veritable roadie of the Trump supporter, the parking lot people. From my perch, I could see conspiracy theories in print, awkward hats, and oh, so many atrocious haircuts.
Every 60 feet, tables with the exact same gaudy merchandise were placed. That same ugly feeling that used to come around when I’d been whisked around to curio shops in Kenya washed over me: that some faceless puppet master was pulling the strings, fleecing money out of pockets looking for an “authentic experience”.
Collude This, Bitch! The letters were in glitter and framed a middle finger on a T-shirt; complements abounded to the wearer.
I sat in that sweaty seat, mainlining coffee as various campaign hangers-on came around and repeatedly asked me to volunteer, which I claimed I already had outside of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. A couple seemed to doubt this, but I just shrugged and went back to pretending to enjoy the music. In this crowd, ignorance is woke.
Speaking of which, why this music? It was a major theme from the entire proceeding. Why are they playing this right now? It wasn’t just that the artists being played had expressly told the Trump campaign to f*** off under threat of litigation, it was the odd mix of it. Nessun Dorma was followed by REMs’ Everybody Hurts, followed again by Proud to be an American. The music rang out as though an American-idol obsessed 13 year old had made a mixtape; there was no thematic tie at all; the music rambled the same way Trump did. Was the audience being subconsciously primed for a stream of continual disjointed thoughts?
Paul McCartney had just began singing the refrain to The Beatles’ Hey Jude when the music suddenly cut out, the recording coming to a screeching halt, leaving a brief void of silence and nervous laughter, only for the concert speakers hanging from the ceiling, at a volume that could only be described as apocalyptic, to blare forth the opening chords of Lionel Richie’s Hello badly shaking the molded plastic seats down to the screws.
It is an odd thing to watch 9,300 adults simultaneously sing a song of youthful alienated and lonesome heartbreak, all whilst wearing identical hats.
And the arena kept filling up. Early on, as I sat idly in my seat, clasping a Trump sign that an overzealous young Republican had thrust rudely into my hands, I smirked and thought of Trump’s repeated crowd size claims; the ones that made it seem he had an underlying issue with how big things are…
Now, however, the room continued to engorge, with people seemingly streaming in from God knows where, many piss drunk already.
“Hello? Is it me you’re looking for?”
My ears ringing, I made my way back out for another cup of drastically overpriced coffee, poured by a mostly black concession stand staff that seemed absolutely dead set on avoiding making eye contact with any Trump supporting patrons.
Who could possibly be intimidated by a man with seven AR-15 rifle pins on his skull-and-bones T-shirt? It is his God-given right after all, just as long as the guns don’t get into the hands of the minorities. There were a great many fashion statements seemingly derived exclusively from intimidation, a lot of awkward male posturing, a great many uncouth phallic references, both intentional and not.
It is an odd thing to watch 9,300 adults simultaneously sing a song of youthful alienated and lonesome heartbreak, all whilst wearing identical hats.
The majority of the Republican leadership in Wisconsin is, above all, boring as an insurance salesman’s pitch during a heatwave. They meander through talking points, drone on about “fiscal responsibility” and yammer endlessly about “how every life is sacred” before “praying for the troops” who are “keeping us safe” in whatever military conflict has 100x the non-American casualties this week.
This is standard Bush-era, post-9/11 fare.
As such, these typical right wing tools seemed dreadfully out of place following the Trump campaign managers who came out to pounding 70s rock anthems before throwing T-shirts into the crowd at a high velocity and condemning the soul of the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, to burn in hell for eternity.
Everyone in the crowd sensed it; this was the state-fair/semi-professional stock car race/fireworks accident turned sentient and rampaging its way to the stage: the anticipation was now so thick that with each bland nothingness let forth from one of these faceless suits at the podium, the tension steadily built.
It was as if Wrestlemania was here and everyone wanted to be splattered by blood. This was no space for a PG rating.
“Hurry the hell up,” I heard the creepy old man next to me mutter as Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson said some boring thing about bombing Iran if they didn’t “respect agreements”.
Yes, indeed, just ignore all serious things by those who can make such decisions and get to the main event. Politics isn’t political to this crowd. This is only entertainment.
After Vice President Mike Pence took the stage, briefly unbuttoned his jaw and let loose an incredibly boring vision of the world ending for 22 minutes, it was time for it.
Feet stomped and jaws clenched. Elvis was in the building. Then, as Michael Jackson’s Beat It got cut and switched over to a blaring rendition of Proud to be an American, Donald Trump himself awkwardly popped out into view from behind a curtain, emerging to his comfort zone, announced by a lisping voice booming through the PA system.
He tottered around for some minutes, gesticulating wildly while the 10,000-strong crowd went somewhere well beyond ape-shit in pandemonium.
“F*** YEAH DONALD!” a man in a bright orange hunter vest screamed out from behind me, his voice cracking as if pre-pubescent. The crowd swayed back and forth, chanting “U-S-A!” in a unified boom, surging up and forward, staring at this strange-looking man now standing at the pulpit.
It has been ridiculed in the media, but it can’t be understated just how strange this man’s posture truly is. As he launched into his self-congratulations at nearly causing a regional war in the Middle East, I couldn’t stop staring at his hips; they sat there as though they were displaced, somehow his torso shifted forward above them, requiring a stand and microphone for him to lean into, as if he wasn’t truly whole unless screaming obscenities about minorities to his converted faithful.
After brief introductions, one of the most surreal six minutes of any speech ever came flowing with such stunning speed. I was flabbergasted. With one breath, the press was cursed as “corrupt, evil, liars”. With the next, Iran was threatened with obliteration without subtlety.
The masses in the cheap seats were with him all the way.
Americans, by and large, have an ugly tinge of entitled jingoism to their conversational abilities and global view; and sometimes we just can’t help ourselves but lean into these instincts, especially when drunk and encouraged.
Many within this weird country look down openly on people from other cultures. They talk about Africa as though it is a monolith made of people below their station. As they clamoured for a fascist leader who was openly lying to them, admitting it, then asking them to clap for the falsehoods, I took a mental note of just how “superior” American Democracy really was.
“You tell them Trump!” In came the harangues and chorus of agreement. From somewhere above, faint voices began to ring out, their words unclear, their message of protest practically crystal. Two girls, probably come down from some bastion of liberal tendencies at the University, revealed smuggled T-shirts and unfurled a cloth banner that read something to the affect of NO TO WAR!
The crowd universally booed and hissed them with vicious intent. Fists waved, middle fingers straightened. Trump waved his hands about like some sort of deeply disturbed conductor, before rebuking the girls to “go home to mommy!”
“He sure knows how to tell those pussies off, huh?” The same dirty old man was trying to engage me again, now breathing seemingly directly into my eardrum.
Knowing Americans, this same schmuck sitting next to me will probably print up six or seven of Trump’s lamest threats, print them onto T-shirts and later be convicted of tax fraud when he launders prescription drug money through selling them on eBay. He’ll then be pardoned by the administration via a midnight tweet storm. The world turns onward.
The crowd was stomping their feet; sin turned Pentacostal while led by their preacher. The first thirty minutes or so could be viewed as a sort of unhinged Greatest Hits album, like watching a fading rock star, propped up on just enough speed to bang out his most well-known chords. Trump struck out at all the classic notes:
“Bomb Iran? Just playing (or are we?).”
“How great is the military? Great, but only because they respect me, oh, how they respect me.”
“Aren’t Mexicans coming up from the south to surely rape your elderly first grade teacher and beat her poodle to death with a sack full of meth and drug profits? Almost definitely, but I alone can stop it. BECAUSE OF THE WALL.”
“Police are great aren’t they? It’s surely a shame that the inner cities don’t respect them enough.”
“Democrats are a vile sack of evil, trying to convict me and get me out of the White House, but don’t they know any better? I’ll never leave. Just kidding, or am I?”
“Nasty Nancy Pelosi is trying to convict me in this horrible, ugly, witch-hunt; which I openly admit guilt to, but that’s okay because I said so.”
With this last statement, the masses roared their approval. Signs were held aloft; chants of “FOUR MORE YEARS” began in earnest, only to be soon drowned out with chants of “LOCK HER UP!” aimed at the Democratic Speaker of the House.
Three rows down and to the left, a rotund woman was wearing a jean jacket with the words “DON’T IMPEACH!” sequined onto the back. She turned towards me slightly, and wiped a tear away from her eyes. There was broad grin on her face. Could this be the best day of her life? For some reason, I thought of some dull-eyed American I’d met in a Nairobi bar back in 2013, asking me why Kenyans were so blind in their political loyalty to oligarchs who couldn’t care less if they died.
With that, as his speech rose and fell, with that awkward cadence of his, he took pause, within which a bearded hipster launched an emphatic “F*** YOU!’ from the mid-tier of the bleachers, only to be pushed slightly, and have cardboard TRUMP signs shoved into his chin. Two tired-eyed cops come and collect him by either elbow, pulling him out as he dragged his VANS sneakers along the polished concrete.
As the police were duck-walking him out, presumably to throw him headlong into a soiled snowbank, Trump paraded several of the top Wisconsin right wing establishment onto the stage; each were yanked back and forth with an extended and aggressive handshake, as though they were show dogs being broken in by their overzealous owner.
Three rows down and to the left, a rotund woman was wearing a jean jacket with the words “DON’T IMPEACH!” sequined onto the back. She turned towards me slightly, and wiped a tear away from her eyes. There was broad grin on her face. Could this be the best day of her life?
Show of dominance. That’s what it was. I’d seen it before, when lions fight, the king has to put the lesser males in their place.
This was pure animalism in politics. Superiority had to be shown, teeth had to be bared and someone had to show the neck. The enemy had to be pointed out and shouted down. There can be no dissent in such circles – and within America, the dominant tend to have gun racks on their trucks.
While the first 30 minutes of the 87 minutes were utter lunacy, it was trackable insanity, the kind that you expect to see during a monster truck rally, a rodeo, a semi-professional wrestling title bout or a ladder match during a hailstorm in Florida. Utterly bonkers, but not unexpected.
Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the left turns during the middle section of the speech. The political “monster truck” that is Donald J. Trump went off script and was the campaign rally equivalent of watching a giant machine of metal and air-brushed flame patterns veer off into the crowd. There was simply no predicting where Trump’s verbal tirades would take us next.
I tried to keep track. I swear I did. I was regrettably entirely sober, wide awake, and pumped full of the adrenaline that can only come with the temptation of taking off my shoe and throwing it at Mike Pence to find out if he was in fact a mere hologram.
Trump shouted it into the microphone and let the words hang out in space, the crowd screaming, his orange tanned hands held up into the air.
“It’s terrible. The water comes down from the north, into California, but Gavin Newsom, that horrible governor, he takes the water. He doesn’t know what to do with the water. He sends the water out into the ocean!”
“The Ocean! The Pacific Ocean! Imagine that. And the fish, oh the fish, they don’t know what to do with it! Is it good water? We know, but they don’t care!”
“AND THE DISHES! Oh God, the dishes. You do the dishes once. It’s not enough. The dishwashers aren’t strong because they’re taking the water. You have to put them through one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten times! And the light bulbs! They’re toxic! You have to unscrew them? You have to unscrew them. And walk them into the dump and put them down?! Who will do that?! So we’re going to give you the water back. Through the sinks, through the showers, and through the other thing! The toilets! You’re getting the water back! And I will be the one to give it back to you!”
There was no hiding it; my jaw was agape. I truly had no idea what he was talking about. It was then, and only then, that I was really afraid during the entire ugly proceeding. I realised that not only is this man a bigot and all the rest, but there might actually be an element of true mental derangement within him, an element that his multitude of supporters embrace wholeheartedly, without remorse. This man, rambling about sinks and light bulbs within millimetres of a full-blown war with Iran, a conflict with a people that he was truly incapable of reasoning with. They were brown after all.
“F*** THOSE LIGHTBULBS!” The cry came from a bearded man, now beet-red in the face, flanked on either side by his teenage sons who stared at him, beaming.
Trump rambled onwards; all the while without any care, utterly gauche, to the extent it was damn near respectable. One thing was clear: that Trump was a total master of his craft, however bizarre and atrocious his craft might be.
As he went into his bombastic closing remarks, the thousands stayed with him, beat for beat, rising and falling, laughing on cue, cheering and booing with utter abandon – like the finale flourish of a fireworks display.
An ill-fated Bernie Bro pulled out a “Bernie Sanders for President 2020” sign. Trump looked down at him from the stage and the crowd pounced, viciously pulling at him, jostling him back and forth.
“HIT HIM!” A woman’s voice from somewhere close to me.
Two heavies came from the back down onto the floor, closing in on this long-haired liberal getting shoved back and forth; a cork in the storm.
