The decade-long death march of Western capitalism continues to reap yet more victims. The latest is the British political establishment and the remnants of the Empire that created it.
The problem for the key actors, dwarfed as they are by a venerable political system they inherited from the time of their great-great grandparents when it yielded exclusionary benefits, is their inability to grasp that Brexit, the current crisis with which it is grappling, does not signal a change. It is an ending. Misreading the situation, the said actors continue to dream up remedies and strategies based on the vain assumption that the economic crisis will somehow be resolved by political initiatives.
The lone survivor may well end up being Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the official opposition Labour Party, and then only because he never believed in the virtues of western capitalism to begin with. He sees his mission more in terms of how to cater to the needs of all capitalism’s damaged survivors.
The problem for the key actors, dwarfed as they are by a venerable political system they inherited from the time of their great-great grandparents when it yielded exclusionary benefits, is their inability to grasp that Brexit does not signal a change. It is an ending.
The vast majority of British people are not wealthy. They merely live within a rich economy that provides them access to credit. For at least 350 years, the British economy expanded through the ruthless exploitation of resources and people from many parts of the world. The big question then, as now, was: who benefits, and how?
In his 1964 book, The Sins of the Fathers, James Pope-Hennessey explains that:
“Shipbuilding in Liverpool was gloriously stimulated by the slave trade, and so was every other ancillary industry connected with ships…… People used to say that ‘several of the principal streets of Liverpool had been marked out by the chains, and the walls of the houses cemented by the blood of the African slaves.’ The Customs House sported carvings of Negroes’ heads…”
The most contentious question at the core of British politics has always been the question of the domestic distribution of the proceeds of that global trade.
In particular the history of the social democratic movement in the UK, which culminates in the formation in 1900 of the Labour Party, has been the history of developing more efficient ways of systematically redistributing Empire’s wealth as it comes in. These initiatives culminate in the establishment of the provision of mass housing (1935), education (1944) and health (1946) as a clear statutory requirement, after the 1939-1945 war, and the economic crisis that preceded it. These three policies alone immeasurably changed the quality of life for ordinary British people, and are now the site of the ideological battleground between the main parties, regarding how best to “fix” the country’s crisis.
For at least 350 years, the British economy expanded through the ruthless exploitation of resources and people from many parts of the world. The big question then, as now, was: who benefits, and how?
Since the failure to recover from the 2008 economic crash, politics seems to have become an exercise in which everyone questions the legitimacy and role of every other participant. Empire’s redistributive template is being challenged from all angles: ordinary citizens challenge the corporate world regarding the rates of tax it pays to keep public services running; the corporate world in turn challenges the logic of ordinary people continuing to expect that such services should be provided for free and on demand; indigenous people begin to question why immigrants have the right to move in and partake of such services; the provincial regions begin to question why major infrastructural development tends to be focused on the major urban centres, and so on.
The history of the social democratic movement in the UK, which culminates in the formation in 1900 of the Labour Party, has been the history of developing more efficient ways of systematically redistributing Empire’s wealth as it comes in.
The latest development in these establishment contestations is the resignation of seven MPs from the Labour Party, and declaring themselves “independent”. They were soon joined by an eighth Labour MP, and then by four members of the ruling Conservative Party. There is every indication that there will be more resignations from both parties; some of these MPs will likely join the new group. This attempted re-alignment of Britain’s 150-year-old effectively two-party system may amount to little in itself, but will in the long-term, prove to be hugely significant.
Empire’s redistributive template is being challenged from all angles: ordinary citizens challenge the corporate world regarding the rates of tax it pays to keep public services running; the corporate world in turn challenges the logic of ordinary people continuing to expect that such services should be provided for free and on demand; indigenous people begin to question why immigrants have the right to move in and partake of such services…
This is in fact a debate about the future, paralysed by the past.
Britain sidestepped an obligation to undertake a principled and genuine retreat from Empire. Such a retreat would have entailed a costly reckoning with history. Empire’s unravellng came with huge costs: there was the risk of being forced into making material reparations to the colonies and descendants of those enslaved in the Trans-Atlantic trade; downsizing and restructuring her global corporate reach would have meant a significant reduction in income; and weaning her domestic population off the proceeds of Empire’s profits could have led to sharp political disruptions. Instead, Britain embarked on a series of pretend “withdrawals” and resorted to all manner of skullduggery so as to maintain back-channel influence and continue profiteering.
By postponing this decision, Britain now faces a stark question: how does she retain her economic pre-eminence? Is it by cleaving unto an ever-tighter embrace with the European Union, or independently returning to her own stall in the global marketplace, which first gave her pre-eminence?
Britain sidestepped an obligation to undertake a principled and genuine retreat from Empire. Such a retreat would have entailed a costly reckoning with history.
This is the dilemma expressing itself as the Brexit crisis, essentially the failure by the entire political leadership to manage the consequences of the 2016 referendum, in which UK citizens — by a small margin, it should be noted — voted to end their country’s 45-year membership of the European Union.
That referendum itself only came about as a consequence of then UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s bungling attempts to end dissent in his ruling Conservative Party. He sought to outflank growing voices from the Tory right wing insistent that a new type of Conservative Party was necessary to make Britain “great” again, not least by severing its links with the European Union, which they characterized as the source of unwanted immigrants, and a drain on the UK’s “hard-earned” Empire wealth. Cameron, shocked by the unexpected referendum result, resigned immediately, leaving the problem to his successor, current PM Theresa May.
The referendum itself only came about as a consequence of then UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s bungling attempts to end dissent in his ruling Conservative Party. He sought to outflank growing voices from the Tory right wing insistent that a new type of Conservative Party was necessary to make Britain “great” again…
The referendum result has had an equally damaging impact on the opposition Labour Party, already adrift from its ideological moorings, following its many years in opposition after its 1979 defeat by the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher. Originally, Labour was committed to the goals of a form of socialism: nationalisation of key sectors of the economy; widespread provision of social services and amenities as well as a safety net; and protection of workers’ rights to organize, assemble and agitate. Following a second defeat to Thatcher in 1983, a number of reformist party leaders like Neil Kinnock, began to reshape the party’s orientation while still in opposition. “Socialist” policies were progressively abandoned over the following decade and a half, as they became increasingly unsellable to the electorate, not least because of the pernicious influence of a corporate media hostile both to the Party and its policies, and the victory of Thatcherite neoliberalism as the dominant policy mantra across the political establishment. This paved the way for Tony Blair to emerge as a new type of Labour leader, and lead the reformed party — now freed of its previous ideological commitments and Trade Union obligations — back into power in 1997.
The referendum result has had an equally damaging impact on the opposition Labour Party, already adrift from its ideological moorings, following its many years in opposition after its 1979 defeat by the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher.
Despite this, the ideological debate within Labour never completely ended. Many radicals blamed the party’s inability to recover quickly from the loss of the 1979 election on the narrow defeat of the radical Tony Wedgewood Benn in the deputy party leadership vote, in 1981. With the collapse of neoliberal economics after 2008, some of the old “socialist” ideas have experienced a resurgence. It is this that has brought current leader Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran of the futile 1980s battles to keep the party “socialist”, to the leadership. In fact, a number of the key actors in Corbyn’s camp — including Corbyn himself — were active pro-Tony Benn youth wingers back then.
Despite all those struggles, such “progressive” politics, directed from this “distributionist” framework never quite explained where the wealth to be distributed would come from, especially if Empire’s global resources were no longer available.
With the collapse of neoliberal economics after 2008, some of the old “socialist” ideas have experienced a popular resurgence. It is this revival that brought Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran of the futile 1980s battles to keep the party “socialist”, to Party leadership.
In a UK Guardian article of September 22, 2011, British Admiral Lord Alan West was quoted criticising proposed cuts to the UK defence budget:
“We are probably, depending on what figures you use, the fifth or sixth wealthiest nation in the world. We have the largest percentage of our GDP on exports … we run world shipping from the UK, we are the largest European investor in south Asia, south-east Asia [and] the Pacific Rim, so our money and our wealth depends on this global scene.”
This is why retaining a presence in the European Union is important to the UK establishment, which believes it would offset any contraction of the Empire economy as it tries to deliver on its redistributive “socialist” ideals. Even this may not work, as it is a strategy still premised, however indirectly, on the wealth generated by Empire.
Progressive politics, which operate from within this “distributionist” framework never quite explained where the wealth to be distributed would come from, especially if Empire’s global resources were no longer available.
Leaving or remaining in the European Union is therefore an argument represented by factions within each of the dominant political parties, not just the Conservatives. Whichever party finds itself in power in this period will simply implode, as is happening to the Conservative Party at the moment.
The central question, that is, the question concerning a long-term post-Empire economic strategy, goes back over 30 years, and has never been settled. It was only temporarily resolved by the rule of Margaret Thatcher. Faced with an EU demand then for greater economic integration against a growing domestic chorus to double-down and go it completely alone, the British, being British, attempted to do both. This left the UK with a somewhat hybridized EU membership. Unlike the rest of the Union for example, Britain kept her own currency.
Leaving or remaining in the European Union is therefore an argument represented by factions within each of the dominant political parties, not just the Conservatives. Whichever party finds itself in power in this period will simply implode.
Now the matter has returned to centre stage, not least due to the economic hardships bedevilling the EU’s 500 million citizens. The crisis has arrived at a time when politics in Britain is being managed by a generation of people dwarfed by their own legacy. Since at least the time of Gladstone in the 1860s, the British political system has been premised on managing the proceeds of an empire-based economy. The crisis therefore, goes to the heart of how British economics, and therefore politics, is constituted.
The end of Empire has been a prolonged period of discomfort, and left a wrong political fit. Those days, and the formations they spawned, are now over. The whole construct and edifice — the buildings, institutions, traditions, imperatives — are not fit for current purpose. So, the government system, which includes the official Opposition, is obsolete. Those were Empire-level political initiatives to keep the masses happy with their share of the spoils.
The current leaders on all sides seem incapable of understanding the full meaning of the weight of all that history, and so what is happening in the UK parliament is a splintering of the old order, but one which carries the misconceptions of that old order into the new.