Despite their tattoos and Bill Goldberg haircuts; I ignorantly thought to myself, “At least security is here and will save him.”
But they grabbed him all the harder, ripping his sign downwards, tearing at it and pushing him out the back. How dare he have the audacity to support someone other than the great leader?
Trump peaked into crescendo, rambling on about the inevitability of winning this year and that the best people, the chosen people, the tough people were on his side. They would take no other result; and the scrum down on the floor bellowed their support. This wasn’t politics, it was a death roll, and the grip was tightening.
The Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want began to play, and with much more glad-handing, waving, and awkward displays of faux-nationalistic pride, he was gone, little more than a thin wisp of a hair plug dissapearing behind a curtain.
It was then, and only then, that I was really afraid during the entire ugly proceeding. I realised that not only is this man a bigot and all the rest, but there might actually be an element of true mental derangement within him, an element that his multitude of supporters embrace wholeheartedly, without remorse.
The spell held over the crowd, but started to dissipate. We began to file out, shuffling bashfully towards the exits, as if we were all leaving some truly horrific live sex show in Mtwapa. In such circumstances, don’t make eye contact.
There were several black Trump supporters amongst the crowd, and more than a dozen people caught their eye, giving a little fist pump of “unity”. The underlying sentiment was to return to their cohort and tell them, “No, no, I swear there were black people there who support Trump too! See he can’t be racist! It is a lie spun by liberal geeks, worried about their feelings!”
“HEY YOU!” A frat-boy was screaming into my face, thrusting his pointer finger. He looked animated, and surely, this would be the end of me. I had gone too far out on a limb here, and now I was to be “outed”.
He was motioning to my hat, which sported the insignia of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball club. Without smiling, he gave me a thumbs up and walked sullenly away. I started to cut around people as I traversed the crowd towards the exit. I felt as though my welcome was overstayed and now it was mostly certainly past the hour of bouncing.
The cold was a shock to the system, like waking up suddenly after a long night of drinking. I found myself looking for my wallet several times, wondering, “Where was I?”
A feeling of unease had come over me, especially looking about at the grinning faces streaming past me as I paused to stuff the TRUMP 2020! sign deep into my sleeve. It was the same sense one would have waking up after a night out next to someone that you know you shouldn’t have called.
It was a kind of toxic satisfaction, exhilaration definitely, happiness of a sort – but all pervaded by a destitute hanging melancholy, of witnessing something truly bizarre, only to realise that you have to meander back to your schlubby life and under-sized apartment.
Could the people around me know just how wrong-headed almost everything that just happened had been? Looking around, I couldn’t see it; they’d bought into all of this a long time ago and had cast their lot.
“They’d bought in because he simply refuses to give in the way they did.” It struck me, to Trump supporters, he really was some kind of magical maverick, condemning the norm and doing it “his way”; the tax code and civility couldn’t stop him. “It doesn’t matter if our guy does it as long as he wins.”
A beating of drums suddenly struck up, the bass thumping dull within my chest. Streaming out into the cold, we were careening towards it, as the zip-tied metal-grate fences surrounded on all other sides kept us walled in.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a city known for terminal dumbness at all levels of authority figures, had made another gangbusters decision: to line up six token cops in riot gear and let the exiting Trump contingent of thousands file straight into the waiting protesters; for Trump can go nowhere without an audience. I must admit, that while inside, I’d forgotten about them entirely; now it was unavoidable.
“YOU’RE A F***ING EMBARASSMENT!” One middle-aged white female Trump supporter screamed into the face of a young Latina girl, probably 16 years old, banging a cow bell while chanting, “NO FASCIST USA!”
I’d had enough, I tucked the sign in deep and crossed over the line. As I did, a cup full of ice came flying in and went over the shoulder of an old white-haired hippy man who was banging a tambourine slightly off-beat. The ice scattered on the concrete at our feet.
Megaphones and drums split the night and the wind howled around us. Some in the crowd held glow sticks, which, when mixed with the reddish tinge of police tail lights, gave the entire tableau a hue of a football riot about to break loose.
Shit, it was a Tuesday in January, in bitter cold Wisconsin. The campaign hadn’t even really cracked off yet. The scene looked to spin downwards, liquored up left versus just-incited right. And in all of this, it was clear, despite it all, the man in the over-sized suits was certain to win again.
There are no consequences for such men in history. They will continue to ensure their victory because they know a dark truth that their foes never could grasp: that politics is just a game of monopoly, and if you’re not cheating, then you’re just not trying.
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Elections: A Major Obstacle to Democracy in Kenya
The instability engendered by elections in Kenya is more than the desirable deliberative kind that produces positive change, for it threatens the very core of the polity.
As the 2022 election dust slowly settles, it is appropriate that we Kenyans assess the impact of elections on our democracy from 1963 to the present. With its emphasis on elections, Western liberal democracy reigns almost supreme in many parts of the world today, Kenya included. Indeed, elections are usually referred to as “a democratic exercise” on the assumption that through them the citizenry get to determine who holds political office and thereby implements policies favoured by the citizenry. Indeed, many post-election analyses seem to proceed from the assumption that elections are the only way to identify leaders “democratically”, and that, in any case, it is not possible to find a better system for this purpose. Thus in 2017, Willy Mutunga, Kenya’s first Chief Justice under the Constitution of Kenya 2010, declared that Kenya was under electoral authoritarianism, and that “Kenya is a fake democracy where elections do not matter because the infrastructure of elections has been captured by the elites.” In the same year, Barbara Yoxon contended that Kenya is a case of a polity in which elections do not equal democracy. Like Mutunga and Yoxon, many others seem to hold that if only the electoral processes were streamlined, Kenya would automatically become a genuine democracy.
However, in what follows, I illustrate that in the Kenyan context, elections are a major obstacle to democracy understood as a governance system in which the people determine the direction of the management of public affairs.
The Western imperialist origins of elections in Kenya
Prior to the blight of Western imperialism, the various peoples of Africa had their own modes of governance that, in most if not all cases, took the views of the governed seriously. The various governance models of the peoples of Africa laid a high premium on consensus-building rather than majoritarianism, thus the absence of elections among them. Kwasi Wiredu writes about a monarchical democracy, free from elections, among the Akan of Ghana: “Contrary to a deliberately fostered appearance, the personal word of the chief was not law. His official word, on the other hand, is the consensus of his council, and it is only in this capacity that it may be law; which is why the Akans have the saying that there are no bad kings, only bad councilors”. Wiredu further notes that the Akan choose their leaders by consensus: “There is never an act of formal voting. Indeed, there is no long-standing word for voting in the language of the Ashantis. The expression which is currently used for that process (aba to) is an obvious modern coinage for a modern cultural import or, shall we say, imposition”.
Similarly, in his chapter in A Companion to African Philosophy, Edward Wamala notes that the Baganda had a consensual monarchical democracy, where neither the king nor anybody else had veto power: “The quest for consensus was carried on at the highest level of governance as well as all the various levels in the structure of society down to the level of the household.” Furthermore, “If after due deliberations the council reached a consensus, it was taboo for the monarch to oppose or reject it.”
My own people, the Luo of Kenya, had a decentralised kinship-based system of governance that laid great emphasis on deliberation and consensus building rather than majoritarianism. Indeed, the Luo refer to government as piny owacho, literally “the community has spoken”, evoking the idea that the laws of the land are based on the will of the people. In my recently published edited volume, Africa beyond Liberal Democracy: In Search of Context-Relevant Models of Democracy for the Twenty-First Century, Odoch Pido notes that among the Acholi of Uganda (one of the cultural cousins of the Luo of Kenya), “Decisions were not reached by voting, but rather by consensus among the elders, …. As long as one elder did not agree, discussions continued until consensus was reached. To act against the will of one person, they said, balo laa (‘damages the spittle’), referring to the saliva used in ceremonial contexts to pronounce requisite blessings.” In the same volume, Tayo Eegunlusi notes that through their acephalous political system, the Igbo of Nigeria operated on the basis of strong consensus in decision-making.
The Luo refer to government as piny owacho, literally “the community has spoken”, evoking the idea that the laws of the land are based on the will of the people.
The foregoing examples of our indigenous systems of governance confirm that our peoples acknowledged the importance of the consent of the governed—the very issue that the West often touts as its own unique innovation and proudly associates with their contrived term, “democracy”. Thus in Models of Democracy, David Held gives the following elementary definition of democracy:
“While the word ‘democracy’ came into English in the sixteenth century from the French democratie, its origins are Greek. ‘Democracy’ is derived from demokratia, the root meanings of which are demos (people) and kratos (rule). …. Democracy entails a political community in which there is some form of political equality among the people.”
According to Held, it appears that the first “democratic” polity emerged in Chios during the mid-sixth century BCE, although others, all with their own particularities and idiosyncrasies, soon formed. Thus while Athens stands out as the pinnacle of this development, the new political culture became fairly widespread throughout ancient Greece. Furthermore, while today most people think that it is impossible to have democracy without elections, understood as universal suffrage expressed through secret ballot, the ancient Greeks, to whom the term, theory and practice of democracy in the West are usually traced, did not lay such a high premium on elections. As Held points out, they deployed multiple methods of selection of candidates for public office, including direct election, lot, and rotation. Yet we must never idealise ancient Athenian democracy because it excluded women, slaves and foreigners, so that the bulk of the city-state’s population was excluded from it. Besides, it was prone to manipulation, leading to some undesirable decisions such as the sentencing to death of the Greek philosopher Socrates in 399 BCE.
Athens and other democratic ancient Greek city-states were overthrown by Alexander III (popularly known as “Alexander the Great“ [356-323 BCE]), who was a pupil of the philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) and his fellow Macedonian, and an avid supporter of the philosopher’s scholarly pursuits. However, Alexander’s empire was short-lived, and was eventually partly replaced by the Roman Empire. The Romans greatly admired Greek thought and culture, but deluded themselves with a pale shadow of what the democratic Greeks had done. With the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE and the subsequent rise of Roman Catholic dominion over Western Europe during the so-called Middle Ages (approximately 5th to 15th centuries CE), democratic ideas were almost unheard of in Western Europe, as the notion of the citizen who participates in governance was replaced by the believer in Roman Catholic doctrine, or, as Held puts it, homo politicus was eclipsed by homo credens.
However, democratic ideas in Western Europe were revived during the Renaissance—a French word literally translated as “rebirth”. The Renaissance, typically believed to have begun in Italy in the 13th century CE, was characterised by the revival of scientific and artistic activities that drew inspiration from ancient Greece and Rome. Nevertheless, with the rise of capitalism and liberalism in Western Europe around the 18th century CE, the ancient Graeco-Roman democratic ideas were re-modelled to articulate individualist aspirations subsumed under the term Liberal democracy. This was in sharp contrast to the moral, communitarian ideals of ancient Greece expressed through what is commonly referred to as direct democracy. Thus, in sharp contrast to the democratic thought of the ancient Greeks, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Herbet Spencer, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, among others, articulated a political philosophy which presented the individual as standing in opposition to society rather than in co-operation with it. For example, in On Liberty, Mill wrote:
“The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. . . . The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
Strangely, as Domenico Lesurdo graphically illustrates in Liberalism: A Counter-History, the liberal democratic ideas that the West trumpeted did not restrain it from enslaving and colonising the peoples of Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, North, Central and South America—virtually most of humanity. Yet in the sunset of classical colonialism, Britain told its colonies, Kenya included, that they would only be adequately prepared for “independence” by demonstrating that they were “ready” to embrace liberal democracy, with the high premium it lays on elections. For example, a while ago a video clip was circulating in social media, in which, soon after the British released Jomo Kenyatta from prison, an English journalist condescendingly asked him if Kenya was ready for independence. Tragically, Kenyatta dignified the question with a reply. Yet scholars of decoloniality have now amply illustrated that “independence” is markedly different from liberation, the former turning Western colonies into Western neo-colonies now in the guise of globalisation, the latter tearing formerly colonised peoples away from the intellectual, economic, political, social and religious structures of Western imperialist domination.
Five ways in which elections hinder democracy in Kenya
In what follows, I seek to illustrate that elections are an obstacle to at least five characteristics of democracy understood as a governance system in which the people determine the direction of the management of public affairs: A decision-making process that is intelligible and practically accessible to the citizenry; respect for the voices of all citizens; an atmosphere in which citizens are highly motivated to pursue their common good rather than their sectional interests; a sense of solidarity among citizens; enough stability to keep a polity intact, and also instability sufficient for engendering requisite changes in the polity.