In particular, Empire’s racial politics that played out in the colonies and was previously viewed with a certain metropolitan hauteur from London, became increasingly domesticated after decolonisation. At home, racial politics spawned a new lexicon, and new hitherto unfamiliar actors, both of which ended up in Empire’s parliament pursuing identity politics as a new dimension to the aforementioned politics of redistribution.
But real change will not come through thinking and speaking from the platform of Empire’s institutions. It cannot be re-ordered, or have its wrongs put right, from those pedestals.
The truth is that the 2016 referendum was not a decisive outcome. For a matter of that magnitude, a nearly 50/50 result cannot be said to be a clear “rejection” of anything. By the same token, neither can it be said to be an acceptance of the status quo.
The logical thing on paper would be to hold another referendum. However, given the polarized nature of the debate, as well as the real economic pain ordinary British people are experiencing, this would likely split both main parties internally. There is a strong suspicion that step three for the recently resigned MPs will be an attempt to create a new party, that would move to displace the current official opposition, in anticipation of the looming internal splits.
The truth is that the 2016 referendum was not a decisive outcome. For a matter of that magnitude, a nearly 50/50 result cannot be said to be a clear “rejection” of anything.
This, however, is to still miss the point.
What was important was the spread of the result. England, by far the most populous of the three national regions, voted most clearly to leave the EU. But again, this was outside the main urban concentrations (where a lot of non-indigenous minorities are to be found). While Wales voted alongside England, Scotland voted solidly to remain.
Instead of dealing with the implications of the result, all the other political factions appear strangely to have perceived their immediate task as being to prevent a Corbyn-led Labour Party from taking power. Corbyn espouses a fundamentally different agenda than the conventional mainstream: he wants a redistribution of the wealth of the country among a much wider demographic, through nationalization, and the massive expansion of social services. For Corbyn therefore, the issue of Brexit is secondary. He intends to pursue his programme regardless of whether Britain remains in the EU or not. But such economic plans are inimical to the now 40-year orthodoxy established by Margaret Thatcher, and injected into the Labour party by Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair.
Instead of dealing with the implications of the result, all the other political factions appear strangely to have perceived their immediate task as being to prevent a Corbyn-led Labour Party from taking power.
The fault line in this political quagmire is both factions of the Conservative Party, plus the Tony Blair remnants (and they are many) in the Labour party being on one ideological side, against Jeremy Corbyn’s faction of the party.
This will be a battle huge and distracting in equal measure.
First, it will keep British politics bogged down in a debate about the best distribution of Admiral West’s Empire proceeds, a lot of which is backstopped through the European Union’s “Economic Partnership Agreements” signed with much of the so-called “developing” world – that is, the old colonial world of Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific and Asia. The EPAs are basically the modern form of the unfair trade treaties of the last five centuries. Their most disruptive feature was ‘conditionality’: the overweening donor influence on where and how ‘aid’ is spent, and a heavy focus on private sector participation in ‘development’.
On the domestic political front, the threat of Corbyn implementing his redistribution agenda after the UK exits the EU,, would profoundly disrupt established corporate interests.
Third, given the historical economic pressure created by the emergence of other global economic players, it is inevitable that the UK will see her share of the spoils progressively decline. The reality of this permanent decline will then be used to drag the likes of Corbyn into a jingoistic debate about British “greatness” (which, incidentally, is built on a fallacious premise: what right does the UK have to global pre-eminence, and how is that pre-eminence to be kept in place anyway?).
Many of the current round of EPAs (negotiated for twenty-year periods), are due to expire between 2020 and 2025. Would a Corbyn government design their renegotiation to better reflect the principles of fair trade, a condition of staying in the EU? If so, would the EU want the UK back as a member?
Being in the EU has failed to suppress the UK establishment’s nostalgic fantasies of the return of Empire. Understanding this is to recognise that the nature of Britain’s current politics has no answers for the future. To confront the future would first require a recognition that the global Empire economy, which the EU also feeds off of, must be restructured in favour of a global fair trade regime, whether the UK in all or in part remains inside the EU.
Whether within the EU or out of it, Britain remains the fifth richest country in the world due to a legacy of malfeasance. Britain’s current political order is being dismantled by the force of this legacy; the current leaders know neither how to maintain their global advantage, nor how to make an orderly withdrawal from it.
To confront the future would require a recognition that the global Empire economy, which the EU also feeds off of, must be restructured in favour of a global fair trade regime, whether the UK in all or in part remains inside the EU.
This essentially means that the 2016 referendum produced three or four outcomes, not one.
For the British people then to be able to speak, the creation of an ENGLISH parliament is imperative. This is a call that comes up from time to time, but is then ridiculed and silenced.
However, before England became “the first, and the most deeply penetrated of all the British colonies” to quote Oscar Wilde, England’s Kingdoms did often have their own parliaments, such as the Anglo-Saxon Witangemot that operated between the 7th and 11th centuries.
Only after this democratisation process can Britain have a meaningful referendum in which each region decides for itself and negotiates to stay or go independently of the others.
Whether Britain were to have become a full member of the EU, or to have completely broken away from it, a central truth remains: this is actually the end of an epoch. The unravelling of the UK’s political system is part of it.
Only after Britain democratises her politics can she have a meaningful referendum in which each region decides for itself and negotiates to stay or go independently of the others.
THIS is ending.
The world will go on.
Why Physical Distancing Should Not Become the New (Ab)Normal
Working from home (WFH) certainly has its advantages, but studies have shown that prolonged isolation can have dire mental health consequences. As societies change their behaviour to adjust to COVID-19, they must take into consideration the innate human need for physical interaction.
Many office workers are celebrating working from home (WFH), which has become the “new normal” in the age of coronavirus and lockdowns. Introverts who hate the prospect of making small talk with colleagues they secretly loathe have welcomed the idea of working remotely from home in their pajamas and setting their own work schedules. Those whose working experience was considerably diminished by office politics find that it is much easier to ignore these politics on Zoom.
WFH certainly has its advantages. Time spent commuting to work (which in Nairobi can be as long as two hours due to the city’s horrific traffic jams) can now be spent working. This is good for the environment, which is already choking from vehicular fumes, and for productivity. I have worked from home for several years and find that I am more productive at home because I spend less time getting dressed for work, travelling to work, and conducting idle chitchat with colleagues, time that is essentially wasted. Twitter has already told its employees that they can work from home for the rest of their working life at the company if they choose to do so.
With the advent of WFH, it has also become evident that showing up at work is not the same as working. Many of us have worked in places where it is not clear what work people actually do or why they were hired. Their output appears negligible or insignificant, but because they show up at work, it is assumed that they are working. With WFH, managers might be more diligent about monitoring “deliverables” (NGO-ese for outputs) by employees. After all, if you say you are working from home, and cannot show what you did, then it becomes clear that you are not actually working.
However, before we throw out our office suits and slip permanently into our comfortable bedroom slippers, we might consider this: the majority of essential workers in this world still have to go to work and make physical contact with human beings to earn a living. Doctors, nurses, retail store managers, food vendors, hawkers, need to physically interact with the people they serve. No WFH for them.
For those of us who were already working from home before the pandemic and lockdowns started, the new normal might appear like the old normal, but it is not for one simple reason – this lockdown is enforced; it is not voluntary. People working from home can decide when to go out and socialise to recharge their batteries or to make human contact; now that option no longer exists or is restricted.
Studies have also shown that while many women prefer the flexibility of working from home, a majority find that leaving the house to go to work is actually therapeutic. A survey by Gallup, for instance, found that two-thirds of working women liked the “social aspect” of their jobs. Working from home alone doesn’t provide the social contact and camaraderie that an office can provide.
There are other disadvantages of WFH and using online platforms to communicate with colleagues. As Jennifer Senior wrote in the New York Times recently, “Remote work leaves a terrible feedback vacuum. Communication with colleagues is no longer casual but effortful; no matter how hard you try, you’re going to have less contact – particularly of the casual variety – and with fewer people”.
Senior says that it would also be a mistake to assume that toxic office politics will not find its way into the WFH space. “They [office politics] are much easier to navigate if you can actually see your colleagues – and therefore discern where the power resides, how business gets done and who the kind people are”, she wrote.
When the home becomes a battlefield
The lockdowns around the globe are also testing marriages and giving rise to mental health problems that are breaking up families and leading to increased domestic violence. As the war against the coronavirus pandemic accelerates, another kind of pandemic is raging across the world. Reports indicate that violence against women has increased since lockdowns have been enforced in various countries, and that women are bearing a disproportionate burden of taking care of their families.
United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, raised the alarm recently when he stated: “Over the past weeks as economic and social pressures and fear have grown, we have seen a horrifying global surge in domestic violence”. He noted that “violence is not confined to the battlefield”.
According to a recent UNWomen report, “COVID-19 and Ending Violence against Women”, in France reports of domestic violence increased by 30 per cent since the lockdown on 17 March. In Argentina, emergency calls on domestic violence cases increased by 25 per cent after the lockdown on 20 March. In Cyprus and Singapore, helplines registered an increase in calls by 30 per cent and 33 per cent, respectively. Demands for emergency shelter for domestic violence victims have also been reported in Canada, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.
“As stay-at-home orders expand to contain the spread of the virus, women with violent partners increasingly find themselves isolated from the people and resources that can help them”, says the report. “The surge in COVID-19 cases is straining even the most advanced and best-resourced health systems to the breaking point, including those at the front line in violence response”.
“It’s a perfect storm”, said the CEO of one British charity. “Lockdowns will lead to a surge in domestic abuse, but also severely limit the ability of services to help”.
In many countries where there are few services for victims of domestic violence, or where reporting physical abuse, especially by an intimate partner, is difficult, women are trapped in a vicious cycle. In situations where healthcare services are already over-stretched, women victims of domestic violence are also less likely to seek medical attention.
The closure of schools has also placed enormous pressure on women, who tend to be the main caregivers in families. For women who are poor, and who live in cramped housing, the pressures can be overwhelming. With stay-at-home children and a spouse who has either been let go at work, or who cannot work because of the lockdown, the home can become a pressure cooker ready to explode. Men who feel more insecure due to their unemployment status are likely to take out their frustrations on their wives. Sometimes this can result in physical violence, even murder, as has been reported in Kenya, where there appears to be a surge in intimate partner violence, sometimes resulting in death.