Alienation from the Political Process
Since democracy is rule by the people, the processes of governance ought to be intelligible to the citizens. Besides, A.S. Narang has noted that since politics is an integral part of culture, the political system of a society ought to be consistent with the cultures of the peoples governed by it so that they can identify with it. V.Y. Mudimbe memorably observed that Western colonisers engaged in “the domination of physical space, the reformation of natives’ minds, and the integration of local economic histories into the Western perspective.” Thus, as he laid The Foundation Stone of the Royal Technical College of East Africa (now the University of Nairobi) on 25th April 1952, Philip Mitchell is reported to have expressed the hope and belief that the College would “serve for the generations to come as an invaluable part of the foundations of the new society which we are building here”. So Mitchell was aware that he and his fellow colonisers were systematically dismantling the intellectual, social, political and economic structures of our various peoples and replacing them with a society created to serve their imperialist purposes for a long time to come.
The liberal democratic ideas that the West trumpeted did not restrain it from enslaving and colonising the peoples of Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, North, Central and South America.
Indeed, more than fifty years before Philip Mitchell’s 1952 speech, the British invaders had decreed that Kenya would be perpetually under British imperial law. On 12th August 1897, they declared what they called The Reception Date, referring to the day when they issued a decree that the English statutes of general application passed before 12th August 1897 are law in Kenya, unless a Kenyan statute, or a latter English statute made applicable in Kenya, has repealed any such statute. In short, the British invaders imposed their law on the peoples of the territory now called Kenya in perpetuity, thereby purporting to declare the legal systems of those peoples null and void. Where the British invaders acknowledged indigenous legal systems at all, they demeaningly referred to them as “customary law” to communicate the presumption that they were inferior. It is noteworthy that the said imposition of English law on 12th August 1897 still holds to date, as evident in the way in which advocates and judges in Kenyan courts and speakers of Kenya’s parliament frequently refer to English law, but very rarely to the jurisprudence of our various peoples.
With the advent of Kenya’s independence in 1963, liberal democracy proved to be a crucial pillar of the “new society”, designed to facilitate the perpetual Western imperial domination over our peoples. No wonder Kenya’s independence constitution, which was liberal democratic through and through, was negotiated in a series of conferences at Lancaster House, situated in London’s West End, close to Buckingham Palace. In his Ph.D. Thesis, the late G.G. Kariuki notes that the venue was chosen because “it would insulate the delegates from ‘offstage pressure’ and enable the Colonial Office to exercise control over the course of discussion”. Thus the conferences were held under the keen supervision of the British colonisers, far away from the gaze of the people of Kenya in an age in which overseas communication was mainly by telegram, telephone and postal mail. Kariuki further observes that the agenda of the first Lancaster conference (18 January to 6th February, 1960) was tightly controlled by Ian Macleod, Secretary of State for the Colonies, under a shroud of secrecy in pursuit of British interests. The colonisers even determined who would attend it. In Not Yet Uhuru, Oginga Odinga narrates how during subsequent Lancaster conferences, Macleod’s successor, Reginald Maudling, arm-twisted KANU into accepting a federalist structure of government that would promote the interests of the European settlers.
Where the British invaders acknowledged indigenous legal systems at all, they demeaningly referred to them as “customary law” to communicate the presumption that they were inferior.
Thus, as I illustrated elsewhere, liberal democracy, with its characteristically thorough-going individualism, is alien to the communalistic outlook of the peoples of Africa. While the electorate are regularly urged to vote in pursuit of their personal interests rather than those of their cultural groups, many of them feel morally obligated to vote with a view to promoting the welfare of their cultural groups, which they see as extensions of their own families – and, as I argued in a previous article here, there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with this if one is not under the spell of liberal democracy. What is more, elections, which are core to liberal democracy, are highly sophisticated, so that most of the electorate hardly understand what actually happens, thus the regular civic education drives prior to any poll. Besides, the high premium placed on the reports of Western so-called election observers is further testimony that foreigners understand the system better than its Kenyan users.
The people are further alienated from the political system by the fact that Western-type elections require massive finances—for campaigns (posters, rallies and media advertisements, among others), requisite fees to the elections management body, an army of agents to guard the vote in polling and tallying centres, and legal fees in case of election petitions. Clearly, the kinds of sums of money needed to run for office are way beyond the reach of most Kenyans, leaving competitive politics almost entirely to the upper middle class. This financially exclusive nature of Kenyan elections becomes clearer when one considers the fact that the law requires any civil servants wishing to run for political offices to resign from their jobs—a move which would spell almost certain financial disaster for most of them.
Disregard of citizens’ voices through majoritarianism and party politics
Contrary to the majoritarian Western liberal democratic orientation, respect for the voices of citizens means that no citizen expresses his/her view in vain—that every view counts. Even John Stuart Mill, that great defender of liberal democracy, distinguished between true democracy in which all are represented, and false democracy in which only the majority is represented. Yet in a majoritarian system such as Kenya’s, the voices of minorities are disregarded, as the winner-takes-all approach remains largely in place despite the Constitution of Kenya 2010. Thus, at the end of the 2022 Presidential Petition at the Supreme Court, Philomena Mwilu, Kenya’s Deputy Chief Justice, correctly observed that while it was fashionable to say that everyone was a winner in the court’s ruling, the truth was that over six million Kenyans were grieved by it.
Kwasi Wiredu highlights the important distinction between formal representation on the one hand, and substantive or decisional representation on the other: “There is the representation of a given constituency in council, and there is the representation of the will of a representative in the making of a given decision.” Wiredu avers that in the latter consensual case, both minority and majority views count, as they are represented not only in council but also in counsel: “. . . the majority prevails not over, but upon, the minority—they prevail upon them to accept the proposal in question, not just to live with it, which is the basic plight of minorities under majoritarian democracy.”
The high premium placed on the reports of Western so-called election observers is further testimony that foreigners understand the system better than its Kenyan users.
Besides, as I illustrated in “Doing Democracy without Party Politics”, the people’s voices, both the majority and the minority, are disregarded in a situation such as Kenya’s in which party leaders and their confidants have sweeping powers over the nomination of candidates to run for political office, and over positions taken by their parties in legislative processes. Recently we have seen parties shift from one coalition to another immediately after elections, which is clearly a move in total disregard of the wishes of those who voted for them on the premise that they belonged to particular coalitions. All this brings to mind David Held’s observation that since the ancient Athenians understood citizenship as participation in public affairs, they would have viewed the limited scope in contemporary politics for active involvement by most citizens as most undemocratic. Thus, as Uchenna Okeja observes, the core of the problem in current African politics is political failure—a specific kind of powerlessness which manifests in the feeling that individuals can do little to change the social and political circumstances shaping their lives, with the result that politics is experienced as meaningless performance.
Perhaps the sense of meaninglessness of politics that Okeja refers to above explains the fact that the voter turn-out has been dwindling in subsequent Kenyan elections. According to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), in 2013, 85.91 per cent of the 14,352,533 registered voters took part in the elections. According to the IEBC, out of the 19,611,423 registered voters, 15,145,546 (77.23 per cent) cast their ballots in the annulled 8th August 2017 presidential contest. According to Quartz Africa, the leading two candidates in those elections, then president Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga, received a total of 15 million votes (approximately 76.5 per cent of the registered voters). However, only 6.5 million voters (less than 35 per cent) came out to cast their ballots in the 26th October 2017 repeat presidential election—a figure largely explained by Raila Odinga’s boycotting of the repeat poll.
The voter turn-out in the 2022 general elections was at its lowest in fifteen years (excluding the discredited repeat October 2017 poll). The Standard reported that according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), the number of eligible voters rose by 10.49 per cent from 25,212,096 in 2017 to 27,857,598 in 2022. However, only 22,102,532 of them actually registered as voters, implying that more than 5 million of them did not even register as voters. Of the 22,102,532 who registered, only approximately 14,378,000 (65 per cent) actually cast their ballots, with the youth staying away from the polls. This means that approximately 8 million registered voters did not cast their ballots. Thus, Jakaya Kikwete, former President of Tanzania and leader of the East African Community Observer Mission to the 2022 Kenyan polls, stated: “You expect in every election to have a better voter turnout. So if the voter turnout is lower than in the past elections, then it is a matter of concern.”
Kenya’s Deputy Chief Justice, correctly observed that while it was fashionable to say that everyone was a winner in the court’s ruling, the truth was that over six million Kenyans were grieved by it.
There are those who believe that if one did not cast one’s vote, one has no right to complain when things go wrong in the governance of the country. This reasoning is faulty on at least three grounds. First, it suggests that a person who refrains from voting forfeits his/her citizenship—a patently false proposition in view of the fact that citizenship is acquired by birth, not by voting. Second, the reasoning is faulty because even those who do not vote pay taxes, and therefore have a right to comment on how their hard-earned money is spent. Third, with the serious lack of internal democracy in the political parties, many of the candidates nominated to run for office are largely imposed on the people, and as such the people have a right to refrain from endorsing them. Those who refrain from voting are saying that there is something pathologically wrong with the electoral process, and this is a message worth taking most seriously.
Obstacle to the pursuit of the common good
In his Politics, Aristotle memorably avered that human beings form states to jointly pursue the highest good. However, because liberal democracy is founded on the individualist values of capitalism, both the candidates and the voters go into elections with their personal interests rather than those of the country in mind. In a culturally plural country such as Kenya, and especially with the communalistic outlook of many of its peoples, the focus is usually on the perceived collective interests of the voters’ cultural groups fired on by cultural elites with rallying calls such as “It’s our Turn to Eat”. The result is that what is touted as an exercise to identify leaders for the good of the country is simply what Basil Davidson refers to as “a dogfight for the spoils of political power”—and a dogfight it is, with devastating consequences to life, limb and property, as graphically illustrated by the near-cataclysm of the Kenyan 2007/2008 post-election crisis.
Obstacle to citizen solidarity
By “citizen solidarity”, I refer to the feeling among compatriots that regardless of their divergent opinions, they belong to the same political project. Such solidarity is usually undergirded by moral values, especially justice and equity. However, even without the ravages of elections, citizen solidarity is shaky in Kenya’s multi-cultural society, which, like most other countries in Africa today, was forcefully cobbled together to serve colonial purposes. The British colonisers demeaningly referred to our various peoples first as “tribes”, and lately as “ethnic groups”, a matter on which Kalundi Serumaga sheds precious light. Elsewhere I have shown that while official census records indicate that Kenya is home to just over forty distinct peoples, the real number is well over seventy, with many of them condemned to official invisibility by the British colonial endeavours to consolidate groups that, by and large, had some cultural similarities—a practice that subsequent independent Kenyan governments have almost invariably continued to pursue.
Those who refrain from voting are saying that there is something pathologically wrong with the electoral process, and this is a message worth taking most seriously.
Ishbel Matheson correctly observes that in calmer times, cultural differences are a source of humour among Kenyans. However, as I have discussed elsewhere, more often than not, Kenyan politicians, like their counterparts in most other culturally plural post-colonial polities in Africa, engage in nationalist rhetoric while creating political cleavage along cultural lines, leading to the violation of the rights of non-dominant cultural groups to meaningful political participation, equitable economic opportunities, cultural identity, and secession. This situation results in an on-going lack of legitimacy in these polities, thereby exposing them to perpetual neo-colonial domination. The gross marginalisation of cultural minorities is amply illustrated by the fact that if a Kenyan from a minority such as the Ogiek, El Molo or Pokomo with a desire to see one of their own become president were to vote consistently in elections from the age of 18 to the age of 83, he/she would have voted fourteen times with an extremely slim chance of his/her preferred candidate winning the presidency, thereby aggravating his/her sense of exclusion from the polity.
What is more, in a bid to present themselves as more suitable for office than their competitors, contestants hurl insults and dubious or blatantly false accusations at their opponents. In a chapter in my recently published edited volume, Africa beyond Liberal Democracy cited earlier, Emmanuel Ifeanyi Ani observes that the verbal aggression in the contest for power in multi-party politics threatens the very foundations of peace, especially since empirical studies indicate that physical aggression is frequently preceded by verbal aggression. The feeble calls for the country to come together after the elections, usually made by whoever is declared winner, cannot match the effects of the vitriolic attacks traded by competitors for two to three years before the polls.
The citizen solidarity deficit in Kenya is further eroded by the belief, deeply entrenched in a sizeable proportion of the population, that elections favour those with access to state power. Indeed, during the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi regimes, personnel from the provincial administration who reported directly to the president doubled up as returning officers, to the great advantage of the president and his cronies. Even after this practice was shelved, the president continued to have wide latitude in the appointment of the commissioners of the now defunct Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) which pushed the country to the edge of the precipice during the 2007 elections. The establishment of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) following the discredited 2007 elections was an attempt at addressing this anomaly, but the president continues to enjoy considerable latitude in the appointment of its commissioners.
Consequently, whereas in all liberal democracies incumbency affords considerable advantage to a contestant, the situation in Kenya is made much worse by the longstanding perception that the electoral process itself is routinely tilted to favour the incumbent or whoever an outgoing incumbent prefers. Thus, in the run-up to the 2007 elections, a senior member of the Kibaki family declared that every president occupies the office for ten years, suggesting that there was no way Kibaki could lose his bid for a second term. Similarly, during the campaigns for the 2017 elections, a politician declared that there was no way their side could lose the polls because they were already in government, and because they had won the 2013 polls while out of government. Besides, in the run-up to the 2022 elections, another politician declared that their coalition was bound to win because “the system” was on their side.
The citizen solidarity deficit in Kenya is further eroded by the belief, deeply entrenched in a sizeable proportion of the population, that elections favour those with access to state power.
It is therefore no wonder that all the presidential elections held since the promulgation of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 have been challenged at the country’s Supreme Court, with contestants typically seeking to outdo each other in casting their opponents in unfavourable light in the full glare of the electronic and print media, thereby further eroding the shaky sense of solidarity among the country’s peoples. It is also not surprising that since 2007, the side declared to have lost has called for electoral reforms after every election. Yet much more needed than electoral reforms is an atmosphere of trust that can only be nurtured where fair play is the order of the day, not simply with regard to electoral laws and regulations. Thus Western-type liberal democratic elections in an atmosphere of mistrust and hostility have consistently reinforced the solidarity deficit among Kenya’s various peoples.
Cause of instability
Due to the foregoing considerations, Kenya lives under the shadow of political instability arising from the discontentment of those declared to have lost elections. Thus, according to a Kenya National Commission on Human Rights report, following the contested 2007 elections, approximately 1,500 Kenyans were killed, over 400,000 displaced, and an unknown number of women raped. Among the grotesque displays of violence motivated by politicised ethnicity were the Kiambaa church burning in Eldoret where 35 Kikuyus were killed, the burning of a house in Naivasha where 19 Luos were killed, the forcible circumcision of Luo men in Naivasha and parts of Central, Nairobi and Rift Valley Provinces, and Police shootings in several places, including Kisumu and Kericho. Besides, along with a number of people killed or wounded after the 2017 elections, there were economic boycotts, as well as calls for secession that threatened to plunge the country into all-out civil war.
Thus, soon after the dust settles on every Kenyan election cycle since the restoration of multi-party politics in late 1991, economic activity in the country picks up with the attendant optimism, only to plummet as the next polls approach. Clearly, the instability engendered by elections in Kenya is more than the desirable deliberative kind that produces positive change, for it threatens the very core of the polity.
Which way forward?
Several theorists from Africa have proposed alternatives to liberal democracy with its emphasis on general elections on the continent. Kwasi Wiredu prescribes a no-party consensual democracy to mitigate the ills of majoritarianism and institutionalised divisions. In a world in which liberal democracy enjoys an almost hegemonic status, many today might find Wiredu’s prescription odd. However, David Held informs us that while the citizens’ assembly in ancient Athens sometimes resorted to voting to settle intractable matters, it aimed at unanimity (Greek homonoia) in the belief that problems could only be resolved correctly in the common interest: “. . . the ideal remained consensus, and it is not clear that even a majority of issues was put to the vote”.
For Uchenna Okeja, public deliberation is the only way to effectively navigate the current political situation in Africa “where ambiguities and confusions exist regarding the ends of politics and the purpose of the state”. He is of the view that this will help to recover the agency of the individual eroded by the imposition of Western modes of governance on the peoples of Africa.
In Africa beyond Liberal Democracy, David Ngendo Tshimba warns against prioritising general elections in post-conflict societies such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Emefiena Ezeani proposes a pyramidal co-operative collegial democracy which dispenses with general elections, while I argue for ethnically-based federations to mitigate the trauma of colonial consolidation that continues to cause significant discontentment in culturally-plural countries in Africa. Let the discourse continue!
“If my husband touches you I will kill you”
Rape, abuse, neglect, and death threats: the lives of Kenyan women returning from Saudi.
TW: This article contains sensitive and graphic descriptions of abuse, rape and sexual assault.
The stories merge, one woman’s trauma echoed in another’s nightmare. One survivor’s smile waning bearing witness to another’s unhealed wounds. The nods of acknowledgement, the sighs of empathy. They’ve all been there, but they know each one’s hurt stings differently. Some eyes are bright with unshed tears, some are empty, some laughs are of gallows humour, a few of shared wins. Some scars are physical and on display, but the ones that fester most are invisible.
Through in-depth interviews and focus groups with Migrant-Rights.Org, Kenyan women share stories about their life in the Gulf and the wider Middle East. While they all speak of long work hours, poor or no pay, lack of nourishment, and verbal abuse, almost all who have been to Saudi Arabia share tales far more tragic. Rape, sexual assault, torture…every anecdote shared has physical or emotional evidence. The burns, the limps, the breathless gasps, the estranged families.
In a dank, badly lit room in Nairobi, 12 women come together. Four wish to go abroad, and the rest jaded with experience are eager to share. The advice flies around the room thick and fast, accompanied by mirthless laughs.
For what? another asks.
“For accommodating all the insults.”
“Be ready for sleepless nights.”
“There won’t be enough food.”
“Get used to a lot of black tea. A lot. And kubooz.”
“Panadol is your doctor. You have only that, however sick you are, even if you feel like you are dying.”
This draws loud laughs from everyone.
“Expect not to have sanitary towels.”
“Your own soap.”
“Or even drinking water.”
Ruth, who spent two years in Hafar Al Batin and Dammam, Saudi, is brusque with her inputs. “Expect that when your contract ends you won’t be let go easily.
The trauma continues as they arrive home. Many who return without meeting their goal come back to empty homes or hostile environments. A perceived shame for being a victim of abuse.
Like Celestine, who chooses to live away from her young kids. “I am homeless, I live with my friend Feith. I am scared to be with my kids. I am scared the demons in my head will take over and I will kill myself and my kids.”
You will be raped. You will be beaten. No action will be taken. You will have a child as evidence of rape. Still no action. The police, the embassy, the office all collaborate to make you work only. You have no rights.
Her friend Feith sits by her, reaching out with her good hand. The other hand is healing from severe burns inflicted on her by her employer. Feith somehow appears stronger. She escaped and helped Celeste out too.
(Report continues below, after Abuse Beyond Comprehension)
Abuse Beyond Comprehension
Sister Florence is a professional counsellor with Counter Human Trafficking Trust-East Africa (CHTEA). While the organisation has helped many returnees from Lebanon with a seed fund to start a business, Sr Florence has worked with dozens of victims of abuse who have returned from the Gulf states, including those that Migrant-Rights.Org helped repatriate.
The highly traumatised are taken to a safe house on arrival. “I meet them twice a day, as they need constant support. At least at the beginning. When they are in a good-ish place, we reduce the sessions.”
However, their families don’t always accept them.
“We have victims of trafficking from other countries in the world, but none as bad as the ones coming from the Gulf. Especially Saudi,” she says and wonders if it’s because of a clash of culture or misunderstanding. While victims from Europe are usually those trafficked to brothels or into prostitution, in the case of the Gulf, it’s women who go to work in households, she explains.
“Some things are beyond comprehension. Father and sons raping the worker, women standing by and not doing anything…Rape is taboo, but a rape like this is even worse. It is sex slavery. They become objects. They are beaten and burned. They are penetrated with bottles and vegetables. They are also forced into abortions. And if the pregnancy continues they are jailed.”
The taboo is so deep-rooted, that women don’t even use the word ‘rape’. “They will describe everything else. Say bad things happened to them, but the stigma attached to the word is so bad, that they won’t say they were raped. Healing is such a slow and tedious process. Some are suicidal and need to be observed all the time. Once they leave the safe house they still have to be monitored. All of this is resource-intensive, expensive.”
Sr Florence says the trauma women face begins when their documents are confiscated, and then their phones. It weakens them. “It is chipping away at their personality, their humanity. Still, people go, because there are some success stories.”
It’s not just women who are subject to sexual assault and rape. “I have also spoken to some men. They’ve been sodomised. Abused. But they keep quiet. They are working as watchmen or in construction. They don’t talk about it. They suffer in silence. Then they end up with problems of substance abuse, alcohol, drugs, being suicidal, unable to cope with what they’ve endured.”
She is critical of the whole anti-trafficking agenda for leaving men out. “There are safe houses only for women and children? What about the men? Even if trafficked they are seen as victims of labour abuse alone.”
(Continuation of report)
Despite what she went through, it’s Feith who provides succour to Celestine,28, whom Feith feels had it worse. As if torture needs to be graded.
The two women went to Saudi at the same time with the same agent. Celestine ended up in Hafar Al Batin in the east of the kingdom, not far from the Kuwait and Iraq borders. Things were not so bad for Celestine to begin with. “They gave me food. I worked 8 to 8. They treated me well.”
After two weeks, the husband started coming on to her, barging into her room, and knocking on the door when she would go for a shower. She informed the agent in Kenya, who did nothing. She could not tell the wife, who had told Celestine at the very beginning that if baba touched her, she (the wife) would hurt her.
“The man started coming to my room with a gun. On 3 February (2020), the lady was not home. He came and raped me. And he continued raping me over the coming months until November. In the fifth month, he raped and hit me with the gun on the head and I fainted.”
She was taken to the hospital but warned not to complain to anyone. She was sent back home with medicine and the sexual assault continued. “He would also hit me. There are marks all over here [patting her stomach, chest, genitals]. He would stomp my genital area with his boots. Then he started anal rape too. I would scream and cry in pain.”
They would never miss a prayer but would come back from the prayers and mistreat you.
She finally called Feith, who advised her to run away since the agent was of no help.
One evening as Celestine was deliberating her escape, the employer brought home six men and they threatened to rape her, kill her and dispose of her in trash bags. “I just ran. I found my way to the office. They called the police, but the police asked me to go get evidence from the same family. The agent said the same. I refused. They beat me and sold me to the brother of the employer.”
Celestine’s tone is flat and her voice soft as she recounts the months of horror, but silent tears fall steadily through the one-hour conversation. Feith asks her in Swahili if she would like to stop. She pauses for a sip of water and insists on continuing.
At the new house there were 30 people, she says. By then, all her injuries were infected, with pus oozing out, and no medication — none of which was considered evidence. Here again, she worked from 6 am to 3 am, with hardly any food and no pay.
“On 29 November, the son came to my room to rape again and started beating me. Now the bleeding was heavy (points to her genital area). They then served some food with something green in it and said it was medicine for Covid. A child in the house came and told me don’t eat that. A 10-year-old boy. He said it was poison.”
[Feith interjects. “Children save lives. So often they come and help.”]
Celestine developed terrible stomach pain and bleeding, as she had eaten some morsels. She was taken to the hospital. Finally, she was sent to the agency office, where she was locked up with other Africans with similar cases. “We all ran away to the police somehow. And they helped repatriate us in February 2021.”
The poison has affected her liver. The abortions she was forced to have, and other injuries from the beatings she received, have also impacted her health and made it impossible for Celestine to work. She receives some help through church groups but says she is still haunted by what happened.
“Therapy is taking time to heal. When I shower and see my scars, everything unravels again. It’s too difficult. I feel so dehumanised. My mind is not working,” she says.
All the returnees have some version of the sexual harassment they faced.
Sophia, who did a short stint in Saudi before escaping abuse and overwork, spent another three years in Qatar. “It was slightly better… I worked in different households. But everywhere you face sexual harassment. In the household, when you go out with the driver. Babas asking for massages. You have to be smart and resourceful to escape all this, but you don’t always succeed.”
“And the men in the house, every chance they get, they show their ‘pee pee.’ Absolutely no peace of mind. Can’t even sleep,” says Peris, who worked in Dubai.
Atieno, 26, went to work in Tabuk in 2018 but had to escape after three months. “Though the household was small, the man kept trying to sleep with me, was sexually harassing me. When I told the wife she got so angry she beat me and didn’t give me food. How is it my fault?”
Afraid the situation would continue to escalate, she managed to go to the police and contact the Kenyan embassy with the help of her friends.
“I had friends who helped and guided me. But many don’t have that support. They even kill themselves in desperation. In that house, the husband was molesting me. I screamed and he beat me. He did bad things. When I wanted to file a police complaint I was told it was expensive, so I did not. I already have a child I am struggling to take care of, and when that man did things to me I was scared of pregnancy. And even more scared of being killed. I am still dealing with what I went through.”
At the detention centre, you are raped… if you become pregnant they try to send you back quickly. If you have a child there you are stuck.
“You sleep with dead bodies; the detention centre is a brothel”
Vinne, a single mother who now works with other victims of abuse, listens to the group of women she brought together to share their stories (see Sisterhood of Survivors). She chips in with her views every now and then but watches closely as others grapple to say what they wish. Her voice is low, belying only briefly the feistiness within. Once the group disperses, she takes a seat to share her story.