The looming mental health crisis
In my view, the idea that self-isolation and working remotely from home should be accepted as the new normal is terribly misplaced for one simple reason: human beings are wired to be social animals, and depriving them of social contact has dire psychological consequences. WFH advocates fail to consider that humans have an innate need to physically interact with other humans.
There is a famous experiment conducted by the American psychologist Harry Harlow that is often cited to underscore the above point. Harlow’s work with primates, particularly infant rhesus monkeys, showed why isolation can be detrimental to human development. His experiments showed that when baby monkeys are taken away from their mothers and raised in a laboratory setting, they start engaging in disturbing behaviour, including self-mutilation. It didn’t matter how well fed the monkeys were, their need for maternal comfort and love proved more critical to their development than their need for sustenance. The infant monkeys placed in cages did not thrive; some held in prolonged captivity even died. The experiment highlighted the importance of maternal care and touch in infant development. Those who believe that hugs, cuddles and handshakes are gestures that will no longer be tolerated in a post-COVID world might want to refer to Harlow’s groundbreaking work.
Johann Hari also highlights the importance of social contact in his book, Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope. Hari, a journalist who had been on anti-depressants for years (without much success) embarked on a journey to find out why depressed people remained depressed even after years of taking drugs or undergoing therapy.
He found that depression is not so much a clinical condition that can managed with the right medicine, but essentially a social disorder whose cure lies in connecting with other like-minded people. He found that depressed people are not only more likely to feel lonely, but also tend to feel insecure. They have few friends and little social interaction.
Despite the proliferation of social media and the billions of “friends” on Facebook, an alarming number of people around the world are reporting being both lonely and depressed. Hari found that social media cannot compensate for the psychological loss of social life. He quotes the biologist E.O Wilson, who said that “people must belong to a tribe” to thrive. People must feel a sense of community and have friends they can count on. This involves physical interaction.
Unfortunately, our modern world has made connection and a sense of community harder to achieve. Social media has replaced physical contact; online shopping has replaced the pleasure of physically touching an object before buying it; the neoliberal capitalist world order has made it much harder for people to form relationships that have nothing to do with money. This has severely impacted the mental health of societies.
The social cost of rising inequality
The world has also become far more unequal, with a handful of people and corporations owning most of the world’s wealth, and a large majority eking out a living from paycheck to paycheck, and with few prospects of owning a home. An Oxfam report released last year showed that in 2018, the 26 richest people in the world had the same net worth as the poorest half of the world’s population, or 3.8 billion people. In addition, the wealth of 2,200 billionaires increased by 12 per cent in 2018 while the wealth of the poorest half decreased by 11 per cent.
Studies have found that millennials are less likely to own their own homes during their lifetime than their parents and grandparents. This is partly the result of the “gig economy”, which has become the new normal, with young people taking on short-term contractual jobs rather than more secure long-term employment that can provide things like health insurance and pension schemes. While the gig economy has been lauded by some for offering people more flexibility and variety in the kinds of jobs they do, it also has several disadvantages, the primary one being lack of financial security, which has led to mounting uncertainty, particularly among people approaching middle age.
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent global recession is likely to increase inequality in an already highly unequal world. With more people losing their jobs or earning less, the gap between rich and poor is likely to widen. This has mental health and social consequences.
In their groundbreaking book on inequality, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket show a strong relationship between inequality and mental illness. The researchers found that highly unequal societies tend to have a higher incidence of depression, obesity, drug addiction, and violent crime than societies that are more equal. One reason for this is that in societies that place a high value on having money and possessions, people who judge themselves through this value system are more at risk of depression and anxiety.
Highly unequal societies also tend to value competition more than cooperation. They tend to be individualistic and materialistic. Hence, they tend not to take care of the “public good”, and so are less likely to invest in good quality and affordable healthcare and education, or in things that have no commercial value, but which are essential for the well-being of societies, such as public parks and social security systems. This affects the overall mental health of people living in these societies.
Human beings need other human beings to survive and thrive. They need to cooperate and make physical contact with others. WFH and self-isolation are already impacting the mental health of people. If physical distancing and self-isolation become the norm in the long term, then hospitals might reduce the number of coronavirus patients, but mental asylums and counselling services will become overwhelmed. In poor countries, where psychological counselling is a luxury, expect more violent crime, suicides and drug and alcohol addiction. The new normal will, in fact, become the new abnormal.
While there is no doubt that social behaviour will be impacted by the pandemic in the short term, it would be a tragedy if human beings shut themselves off permanently from other human beings in the long term. As I have tried to show, long-term self-isolation is neither healthy nor desirable. The emotional and social costs are simply too high.
My Black Is (Not) Beautiful: The Complex History of Skin Lighteners in Africa
As in other parts of the world colonised by European powers, the politics of skin colour in South Africa have been importantly shaped by the history of white supremacy and institutions of racial slavery, colonialism, and segregation.
Somali-American activists recently scored a victory against Amazon and against colorism, which is prejudice based on preference for people with lighter skin tones. Members of the non-profit The Beautywell Project teamed up with the Sierra Club to convince the online retail giant to stop selling skin lightening products that contain mercury.