“I grew up in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi. I was 24 and an agency offered me a job in 2014. I didn’t have to pay a single cent. I was supposed to go to Dubai via Mombasa and was told I will be paid KES35000 (US$295). I ended up in Saudi. The thing is, your business with agents ends the minute you depart the country.”
After three days at the Jeddah airport, her boss picked her up. “It was a big house, and the work hours were long. The language was a challenge. There was another Kenyan working there too.”
The work she could manage, but the overtures from the men of the household was a different challenge.
“The man and his sons were sexually harassing me all the time. I complained to the madam but she wouldn’t believe me. I was threatened at gunpoint by the men. One day they were all out, and the eldest son attempted to rape me. We fought. I hit him with a heavy object I found near me. When madam returned the son complained and said he wanted me out of the house. But they kept me and the harassment continued daily.”
Four months later Vinne decided to escape. She took the opportunity to throw the garbage out to run away, along with the household’s other worker, Martha. Martha was caught. Vinne kept running until she ran into a man who offered to help her, and took her to a detention centre in the Al Rehab district of Jeddah.
“There, I regretted running away. Because that is where you saw people dying every day. You just see that, and there’s nothing you can do. You even sleep with dead bodies next to you. And there’s not enough food. No one cares.”
“These security guys want to have sex with you. In Saudi, it is so hard for men to interact with women because it is against their culture also, so this is the opportunity they get to sexually harass you and you are helpless and you can’t do anything. I became so sick. I was in the centre for two months and got pregnant due to sexual harassment.”
She says the embassy never came to her aid in the centre. When her family complained in Kenya, they said they couldn’t trace her. “I can’t forget that centre. People were dying. Fighting for food. Being raped. And no one to help us.”
Vinne recalls men coming to the shelter/centre and raping the inmates. “It’s just like a brothel, if you want to sleep with anyone this was your centre.”
She believes she was deported quickly because she got pregnant.
“When I returned to Kenya I was in the hospital in Kenyatta for four months, then was connected to the organisation Kudeha who helped me. They gave me support. Connected me to other organisations. My son is 6 years old now. In school. He does not even have an origin. I don’t know who his father was.”
Panadol is the fix. You can be dying, and they will give you panadol. However ill you are, you are not worth more than a strip of panadol.
Burdened with work and panadol as a panacea
Feith (31) went to Saudi just before the pandemic hit, in December 2019, the same time as her friend Celestine. She landed in Dammam and was taken to Arar, a city in the northern part of the Kingdom near the Iraq border.
She had to undergo a 14-day pre-departure training course and obtain a good conduct certificate in order to migrate. “The minute you land everything you were trained for vanishes. You are ‘dumb’ the first day.” It doesn’t help that the workers are given little to no time to acclimate to their new environment and are expected to hit the ground running as soon as they arrive. And the good conduct certificate means nought, as the employer’s conduct remains unchecked.
“The work hours were so long, and you had to survive on leftover food. My contract said I would be working for a family of four, but I lost count of the number I saw there. There were five families. My boss, his family, his mother, brother, mother-in-law… Another worker came the next year. We both still worked 17-18 hours. And we had to cook for their catering business,” recounts Feith.
While she was paid monthly, everything else about the job was taxing on her physically and mentally. With the first salary, she bought a phone and hid it. “When they first checked they saw I had two phones, they expect you to have two. So I made sure I had another.” That foresight would stand her in good stead when things went south.
“Every time we fell sick we were given Panadol. Once I was so ill I could not stand. There was severe pain here,” she says indicating the right hip which to date poses a problem. She tried contacting the agent in Kenya to no avail. Finally, on the fourth day of excruciating pain, she was taken to the hospital. “I told the doctor about my pain, they wanted me to do a scan the next day, before treating, and told my boss too. But they took me home and got me a strip of Panadol. I wanted to rest, but they made me cook for the catering business they ran.”
The following day Feith had to go to the hospital again for a blood and urine test, and once again, she was not allowed to wait to get the scan done. She had to go back home to cook for the catering clients.
“If you complain you get beaten.” Feith had posted on Facebook three days earlier about being ill. There were suggestions that she should run away as a last resort. The next day after preparing the morning meals, she made a dash. “I took my phone and put it inside my panty, took my blanket, and ran from the house. It was 12 noon. I walked in the heat, all the signs were in Arabic. One old man who saw me asked ‘binti (daughter), where are you going?’ He gave me water and called the police who came immediately. I had only my contract, but no passport or ID.”
The police called her employer and instructed them to bring her passport and iqama, took copies, and asked them to take her to the hospital or to the agency office. When they took her back home, Feith assumed it was to take her things and put her on a bus to the office in Hafar Al Batin, which was 12 hours from Arar by bus.
“But Baba demanded my phones and beat me up so severely. He said, ‘no police, no office, no hospital, the doctor said you are ok.’ They forced me to go cook.”
While she was cooking, the employer started ranting at her again, looming over her from behind – ‘You are here to work not to be sick. In Saudi, there is no sickness. I buy you, you are my property.’ As Feith turned to speak to him, he picked up the kettle of hot water and poured it on her.
“I felt nothing, they burnt my right arm. I was numb. I was doing everything and yet I was being treated badly. I went to the bathroom and took out my secret phone, took a photo of my arm and sent it to my husband. He sent it to the agency, who sent it to the office in Saudi. And they sent the photo to my boss. I told the other Kenyan in the house if I die, tell people. She was new.”
The employer threatened her with a gun and made her record a video statement saying he did not hurt her and it was an accident. The wife warned her not to change her statement. She was later sent to the office, where she was given three options. Work and finish the contract, work for another house, or to pay for a flight and go home. Seeing no reprieve, Feith attempted to run again. She ran by a Red Crescent tent and received some help, but the police returned her to the office again, asking them to resolve her case. “I didn’t get any medical help for my hand. There were some Ugandan women there who tried helping me and said my hand will rot at this rate. That’s when I posted videos on social media, and good samaritans raised money to send me home.”
When Feith arrived in Kenya, it was to an empty home, only to discover the money she had remitted had been spent by her husband, who had taken another wife.
When you run away, take nothing with you. Even if you are going to the police, take nothing. Nothing at all. If not they will accuse you of stealing.
Policing the victims – the weak arm of the law
Like Feith, many of the other women also attempt to seek help from the police. Time and time again, they are sent back to abusive households. Peris,45, who decided to go abroad to make ends meet and put her kids through school after her husband lost his job. She connected with an agent, packed her bags and bid farewell to her family. “I had to do my paperwork and training so I borrowed money from well-wishers and went to Nairobi from Mombasa. I cleared the medical and soon after was put on a flight to Dubai.”
Peris was promised a salary of AED600 (US$165) and that she would work for a small family. She even had a call with her would-be employer. “She said she had two small kids and was pregnant so needed help. I was scared as you hear such bad stories. Speaking to her, I was reassured.”
As soon as she landed in Dubai, the employer took her passport. “You say goodbye to your passport then, you won’t see it again. You have to be prepared for that.”
The surprise didn’t end there. “When I went to the house it was a big family, a big house. I don’t think it was the house of the same lady I spoke to. You don’t work for one family… I was made to work in three houses, all relatives. Taking care of old people too. I worked late into the night.”
She snorts when asked about work hours. “No working hours. No off. You work until the work is done. And the work is never done. You wash utensils for hours and you can barely stand. They just give Panadol if you feel sick. And all you get are leftovers – you eat what remains after they’ve eaten.”
Peris slept on the floor in the same room as the old parents. “They would tap me to wake me up and I had to take the old lady to the toilet. I was on call even through the night. If you complain they say, ‘Africans don’t get tired, Africans are strong’.” [listen]
Unlike her compatriots, Peris didn’t know to hide a spare phone, so she was dependent on the employer to communicate with her family. “Once in two months, they allowed me to call. They would stand right next to me, insist I speak only in English and keep saying ‘Not in your language’.”
Stuck in the homes of her employers, and working in multiple households, she asked to return home after a few months. “They refused to let me return saying they had paid a lot of money to get me. I worked for 8-9 months. Finally one day I ran away. I had nothing on me. I wanted to go to the police. I didn’t even know the name of the family.”
The police checked her records and found out the details of her employer. After a week the family came, spoke in Arabic with the police, and took her back. The police asked her to finish the contract before returning.
“They kept shouting at me, but thank god they didn’t beat me. They said I can’t go anywhere. At the police station, I said I will not work three houses even if they kill me. They just said ‘yalla, yalla’ and sent me back home.”
Once she went back to the employer’s home, Peris stood her ground and refused to work in other homes.
At the police station, she was told if she ran away she would disappear because the family had paid a lot of money for her. “When I asked to be taken to my embassy, they said it wasn’t the rule of their country. When you actually gather courage and manage to run, they still return you to the family? So I fight in my own way. I screamed, rolled (on the floor), and refused to do work. These were my ways of coping.”
Peris continued to work for almost two years until she fell so ill the family sent her back home. “I know what I saw and went through. I don’t wish that for my worst enemy. Tea and bread are all I got to eat. I would just eat what I can while cleaning. I read of people being raped or killed and I thank god nothing like that happened to me. Still, I went through a lot, because you will do anything as a mother to help your children go to school.”
Francina, 37, went to Dammam in 2019. Her workday, like most other domestic workers, stretched from before dawn to after midnight, and it was a huge house with six members. “The treatment during the first three months was not so bad”, she says. “But they would refer to me as khadama and shagala (servant).”
The children she was taking care of started beating her up. “I complained to the mother, she just said kids are mentally ill, so adjust. They were 18, 16, 13 and 4 years old. I tried withstanding all this. There was support from other Kenyan domestic workers on WhatsApp groups.”
She worked for a year and nine months, and her health kept deteriorating. “I tried using the hotline, but the police just called the boss…they have no power over them.” As a last resort, she stopped working and insisted on being taken to the agency. She stayed for another two months there. “So many youngsters in the office there. Domestic workers who run away, with even worse stories. We were made to sleep on the floor. We had to pay for our own food. And all the while the agency made them go work in multiple homes.” Finally, with the help of a Kenyan NGO, she returned home.
Lydia, who worked in Sakaka, Saudi, says “If there is rape, you can’t complain. No one can share. No action is taken. If your boss impregnates you they try to send you back quickly. Once you have a child in the detention centre you are stuck. Can’t go back. No one is imprisoned for rape. Even when there is evidence of children. If you are beaten, no action against the abuser. When you are not paid, no action against the employer. End of the day, you have no rights. Be it at home, immigration, labour office, police station, office or embassy. They are all in collaboration to force people to work and not help them.”
Dehumanised and a diet of black tea with kubooz
From the get-go, Eva’s Saudi experience was fraught with disrespect and disregard. “When my boss picked me up at the airport, the first thing he said was either remove my braid or cut my hair.” (She had braided her hair fresh just before she left Kenya.) She stayed in the store room and worked in a huge house where 12 people lived. “I had to steal food and eat hiding. They gave black tea and kubooz,” she says, with a distaste echoed by many of the other women who were on a diet of tea and bread. She was trapped inside the house and would sneak off to the verandah for her only glimpse of the world outside.
Eva had to work at the employer’s home, his mother’s place, and also the farmhouse they had in the village. After about seven months, she fell very ill and was taken to the hospital. “The nurse asked mamma if they gave me food and rest. They lied and said yes. The nurse said I won’t survive like this, but mamma threw the medicines they gave me in the dustbin.”
Unable to continue working, she pleaded with her boss and was allowed to return to Kenya. She paid for her own way back, and did not receive all the dues she’s owed for her work.
Lydia, 34, says while the agency in Arar gave her passport and contract, it was taken away when she reached the sponsor’s home. She lasted just a month there.
“I was allowed to sleep only for 2-3 hours in the morning. No rest at all. You are recruited to work in one house, then they send you to their parents’ and other relatives’ homes to work there too. I had to strike and refuse to work. They really do not respect you at all. The minute you sit down for a rare meal, usually tea and kubooz, they will call you. Make you work more.”
When she complained, the agency sent a driver to take her to the office where she stayed for two months. “They won’t send you back home. They will find another sponsor. My first sponsor found another sponsor and they got a refund. I was treated well in the second house though a very big family. Then madam got pregnant and things got worse. I had to work from 9 am to midnight.” After 11 months she wanted to leave but was ‘sold’ to a broker.
“A woman called Fauzia. When they didn’t send me back to the office, I alerted my family. Fauzia used me for piece work. One week here, two days there…I told her I don’t think this is legal and that she was a stranger. She realised I was intelligent. She sold me to another house. I worked there for 10 months. Five members, but they made me work in other houses.”
Having spent close to two years in Saudi, Lydia was looking for an out. Her health had deteriorated, and the employers were reluctant to take her to the hospital. Neither the agency nor the embassy responded to her call for help.