After more than a year of protests, this coalition of anti-racism, health, and environmental activists persuaded Amazon to remove some 15 products containing toxic levels of mercury from its website. This puts a small but noteworthy dent in the global trade in skin lighteners, estimated to reach US$31.2 billion by 2024.
What are the roots of this sizeable trade? And how might its most toxic elements be curtailed?
The online sale of skin lighteners is relatively new, but the in-person traffic is very old. My book Beneath the Surface: A Transnational History of Skin Lighteners explores this layered history from the vantage point of South Africa.
As in other parts of the world colonized by European powers, the politics of skin color in South Africa have been significantly shaped by the history of white supremacy and institutions of racial slavery, colonialism, and segregation. My book examines that history.
Yet, racism alone cannot explain skin lightening practices. My book also attends to intersecting dynamics of class and gender, changing beauty ideals and the expansion of consumer capitalism.
A deep history of skin whitening and skin lightening
For centuries and even millennia, elites in some parts of the world used paints and powders to create smoother, paler appearances, unblemished by illness and the sun’s darkening and roughening effects.
Cosmetic users in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome created dramatic appearances by pairing skin whiteners containing lead or chalk with black eye makeup and red lip colorants. In China and Japan too, elite women and some men used white lead preparations and rice powder to achieve complexions resembling white jade or fresh lychee.
Melanin is the biochemical compound that makes skin colorful. It serves as the body’s natural sunscreen. Skin lighteners generate a less painted look than skin whiteners by removing rather than concealing blemished or melanin-rich skin.
Active ingredients in skin lighteners have ranged from acidic compounds like lemon juice and milk to harsher chemicals like sulfur, arsenic, and mercury. In parts of precolonial Southern Africa, some people used mineral and botanical preparations to brighten—rather than whiten or lighten—their hair and skin.
During the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, skin color and associated physical differences were used to distinguish enslaved people from the free, and to justify the former’s oppression. Colonizers paired pale skin color with beauty, intelligence, and power while casting melanin-rich hues as the embodiment of ugliness and inferiority. Within this racist political order, where small differences carried great significance, some people sought to whiten and lighten their complexions.
By the twentieth century, mass-produced skin lightening creams ranked among the world’s most popular cosmetics. Consumers of commercial skin lighteners included white, black, and brown women.
In the 1920s and 1930s, many white consumers swapped skin lighteners for tanning lotions as time spent sunbathing and playing outdoors became a sign of a healthy and leisured lifestyle. Seasonal tanning embodied new forms of white privilege.
Skin lighteners became cosmetics primarily associated with people of color. For black and brown consumers, living in places like the United States and South Africa where racism and colorism have flourished, even slight differences in skin color could have substantial social and political consequences.
The mercury effect
Skin lighteners can be physically harmful. Mercury, one of the most common active ingredients, lightens skin in two ways. It inhibits the formation of melanin by rendering inactive the enzyme tyrosinase; and it exfoliates the tanned, outer layers of the skin through the production of hydrochloric acid.
By the early twentieth century, pharmaceutical and medical textbooks recommended mercury—usually in the form of ammoniated mercury—for treating skin infections and dark spots while often warning of its harmful effects. Cosmetic manufacturers marketed creams containing ammoniated mercury as “freckle removers” or “skin bleaches.”
When the US Congress passed the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act in 1938, such creams were among the first to be regulated.
After World War II, the negative environmental and health consequences of mercury became more apparent. The devastating case of mercury poisoning caused by industrial wastewater in Minamata, Japan prompted the Food and Drug Administration to take a closer look at mercury’s toxicity, including in cosmetics. Here was a visceral instance of what environmentalist Rachel Carson meant about small, domestic choices making the world uninhabitable.
In 1973, the FDA banned all but trace amounts of mercury from cosmetics. Other countries followed suit. South Africa banned mercurial cosmetics in 1975, the European Economic Union in 1976, and Nigeria in 1982. The trade in skin lighteners, nonetheless, continued as other active ingredients—most notably hydroquinone—replaced ammoniated mercury.
Meanwhile in South Africa
In apartheid South Africa, the trade was especially robust. Skin lighteners ranked among the most commonly used personal products in black urban households. During the 1980s, activists inspired by Black Consciousness and the “Black is Beautiful” sentiment teamed up to make opposition to skin lighteners a part of the anti-apartheid movement.
In the early 1990s, activists convinced the government to ban all cosmetic skin lighteners containing known depigmenting agents—and to prohibit cosmetic advertisements from making any claims to “bleach,” “lighten” or “whiten” the skin. This prohibition was the first of its kind and the regulations immediately shuttered the in-country manufacture of skin lighteners.
South Africa’s regulations testify to the broader anti-racist political movement from which they emerged. Thirty years on, South Africa again possesses a robust—if now illicit—trade in skin lighteners. An especially disturbing element of the trade is the resurgence of mercurial products.
South African researchers have found that over 40 percent of skin lighteners sold in Durban and Cape Town contain mercury. Mercurial skin lighteners tend to surface in places where regulations are lax and consumers are poor.