“I opted to run to the police. When you run, run with nothing, so you are not accused of theft. The police demanded I show my iqama. I only had a copy. The second sponsor’s ID and details were different. I had moved so many homes…they said my fingerprints were missing in the system. The police called the office. They took me to Sakaka. They couldn’t ascertain my ID.”
She stayed in the office for seven months, three without work. The office refused to release her to the embassy.
At the end of her tether, Lydia took to social media.
“I went to the labour office too. I was fed up. The office, Al Faisal for Recruitment, was treating all of us so badly. Beating us when we refuse to go work elsewhere. I exposed them on Facebook. There were 30 of us from different countries. Even those who finished their contract were being forced to continue.”
Meanwhile, she tried making sense of the bureaucracy.
“They kept telling me my papers were in the labour office but when I went there it wasn’t there. One day I went and met a captain who was sympathetic. They helped me get my ticket and leave. I had my documents on my phone. I wasn’t a runaway. I knew my rights. Not everyone does. But after I exposed the office other women got help too. There was so much mental torture, but I was willing to fight. I expected the embassy to come to my aid, but they did not. The Saudi office was angry I was posting online. The Kenya office is still mad at me.”
She knew her activism came at a cost. “If you are outspoken, you become a danger to these people. I was punished for being outspoken. Others in the office were allowed to leave, but mine was delayed. Before that, I was in the Sakaka detention centre for one month before going to the office. You are at the mercy of the police and the labour officials.”
You can die working or you can die trying to escape. Choose the latter.
Families grapple with uncertainty
Zubeida sits by a dilapidated building near an old railway station in Mirtini, a suburb of Mombasa. She is frantic as her daughter Mona, 24, is stuck in Dubai and her employer is refusing to let her return.
Mona went to Dubai two years ago and was promised a salary of KES300,000. She hasn’t been paid in five months. Though the employer’s family is not big, there is a constant stream of visitors. Her visa was renewed without her consent, and now the employer is demanding compensation to let her go.
“She ran away to the police, but they returned her to the boss. Boss said he had paid for her visa, so not letting her go. She went back to the police after 4-5 months. They are so angry with her that she went to the police. So now they don’t give her salary, and sometimes no food even.”
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the family is asking her to wait and not run again, fearing she may disappear or land in more trouble.
“I want my child to come back,” pleads Zubeida.
There’s a similar plea from Abbas Omar, wanting his wife back home.
In early May, at the Mombasa office of Haki Africa, an NGO, Omar has been waiting for hours, since 8 am. He has been holding vigil here for several days, hoping the agent who sent his wife Fatima, 38, to Saudi will come to speak to him. Fatima had gone to Jeddah in January this year. She worked for two months but could not continue. Playing her WhatsApp voice notes, Omar says she was being overworked and verbally abused. “The house has three floors and she has to do all the work. And she worked till 3 am and had to be up at 6 am again. And they shout at her all the time. They give her food but keep saying she eats but does no work. It’s mental torture.”
She was returned to the agent after two months, but she is not able to come back to Kenya. “Yousuf (the agent) committed to send her and help her if she is in trouble. Now he does not answer my calls.”
This brings Omar to the NGO Haki Africa, which has been active in advocating for detained and stranded Kenyans and helping with their return. A case officer there says the agent claims the delay in return is due to Ramadan.
Omar plays his wife’s voice notes on repeat. “Now in the agency they give food only once a day and nothing at all the first few days. Just water. Listen, she is crying in these messages that she will die.” He is willing to raise money for her ticket but is lost as to why there has been such a delay.
The case officer says that the embassy staff at the destination do not cooperate. “Unfortunately, they see us as the enemy. Kenyans are kept in detention for long. Embassy not proactive at all. In most cases victims claim neglect. Sometimes they spend even a year in detention centres. With other nationalities, resolution seems quick. On average, it takes 4-5 months to return a Kenyan worker.”
“There’s no passport confiscation in Saudi” – Agent
Later in the afternoon, Yousuf the agent makes an appearance. “I didn’t answer his call because he didn’t know how to talk,” he snaps, refusing to make eye contact with Omar.
“They (workers and their family) don’t understand it’s not easy to just leave there and come back. There are so many processes. A lot of money has been invested. We pay for everything: training, birth certificate, passports.”
He insists things have changed for real in Saudi. “There’s no passport confiscation now. Musaned has changed everything. It keeps track of all parties. Workers and employers and agents are all registered in the system before they leave home. Should be there in other Gulf countries too because we have problems there.” He adds that Qatar and UAE give ‘too much freedom’ to women and the Kenyan workers misuse it.
He is unrelenting in blaming the workers for refusing to adjust. “Before they go we tell them it is not a holiday. They are going there to work. Just do that and come back. They want to leave for small things.”
Pointing to Omar he says, “I tried convincing her to work. How can we spend so much and they just come back? For small issues. We asked her to change jobs, but she has pressure from her husband who doesn’t want to take care of kids.”
The two men exchange angry looks as the case officer steps in to resolve the issue and talk about Fatima’s return.
Yousuf is not done. “It is such a long process to be trafficked…I mean to migrate, how can they just return? Women think they are going for a ride there and want to come back immediately. We need punitive methods for them.”
Footnote: The report was made possible with the help of several organisations in Kenya which work closely with migrant workers in distress. Their contact details are available on our resources page: https://www.migrant-rights.org/resources/
Laws in principle vs in practice and all the pitfalls in between
At 2.15 million square kilometres, Saudi is the largest country in western Asia and the 13th largest in the world. Close to 40% of its 34 million population are migrants. Of the 11.5 million migrant domestic workers worldwide, of whom 27.4 % are in the Arab states. Saudi accounts for the single largest population of migrant domestic workers at 3.7 million.
Yet, this group is excluded from the Kingdom’s labour law protections and the few recent reforms.. The main regulations that apply to domestic workers are:
- Ministerial Decision No. 310 of 1434 on domestic work (known commonly as the domestic work regulations); and
- Ministerial Decision No. 605 of 1438 permitting domestic workers to transfer between employers in certain circumstances.
As per these regulations, the employer is obliged to provide proper food and medical care, and the employer is prohibited from employing a domestic worker outside the employer’s household. The worker is entitled to a paid day off, and a minimum of 9 hours of rest a day. Under the anti-trafficking law of 2009, the employer must not “threaten, defraud, deceive or abduct a worker” or take advantage of a worker’s vulnerability to coerce to consent for the purpose of sexual assault, forced labour, or servitude.
Passport confiscation, wage theft, and forcing a worker to do uncontracted jobs are all indicators of human trafficking, according to Mohammed Al Masri, the secretary general of the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking, an affiliate of the Saudi Human Rights Commission. The penalties include up to 15 years in prison or a maximum fine of SAR1 million, or both. Yet, these practices are rampant and go unchecked, with little evidence that employers have been booked under the anti-trafficking law.
Workers’ testimonies indicate large-scale violations of these laws and insufficient mechanisms to address these issues.
Access to justice continues to be a major concern, as highlighted in our previous report. The Musaned system, introduced in 2014, was supposed to address some of the issues faced by migrant domestic workers. However, MR’s analysis found that “Musaned is a Saudi initiative concerned with the last legs of the recruitment relay – it does not, and practically cannot, reach as far back as the middlemen, brokers, and other stakeholders that migrant workers and employers encounter before they reach registered agencies in their own countries.”
Even though governments of countries of origin and recruitment agents have access to the system, it only enables access to records and does not directly enhance accountability. “The platform lacks a complaints mechanism for workers, relegating disputes to the existing – and weak – Ministry of Labour and Social Development’s (MLSD) resolution system. Making these records reliably actionable remains a difficult endeavour and one that workers cannot realistically pursue on their own.”
Technically, the system is supposed to make it easier to locate domestic workers, however, with workers being sold internally and put to work in multiple households outside of the main sponsor’s home, traceability also remains an issue.
*Some names have been changed, and only first names have been used in other instances
This article was first published by Migrant Rights.
Britain’s Unelected Leaders: A Class Detached from Reality
Britain faces multiple extreme crises in the coming months but without leaders who really look afresh at these issues without preconceptions and pre-set responses, these crises will only deepen and fester.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has a new leader.
Unlike advanced democracies like Kenya, that leader was not be chosen by the British public. The new Prime Minister was chosen by a narrow clique of Conservative Party members — just 0.26% of the overall population. They are older, whiter, more male and affluent than the overall population, and generally live in the south of England.
From outside it is hard to understand recent politics in the UK. Following a year (and a career) of scandals, Boris Johnson finally resigned as Prime Minister — only to remain in office for another two months. Given the grave problems facing the nation, he argued it was important to have a steady hand at the wheel, before rolling up his sleeves and getting down to business — organising more parties, skipping critical COBRA meetings, and enjoying back-to-back holidays.
The Tory MPs who defenestrated Johnson (despite him clinging limpet-like to the windowsill at Number 10) immediately pivoted to defending him. He got all the big calls right, they said sycopathcially, describing the person they had just sacked for major repeated scandals. Boris Johnson had been fined by police for flouting COVID restrictions in Downing Street — the same restrictions he formulated and publicly announced in Downing Street. He had narrowly survived a vote of no confidence, and there remain serious concerns about secretive visits to a Russian’s parties in Italy. In a stunning twist few saw coming, the final straw was a sex scandal he wasn’t personally involved in.
The UK faces serious simultaneous crises. One of the worst COVID death tolls in Europe was spun into a world-leading vaccination drive, but the NHS and the economy remain on their knees. An oven-ready deal for Northern Ireland was poorly defrosted, and Scotland also looks set to tear the Union apart, but Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservative and Unionist Party, to give them their full title, only pours fuel on both fires. The sunlit uplands of Brexit are yet to be seen from the queues of lorries at Dover. Massive price rises led to double-digit inflation for the first time in forty years. Soaring costs and falling wages have led sober commentators to warn of civil unrest by Christmas.
Despite these crises, the candidates looking to lead the country at this critical time appeared amazingly detached from reality. One public leadership discussion barely touched on climate change, a fairly key area when Glasgow hosted COP26 in November. Meanwhile, the news was full of images of London literally on fire. Thankfully the fires have been put out by devastating flooding, but climate change was impossible for either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak, the two front-runners, to address in any serious way, given lobbying pressures on their own party. They soon U-turned on the cost of living crisis, regional wage controls, tax reductions and their stance towards power prices because they are so out of step with the mood of the country.
Despite these crises, the candidates looking to lead the country at this critical time appear amazingly detached from reality.
Instead, all both candidates had to offer were increasingly unhinged culture war soundbites and empty posturing. The main issues facing the UK, Daily Mail readers would assume, are migrant boats, gender-neutral pronouns, and historians analysing Britain’s imperial history. How on earth has a self-described long-standing democracy descended to this level of childish tantrums? (I avoided the word mature, but decrepit/senile were my other option.)
There has been much discussion about the racial diversity of Tory leadership candidates. Of the initial eleven candidates, a narrow majority were not white. Sunak offered the possibility of Britain’s first non-white prime minister before his ratings tanked. Was the UK too racist for this to happen?
In many ways this is the wrong question to ask. Class and wealth have always trumped issues of race in British society. Long before Harry married Meghan, Queen Victoria was godmother to Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, who played a substantial role in Britain’s suffragette movement. Sunak went to the right schools, and is now incredibly wealthy, in part thanks to his fortuitous marriage into one of India’s wealthiest families. Despite marrying into wealth, he reflects Tory beliefs about personal aspiration, opportunity and achievement through hard work, in ways commentators on the Left often miss. Modern racism is less about skin colour than cultural norms and allegiances. Sunak’s expensive fashion tastes horrify some, but are genuinely and unproblematically aspirational for others.
I have family members who sound like Priti Patel and others who sound like Rishi Sunak. It mostly depends on which schools they went to. I received my own pronunciation from listening to BBC radio a lot as a child, and I sound alien in the area of East London I grew up in. I am constantly surprised by the positive reaction my accent receives from strangers. I am really not as smart as I sound, but it opens doors — in ways which are genuinely disturbing.
Priti Patel didn’t stand a chance in the Tory leadership hustings, but nor, I expect, would Liverpudlian Nadine Dorries. They both directly appeal to an extremely right-wing base, but lack the cultural polish to appeal to the party of aristocratic deference. Truss has lowered her speaking voice and speed to sound more like Margaret Thatcher, her cosplay role model. Former Prime Minister David Cameron was left unaccountable by the media for his disastrous premiership because he sounded right, and ticked all the right boxes.
In this respect the Lionesses, the almost entirely blonde English women’s football team, showed more diversity than the Tory leadership candidates when they won the Euro final against Germany at Wembley. Once they stepped up to the microphone after the game, between their wonderfully boisterous celebrations, it was clear they came from very different regions of the country. None of them had the Oxford Union polish beloved of the British establishment. Some had to work two jobs while playing at an elite level because of the low levels of pay in women’s football.
Contrast this with Nadhim Zahawi, one of the leadership candidates, who made much of his touching refugee story — his Kurdish family had fled Iraq when he was a child. Zahawi made headlines some years ago in the MP expenses scandal, having asked the British taxpayer to foot the bill for heating his horse stables during a period of crippling austerity. Even less mention was made this year of his grandfather’s role as governor of the Central Bank of Iraq under British rule, with his signature appearing on the country’s banknotes. Not such a typical refugee story after all. Meanwhile, a hundred thousand people from Hong Kong are estimated to have quietly relocated to the UK over the past year, with little coverage of this exodus in the media, or disquiet from the right; these are the “good” type of migrants.
The Lionesses, the almost entirely blonde English women’s football team, showed more diversity than the Tory leadership candidates when they won the Euro final against Germany at Wembley.
I am reminded of how the Imperial (and later Indian) Civil Service first accommodated non-white applicants in the Indian colony (although they had to apply in London from 1854-1922). As historian John Beaglehole describes it, the selected candidates would through training “have been transformed into brown Englishmen”. These “Brown Sahibs” then faced the complex issue of where their loyalties lay. In many ways, this is little different from the co-option of the Kikuyu Home Guards in Kenya, the British Chinese of Singapore, or going much further back, how the Roman Empire expanded. A large empire simply can’t be created or sustained by violence and extraction alone. It must co-opt local populations, and provide genuine benefits to them. This adds a murky moral complexity to empires that should not be ignored.
At the Home Office, Priti Patel made plain her lack of empathy for migrants, building on Theresa May’s “hostile environment”. This seems hypocritical given her parents’ own migration from Uganda. However, again, the reality is more complex. They see themselves as the good immigrants who strive to integrate into UK society seamlessly. Patel’s father stood for local council elections for the borderline xenophobic UKIP party.
There is also, of course, a long history of racism and colourism within communities from the subcontinent. Wanting to exclude black people from the UK is not hypocritical if you regard yourselves as white-adjacent in some racial pecking order. Patel’s parents migrated in the 1960s — before Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians in 1972. This year is the 50th anniversary of that traumatic event. I was not totally shocked to see an hour-long discussion in Leicester mention the deaths of up to half a million black Ugandans under Amin, but then quickly move on to discuss white and Asian experiences. There was no interest or concern about this apparently peripheral fact, and no black speakers on the panel. A discussion on the same theme held at Makerere University in Kampala barely overlapped in content. The cultural rifts are still complete.
This is gradual progress for a community traumatised by several layers of migration and still wrestling with integration within the UK. In my experience, this community is only beginning to process the convoluted nature of its own existence. Indians in the diaspora are gradually learning to talk about Partition in 1947, but the majority of Asians in East Africa have avoided that horrific rending. Their story is instead taken to begin with the forced exodus from Uganda, and then their struggle to get settled in the UK.
Wanting to exclude black people from the UK is not hypocritical if you regard yourselves as white-adjacent in some racial pecking order.
What they understand less are the dire conditions in British-ruled India that led them to take such risky voyages to try their luck in East Africa to begin with. Those stories are rarely told and have largely been forgotten, but I hope may be explored more over time. While this community still tries to prove they are the model minority, and fear future expulsion, they are less likely to look critically at their own complex history within the Empire. (Nikesh Shukla’s 1996 anthology The Good Immigrant explores these themes in some nuanced detail.) Priti Patel’s attitudes are not hypocritical in this lens, although this does not excuse her unconscious racism. As with many of the Tory leadership candidates, she is still trying to become a perfect brown Englishwoman.
Suella Braverman, replacing Patel at the helm of the Home Office, is the daughter of Kenyan and Mauritian economic migrants to the UK in the 1960s. She seems determined to pursue an even harder line against current migrants. Unlike Patel she has the polish of a Cambridge education, and outperformed her in the leadership election. The new Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, was born to Ghanaian parents; Foreign Secretary James Cleverley’s mother is from Sierra Leone; International Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch’s parents were Nigerian migrants, while the new Environment Secretary’s parents were Sri Lankan. Zahawi is still in government, but moved from a one-day stint at the Treasury to run the Cabinet Office. This represents an unprecedented level of diversity in the highest levels of political leadership.
Although this looks like the British Empire coming home, breaking through a political glass ceiling against racial diversity, it may instead be a glass cliff. This is where minorities are overrepresented in risky and precarious positions. Ethnic minority politicians face stronger pressures to fit in, and subtle cultural pressures may have been internalised. While they may all now be true believers, appealing to the fringes of the party at several levels, they have been placed in situations where success is extremely unlikely given the crises Britain faces. When problems arise, they won’t just be scapegoated individually. The wider communities they superficially represent will also be tarnished.
The lack of LGBT representation throughout Truss’s cabinet reflects a more sinister imperial throwback resurrected in modern culture wars about trans rights. Traditional values often mean ones imposed by Victorian societies on colonies with more complex understandings of identity and gender. It is unclear how much further right Truss will lean on such issues.
Returning to the Tory leadership contest, this superficial diversity of race and gender hides a deep and more dangerous homogeneity. Groupthink is the real problem with the Conservative leadership candidates. They are surprisingly ill-equipped to understand, let alone deal with, the genuine problems facing the country, and so need culture wars and scapegoats to pin deeper problems on. The last scapegoat was Europe, but Brexit is turning out to be an enormous act of economic self-harm, just as predicted. Leaving the European Union also now makes it harder to blame all the UK’s current problems on Brussels.
Ethnic minority politicians face stronger pressures to fit in, and subtle cultural pressures may have been internalised.
Both Truss and Sunak studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford (PPE), a degree widely seen as preparation for political leadership. As a Guardian headline put it in 2017, PPE is “the Oxford degree that runs Britain” before listing a rogues’ gallery of graduates who wielded substantial political or cultural power. The three-year degree gives its graduates a superficial sense that they understand political issues, but more importantly that they are following in prestigious footsteps. It conveys a right to govern. I see no coincidence that it was instituted in the 1920s just as the former Imperial Civil Service was being wound down.
This isn’t just a problem on the political right. Leaders from other parties are conditioned to believe they understand the key issues, wherever they stand ideologically, and that endless debates at the Oxford Union are somehow the way to resolve them. The entire political debate has become frozen within a tired game, with set moves and strategies, where everyone assumes they have the answers.
Even Boris Johnson’s extraordinary moves to rip up long-standing diplomatic allegiances, trashing relationships and legal precedents, resonated with long-established beliefs on the far-right edge of this established game board, and were drummed up relentlessly by Britain’s populist media oligarchs. Both Truss and Sunak now have to appeal to that fringe, regardless of more widespread popular opinion. But the fringe is part of the game.
As Dr Kay Sidebottom has also commented regarding the leadership debates, rhetorical styles of argumentation and debate are also rooted in whiteness and patriarchal notions of leadership. Instead of open questions and curiosity, leading to fresh insights and open to genuine cross-pollination of ideas, debates tend to dissolve into amusing jibes, pugilistic point-scoring, and superficial rehashing of the same tired issues. Good leadership is very different from speaking well in an Oxford Union-style debate, but boorish backbench braying is what the House of Commons has been reduced to. Many figures in the media also studied PPE, and confuse this form of political theatre with substantive politics. The degree is based on speaking insightfully and convincingly about unfamiliar topics in small weekly high-pressure tutorials — not on true depth of knowledge.
So in response to a devastating cost of living crisis, and what NHS leaders are warning will be an unprecedented humanitarian crisis Truss and Sunak had little new to offer. Conservatives still believe privatisation, tax cuts and further deregulation will fuel innovation. This is despite the evidence of several decades of similar policies leading to rivers overflowing with raw sewage while privatised water companies bank huge profits instead of investing in capacity. The previously privatised but then partially renationalised rail network is paralysed by underinvestment and strikes.
Good leadership is very different from speaking well in an Oxford Union-style debate, but boorish backbench braying is what the House of Commons has been reduced to.
The only way to fix the NHS, they aver, will be to privatise it, although that is still too deeply unpopular to say out loud. Sunak looks to the United States as a model, even though healthcare outcomes in America are far worse per dollar than in most of the G7. Britain’s low productivity, they assume, must be due to work-shy workers, despite all available economic evidence that even people in traditionally sustainable work, teachers and nurses amongst them, now need to resort to food banks.
These policy positions almost amount to theological faith but reflect a particular and rigid way of seeing the world, a form of shallow arrogance and lack of genuine curiosity. I have some unusual insight into this because I too studied PPE at Oxford around the same time as Truss and Sunak, albeit almost by accident. My heart was set on zoology, but a few weeks before the application deadline, I heard for the first time about a subject called Philosophy. I hadn’t known people could study the questions I was asking in my own head, and changed my options accordingly.
Until then I had focussed on sciences, but economics as one of the social sciences should have been easy to adjust to. Instead I repeatedly bounced off it. The theories did not seem based on evidence, or rigorously tested, but were instead more conceptual and ideological. It was only several years later, with further studies in the Philosophy of Science and further reading, that I began to understand why.
Economics split from the other natural philosophies at a critical juncture when Newtonian physics was in its ascendancy. In Enlightenment Britain, mathematics appeared to be the language of God, while wealth from industrialisation and the global British Empire validated the ideas of free marketeers. Economics acquired an almost Creationist religious belief in systems achieving a healthy equilibrium through the workings of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. Less predictable concepts about entropy, chaotic non-linearity, and the complexities of biology were only unravelled much later in other sciences, and are yet to upgrade mainstream economic thinking.
What we now see in politics reminds me of clashes between rival paradigms in the history of science. Adherents from opposing schools of thought would talk past one another, often using the same shared words but embedded in contrasting networks of meaning. Their underlying assumptions and choice of key examples would be different. These were confusing periods but preceded what is known as a paradigm shift, to an entirely new way of seeing the world. This feels similar to how people on the broad right and left of politics talk past one another. I now think both sides are grasping different pieces of a jigsaw, but missing the overall picture.
In Enlightenment Britain, mathematics appeared to be the language of God, while wealth from industrialisation and the global British Empire validated the ideas of free marketeers.
An example forgotten outside geology is illustrative. Since the early 1800s Neptunians believed the world’s rocks were formed in water, while Plutonists believed volcanism was their source of origin. Both sides advanced different examples that seemed to bolster their own cases, but they were largely talking past one another. The reality was far more complex, and only fully explained with the discovery of plate tectonics in the 1960s. Both sides of a long-standing mainstream scientific debate, which spilt into elements of mainstream culture, were actually blindfolded and fumbling around a far larger elephant in the room. The surface of the earth is dynamically and constantly reformed by far older and more complex processes than any of them could have imagined.
I feel there are similarities with this current period of politics. Generalising wildly, both “sides” of the political spectrum see elements of reality, but fail to see the whole picture, or identify the underlying mechanisms behind it. For example, while people on the left decry the privatisation of the NHS, they simply do not grasp the depth of the financial crisis the UK has been in for decades. They assume there is actually enough money to go around, but it has been diverted in different ways. This is as much a failure to understand reality as the right’s focus on privatised healthcare, but each discussion barely overlaps with the other. Some people genuinely believe individual choices should always trump overall societal outcomes, and mistrust state programmes. This is of course an entirely false choice where public health is concerned, as the pandemic underlined. But while both sides talk past one another, in long-established patterns, they fail to see there could be a much wider picture they have missed. Our collective understanding remains fragmented, misleading and superficial.
The First World’s focus on PPE as a degree also seemed detached from the realities I knew from India and Africa, and that I saw while working with refugees in the Balkans as a student. I often say it took me years to unlearn what I had picked up, largely through working with children, spending extended periods in rural areas, and as a peace worker in South Africa. The models of human nature and understanding of global history were just hopelessly incomplete or, more dangerously, misleading. If you graduated with PPE and surrounded yourself with people with the same education, those beliefs would only become more entrenched with time.
Much of mainstream policy thinking within PPE privileges the most extreme outlier imaginable — Britain’s historic experience. Britain’s industrialisation then global dominance is unconsciously still a model for “economic take-off” in other countries. The reality is that most places, including Britain itself, have never actually offered enough sustainable jobs for everyone. This is a huge blind spot in mainstream thinking — both on the right and on the left — but we are still all promised it will lead us to a mythical Canaan. Either slashing taxes and regulations will unleash greatness, or focussed taxes and strategic investments will. This simply denies much actual global human experience.
But while both sides talk past one another, in long-established patterns, they fail to see there could be a much wider picture they have missed.