The activists’ recent victory against Amazon suggests one way forward. They took out a full-page ad in a local newspaper denouncing Amazon’s sale of mercurial skin lighteners as “dangerous, racist, and illegal.” A petition with 23,000 signatures was hand-delivered to the company’s Minnesota office.
By combining anti-racist, health, and environmentalist arguments, activists held one of the world’s most powerful companies accountable. They also brought the toxic presence of mercurial skin lighteners to public awareness and made them more difficult to purchase.
Not Yet Uhuru: Why Postcolonialism Doesn’t Exist in France
It is no longer shocking to witness the prejudice among French institutions and intelligentsia against Africa and Africans.
Racism and exclusion have always been at the heart of France’s neocolonial project in Africa. What is new, however, is the pervasive and active discursive process of making invisible, and therefore containment, of the violent reality of France’s policies and its devastating consequences for France’s racialised citizens as well as the African populations on the other side of the Mediterranean. Today it is important to consider what France has become: to slightly stretch the words of philosopher Herbert Marcuse, a one-dimensional society where repressive and exploitative forces of domination and injustice that have been at the heart of France’s national consciousness challenge any possibility of a genuine vision of change.
It is no longer shocking to witness the prejudice among French institutions and intelligentsia against Africa and Africans. The state, the media, and the academy in France actively embody the role of new agents of state neocolonialism to reject any resistance against racism and Islamophobia through complex methods of containment and abstraction.
Race blindness for instance becomes an effective tool to safeguard the neocolonialist foundation of France’s state apparatus and contain any possible threats to its national consciousness. As writer Lauren Collins observes, “There is a common belief that there cannot be racism in France because in France there is, officially, no such thing as race. The state, operating under a policy of “absolute equality,” does not collect any statistics on race or ethnicity.” By doing so, the state apparatus in France ignores its racialised and ethnic citizens and represses their rights to be fully acknowledged.
State neocolonialism in France has been impregnated in its national consciousness to the extent that its networks of domination and dehumanization have blurred the traditional distinctions that are made on the basis of colour and between racialised and ethnic citizens emigrating from Africa. In France, to draw upon Fanon’s analysis that racism is fundamental to the economic structures of capitalism, the political infrastructure is also a superstructure: you are French because you embody France’s state neocolonialism, you embody France’s state neocolonialism because you are French. The French state no longer presupposes certain racial and aesthetic characteristics of the ideal citizen: Black African intellectuals and brown Maghrebi media pundits can also be incorporated as new agents of state neocolonialism. In contemporary France, Africans are not othered and excluded on the basis of race, ethnicity, or colour, but rather on the basis of their politics, culture, and religion.
When Emmanuel Macron, the French president, decided in October 2019 to share his views on immigration and Islamophobia, he chose the far-right magazine Valeurs Actuelles, declaring that “the failure of our (economic) model coincides with the crisis of Islam” and adding that this crisis leads to the emergence of more radical forms of political Islam. Macron criticized a demonstration in support of the right to wear veils as “non-aligned Third-Worldism with Marxist tendencies” (he used the word “relents,” which can be translated to hint or trace, but also to stink or stench). This interview was published a few days after a mosque shooting in Bayonne, in south-west France. No terrorism offenses were brought by the French government against the white shooter.
The media’s complicity overwhelms any possibility of a meaningful public debate. At its basic form, the process of invisibilisation in a one-dimensional society involves the dispersal of productive energies through diversion and abstraction so to ensure that a revolutionary momentum is as unattainable as the end of capitalism itself.
This complicit relationship between the media and the state in France is carefully exposed in Serge Halimi’s Les Nouveaux Chiens de Garde (translated to The New Watch Dogs, 1997-2005). Halimi, the chief editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, lays down a seething critique of a “capitalist” press and media in France that are heavily influenced by the elite interests of politicians and powerful corporations and likely to manufacture propaganda to serve their agenda.
This is exemplified by the controversial debate in France around returning works of African art, stolen during colonial times, to the continent after the publication of the report by the French historian Bénédicte Savoy and the Senegalese economist and writer Felwine Sarr, and commissioned by Macron, which recommends to cancel the project of long-term loan of items to African museums and to support the full and unconditional restitution of the looted heritage back to Africa. The glaring discrepancies in reporting the ambivalent position of the French Minister of Culture, Franck Riester, a right wing politician, regarding the return of the stolen artifacts to Africa highlight the dangerous complicity between state institutions and the media in France. There were two opposing reports of this event: on the one hand, major French media outlets celebrated the efforts of the French government to return 26 works of art to Benin. Radio France International, for example, chose the title: “Restitution of works of art in Benin: France goes a step further” while Libération opted for: “Restitution of works in Benin: Paris says it works for a quick return.” But once we dive into these articles, we are faced with the many approximations and “possible scenarios” under which France will actually return the art. The conditional supplants the affirmative, and what remains is the strong belief that much has been left unsaid.
On the other hand, The Art Newspaper, a leading global art magazine, commented differently on the same event: “France retreats from report recommending automatic restitutions of looted African artefacts” ran the article. Here, what is emphasized is the strong opposition of France’s powerful gallery owners and art collectors against any form of permanent restitution and the pressure they put to change the “restoration without delay” decision into a “temporary return.” The new scenario, according to the minister’s comments, refers now to a temporary “exhibition dedicated to the diversity, complexity and aesthetic richness of these works” that will be held, not in Africa, but across France this summer as part of Macron’s highly publicized event entitled “Africa 2020.”
While most news outlets in France continue to briefly comment on the ongoing debate between supporters and critics of Savoy-Sarr report on the restitution of African art, The Art Newspaper insisted that “the report made international headlines, recommending the restitution of African artifacts in French museums, but the country has not returned a single item to Africa.” A year after the publication of Savoy-Sarr recommendations and Macron’s promise for a quick return, “neither the 26 pieces from Benin nor indeed the 90,000 other Sub-Saharan artifacts in French museums” have been returned to Africa.
What is often dismissed from the debate on the restitution of African heritage is the capacity of the French president to secure political and economic gains while asserting the hegemonic power of France over its neo-colonies. Macron accepted to temporarily return El Hadj Omar Tall’s sword to Senegal for a period of five years during another highly publicized ceremony, and at the same time he persuaded Macky Sall, the Senegalese President, to sign a new, multi-hundred million euro contract “for the construction of three offshore patrol vessels for the Senegalese Navy.” Again, there is nothing new here: as Sally Price reports, “[R]estitution is part of a two-way interaction, based on inequality and demanding something in return.” However, Macron successfully manages to obscure this inequality through a highly-calculated, affective, and Africa-friendly communicative strategy.
In France, as the old world is dying and the new is waiting to be born again, a specific breed of pseudo-intellectuals highjacks the public discourse to further promote a republicanism of inequality and exclusion. Among white French intellectuals, the complexity of the postcolonial field is often reduced to a corrupt discursive technology of deceptive arguments, false readings, and deliberate confusion. It is unconceivable to think of a public debate about, say, the case for reparations.
Whenever I am faced with the abysmal state of postcolonialism in France, I remember how Carina Ray, associate professor at Brandeis University, at a panel on the racial politics of knowledge production in November 2018, described the state of African studies in Europe: There are still issues that are “so 1940s and 1950s.” “White Europeness” has made it difficult to bring new perspectives on the postcolonial question. As she put it blatantly: it is a disaster.
The dangerous pseudo-intellectualism of Bernard-Henri Lévy, Alain Finkielkraut, Éric Zemmour, Raphaël Enthoven, Michel Houellebecq, Renaud Camus, Robert Ménard, and others – the list is absurdly long – has caused a permanent damage to any possibility of a qualitative change. There is no pause here: these figures have always been central to France’s neocolonial project of domination and exploitation.
As Marcuse writes, “The most effective and enduring form of warfare against liberation is the implanting of material and intellectual needs that perpetuate obsolete forms of the struggle for existence.” The omnipresence of Lévy, Finkielkraut, and Zemmour in public discourse in France is meant to turn meaningful propositions of liberation into obsolete forms of insignificant punditry.
In an infamous manifesto signed by 80 figures of the French intelligentsia such as the reactionary Alain Finkielkraut and published in 2018 postcolonialism was deemed “a hegemonic strategy” that attacks the ideals of republican universalism, and it involves “the use of methods of intellectual terrorism reminiscent and far exceeds what Stalinism once did to European intellectuals.”
What is often recurring in these incendiary attacks on postcolonialism among the white French elite is this amalgam of postcolonialism with the North American scholarship. There is the tendency to believe that postcolonial studies, an interdisciplinary field of inquiry and activism, is due above all to the contributions of the American and Anglo-Saxon schools to the developments of its theories and practices. When the existing tensions between France (and Europe) and the United States on issues of knowledge production and cultural superiority is taken into consideration, one is inclined to consider that their attacks against postcolonialism are a deep and irrational fear of hegemonic American interventionism.
The view of postcolonial thought as a universal, progressive praxis that has been forged by the struggles of the peoples of the South is dismissed. The fundamental thrust of postcolonialism as moving beyond racial and identity issues to rethink also political, cultural, and utopian ideals is attacked. While the Americans and others have grasped that, in a world in flux, we cannot afford not to be postcolonial, France’s established networks of neocolonial power continue to dismiss postcolonialism as unpatriotic and as a homogeneous threat.
Faced with Finkielkraut’s racist and misogynist attacks during a televised debate, Maboula Soumahoro, the activist and chair of the Black History Month in France, was succinct in her reply: “Your world is ending! You can be panic struck as long as you want, it’s over!”
Meanwhile, the complicity between the political, media and cultural institutions in France continues to silently enforce the state neocolonialism against the African diaspora. The death of Zineb Redouane, the islamophobic attack against a French Muslim women by a white far-right politician during a school trip with her son and other children to the regional parliament in eastern France, the outrageous and ignorant falsehoods made-up by a white French writer about slavery, the racist mural of Hervé Di Rosa in the National Assembly, the decision of the French government to backtrack on the full and permanent restitution of stolen works of African art, and France’s murky role in Libya’s ongoing civil war are all visible signs of a pervasive state of neocolonialism that dictates the violent relationship between France and Africa.
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