For a short period of time, Britain was globally dominant in an extraordinary way. It was the industrial workshop of the world, as well as militarily the only superpower by far. The deeper reasons for that dominance have actually not been fully understood. The real reasons were neither economic free trade and great men with Enlightenment ideas, nor ruthless capitalist exploitation and the stripping of other continents’ wealth. When you dig a bit deeper than these superficial but widespread and satisfying narratives, the real reasons are more complex and remain a little unclear.
This iconic period of relative wealth was also a time of massive social deprivation within the British Isles, but again not always in the ways people imagine. Free trade did not stimulate this growth, but only followed once Britain was so dominant it worked to its advantage. While Britain achieved an economic take-off other countries still wish to emulate, this went hand in hand with simply astounding levels of emigration, as people left for better opportunities elsewhere in the colonies. In some years, more Britons left annually than died in total during the First World War.
More importantly for people wanting to create Empire 2.0 now, the original dream proved hollow. The return of the British Empire to Britain’s own shores, in the form of Windrush and then the East African Asian exodus, was never expected, and laws had to be drawn up hastily to block further migration. Countries within the Empire had been fully expected to grow self-sustaining thriving economies of their own, and a place for Britons to keep migrating to from a small crowded island with bad weather. This wasn’t just a failure of the British Empire; it was not predicted by mainstream economic theory in general. Population growth alone is no explanation, since Britain’s own economic growth took place at a time of unprecedented population increases.
Again, something seems badly broken in the wider theories of economics, but you would not learn this within the confines of the degree I studied, and neither did the Conservative election candidates. Given their insistence on talking up Britain, and decrying “woke” historians, they also have a particular blind spot to seeing why their simplistic ideas about free trade unleashing creativity did not work then, and will not work now. More recently, idolising Thatcher’s period in power ignores the massive infusion of wealth from North Sea Oil, as well as technological and financial innovations that cannot be repeated now. Fancy dress makes for fun photoshoots, but not substantive policies.
The realities worldwide remain complex. The people who work hardest are often the poorest, while privilege often determines outcomes. At the same time market economies have genuinely lifted billions of people into previously unimaginable levels of material comfort and security. Capitalist exploitation isn’t the main reason for poverty — being excluded from modern markets and infrastructure can be an even worse fate. Seeing our world in terms of simplistic moral certainties can be comforting, but stops us from seeing a truly complex picture.
The history of science is littered with examples of how prejudices and parochialism limit our thinking. In some ways this is inevitable, as science is just a complex structure of good prejudices — our imperfect ways of understanding and predicting the world around us, absent the mathematically clear language of God early philosophers sought. In other ways, it can lead us badly astray.
For example, Charles Doolittle Walcott discovered the Burgess Shale fossils in Canada, which document an unexpected range of both early and novel body forms. Despite excavating over 65,000 specimens between 1910 and 1924, he never actually understood what he was looking at. His preconception that life moved from simple to complex clouded his vision. These incredible fossils went largely unremarked on for another forty years, when fresh eyes recognised they represented animals which had simply never been seen before — 508 billion year-old fossils had the power to astound science, but science had to be open to that possibility.
Seeing our world in terms of simplistic moral certainties can be comforting, but stops us from seeing a truly complex picture.
Another example is Swiss geologist Louis Agassiz, who realised glaciers could explain a lot of erosion patterns and landscapes in his homeland. British geologists dismissed him out of hand, largely because they had little first-hand experience of glaciers within the British Isles. Ice could not possibly be so important. When the foremost geologist of his time, Charles Lyell, recognised that glaciers created the unique landscapes of his own family estate in Scotland, he was wary of giving public support to Agassiz. In a similar way, rich British elites have no understanding of the corrosive power of poverty, or are unwilling to acknowledge it.
People can travel an enormous amount without leaving their bubble of elite cities, social classes and limited conversations. Sunak surprised and alarmed a group of British schoolchildren last year by enthusiastically claiming to be “a total coke addict”. He had no awareness that for normal British children since the 1970s this sounded like a serious drug addiction. (Sunak collects Coca-Cola variants from around the world, his favourite being the Mexican variety because it is the only variety flavoured with cane sugar.) Instead of sounding likeable, this just made him sound more elite and out of touch with a country boasting a record number of food banks.
Truss has travelled through almost every flavour of British politics, attending anti-nuclear protests as a child, representing the Liberal Democrats at university, and being a strong Remain candidate in the Brexit referendum. She also has photoshoots around the world, as her tax-payer funded Instagram account attests. (This was actually a smart move, given a superficial electorate.) However, it is unclear how much she has learnt from any of these journeys. Both Truss and Sunak have burnished their images, but the moment they speak on policy they sound tone-deaf, callous and hopelessly out of touch with everyone except the tiny Conservative membership who themselves inhabit a narrow media bubble. Their candidates’ leadership campaigns prompted numerous U-turns on substantive issues, and even left most Tory voters missing Boris Johnson.
Some of these U-turns were quite extraordinary. The Conservatives aim to “level-up” the country by diverting resources from the South-East to their new but vulnerable Red Wall seats in northern England. However, Truss announced pay cuts for people in the same areas then quickly had to walk her proposals back, in a dishonest fog of denials. In a country facing an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis, all the candidates had to offer are tax cuts, and they initially refused windfall taxes on energy companies causing the most obvious pain. Even though climate change is becoming a visible issue, the leadership candidates were vilifying cyclists, and proposing to expand fracking for more fossil fuels.
The promise of economics was always growth leading to abundance — but something went badly wrong. People trapped in the existing paradigm tie themselves in knots trying to explain phenomena like persistent poverty, which really should not exist. Some sections of society must be to blame. Instead of abundance, they justify scarcity and advocate for painful trade-offs. Such observers focus on how some people must be holding our economies back, instead of asking why our economies don’t serve more people. Truss has said potentially damaging things in the past, blaming “workshy” British people for the country’s poor productivity, instead of understanding how high living costs cripple workers. Commentators like Yuval Hariri wonder if most of the world’s population are basically now superfluous in economic terms, putting the cart before the horse in an extraordinary assessment of value.
I am reminded in an odd way how early chemists became trapped because they believed fire was a substance, not a process. This belief was challenged by strange behaviours when they investigated processes of rusting and burning with precise measurements. Some metals gained rather than lost weight, whereas their theory led them to believe they would lose weight as they released the fire they were assumed to contain. Rather than such evidence leading them to question their assumptions, some postulated the existence of mysterious substances like phlogiston, with negative weight. Only in the 1770s did Lavoisier start unravelling the mystery, when he realised gases were a substance with weight. The discovery of oxygen finally explained what was really happening at a chemical level. The experts had the whole situation backwards because of their prior assumptions and earlier theories they now needed to question and ultimately reject.
People trapped in the existing paradigm tie themselves in knots trying to explain phenomena like persistent poverty, which really should not exist.
Current discussions of poverty and inequality feel the same to me. They are based on incorrect assumptions and models and so fail to see, let alone explain, much of the actual world around us. The “experts” who have studied these things in detail become intransigent. They genuinely see the world through an incomplete or failing paradigm, which biases what they pay attention to, and leads to damaging policy options.
The PPE I studied did not touch on either urbanisation or infrastructure. I now believe these are the largest issues we need to confront today. Low productivity in Britain is partly due to an inflated housing market, and cannot be addressed by simply cutting wages or taxes. Right-wing political thinkers were very influenced by Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom but are now blind to recognise how soaring property prices are creating a new form of that social relationship, and lasting exclusion.
The Tory voters both candidates needed to appeal to are generally older, home owning, have savings and no mortgages — and many will be landlords themselves. They do not experience the same housing and cost-of-living crisis as the majority of the country. Instead, they feel out of touch with young people and their concerns. This is the gallery that the leadership campaigns played to, scapegoating a young and apparently workshy and feckless generation they barely understand.
(Silicon Valley ideas also inspire Sunak, but are digital distractions on top of deeper concrete issues. They also come from a similarly evangelical bubble of people echoing one another’s ideas, detached from wider realities kwa ground.)
At the same time, those on the left like to see corruption and greed everywhere, but their picture also needs challenging. Not only do workers suffer from crippling high costs, but so do most employers. The pressure for tax cuts comes not solely from plutocrats with mega-yachts, but also from small business owners. Companies are always under competitive pressure from capitalism, but now these pressures are becoming unsustainable. Focusing on rich outliers tends to obscure this, but stressed conditions are what has allowed unhealthy monopolies to become so dominant. In ecosystem terms, environments under massive stress become more prone to disease, parasites, and unhealthy collapses of biodiversity. When we only focus on aspects we see as parasitic, through outdated paradigms, we can easily miss this larger picture.
Returning to my prior interest in zoology, I was recently struck by an idea of Konrad Lorenz, the ground-breaking Austrian behavioural scientist. He talked of methodological Ganzheitsbetrachtung (holistic contemplation) when examining animal behaviour, but it can be extended to any complex system. This means putting aside preconceived notions to engage with the whole animal, in a spirit of love and respect, before zooming in on its various parts.
This summed up a lot of what I thought was wrong about the academic training I had received. Instead of looking at complex human issues with curiosity, they are usually approached with preconceptions and ideological biases. The analytic approach is often to separate out issues in a surgical way, and try to address them individually. This works well in engineering, but such a physics-based mind-set does not fit complex interwoven systems better analysed through the more appropriate understanding offered by biological lenses.
In ecosystem terms, environments under massive stress become more prone to disease, parasites, and unhealthy collapses of biodiversity.
A lot of our understanding of human behaviour and motivation is directly contaminated by such thinking. When individual animals are placed in a sterile environment and given specific prompts and rewards, their behaviour can become distorted and unhealthy. However, such experiments were used to directly inform economic thinking about human behaviours and rewards. It is only in more recent decades that scientists are studying animals in more complex environments, and drawing more holistic lessons for what we need ourselves.
For example, a rat isolated in a cage, presented with plain tap water or water laced with sweetener and addictive morphine, will soon poison itself to death. This finding coloured a lot of economic and social policy around addiction. New experiments in the 1970s questioned if the animals were responding to their artificially barren environment. Tests with rats in larger cages, with richer environments and other rats for company, did not self-medicate in the same way. This finding has profound implications in many fields, including social housing, but I’m not sure if Sunak has reconsidered his own coke addiction. How much do our unhealthy diets reflect our poor living environments?
Instead of taking each problem in abstract, putting it into a cage and prodding it, we need to take a more holistic and curious approach — which often means expanding the questions we ask. The housing crisis can’t be solved by building more houses in already overpopulated regions; we should ask why people are all moving to the same cities to chase limited jobs. Carbon emissions won’t be solved by electric vehicles, but by reducing the overall need to travel so much. Extremism in many forms won’t be prevented by deradicalising converts but by asking why so many people experience life as frightening and confusing in the first place.
We inhabit an industrial world designed around limited conceptual paradigms that have reached multiple dead-ends, and are currently failing. Simultaneous crises with the climate and fuel prices show that our current solutions are simply not sustainable. We need fresh conversations, ideas and new perspectives. One reason why Britain face such a poor range of leadership candidates is that the smarter people have left politics already, in the face of simplistic populism. They recognise there are few obvious, let alone easy, answers to deep-rooted problems. Britain has been left sifting through opportunistic dregs, and one of the worst cabinets in recent history.
Even outside Britain, it is possible to see a wider legacy in surprising ways. Frightening but normalised Islamophobia in India and radical terrorism across a wide swathe of Africa seem like polar opposites. Drug violence in Latin America contrasts with the resurgence of patriarchal militant Christianity in the USA. Russia’s imperial designs in Ukraine, Britain’s rehashed culture wars, and Bolsonaro’s attempts to deforest the Amazon can seem unconnected.
One reason why Britain face such a poor range of leadership candidates is that the smarter people have left politics already, in the face of simplistic populism.
At heart however, I believe all these social crises feed on the same pressures. Vast numbers of disillusioned people can’t see a viable future for themselves, and politicians come to power on the back of identifying scapegoats to blame as well as past (if illusory) certainties and golden ages. Lots of people simply can’t make a living in our current economic paradigm. Historically this has happened before, with devastating effects, in Weimar Berlin. With climate, food and energy crises, these pressures are only increasing. Instead of delivering abundance for all, economics is now making us increasingly desperate, and we need to understand the real reasons for this.
Britain faces multiple extreme crises in the coming months. Its specific problems are unprecedented, but many of the proposed solutions will be echoed around the world. Without leaders who really look afresh at these issues, without preconceptions and pre-set responses, these crises will only deepen and fester. Aside from frightening social pressures, climate change poses a genuine existential threat. This will not be addressed by pandering to the energy lobby, Daily Mail readers, old Marxists or radical greens.
In short, Britain now has a new leader, but not new leadership. We all need better.
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