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The Coronavirus: The Political Economy of a Pathogen

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The coronavirus crisis has thrown into sharp relief the interlocked embrace of globalisation and nationalism and shown the limits of the neo-liberal globalisation that has reigned supreme since the 1980s. The pandemic has at the same time showed up the fecklessness of some political leaders and the incompetence of many governments.

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The Coronavirus: The Political Economy of a Pathogen
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The global coronavirus pandemic has triggered worldwide panic as the numbers of victims explode and economies implode, as physical movement and social interactions wither in lockdowns, as apocalyptic projections of its destructive reach soar, and as unprepared or underprepared national governments and international agencies desperately scramble for solutions.

The pandemic has exposed the daunting deficiencies of public health systems in many countries. It threatens cataclysmic economic wreckage as entire industries, global supply chains, and stock markets collapse under its frightfully unpredictable trajectory. Its social, emotional, and mental toll are as punishing as they are paralysing for multitudes of people increasingly isolated in their homes as the public life of work spaces, travel, entertainment, sports, religious congregations, and other gatherings grind to a halt.

Also being torn asunder are cynical ideological certainties and the political fortunes of national leaders as demands grow for strong and competent governments. The populist revolt against science and experts has received its comeuppance as the deadly costs of pandering to mass ignorance mount. At the same time, the pandemic has shattered the strutting assurance of masters of the universe as they either catch the virus or as it constrains their jet-setting lives and erodes their bulging equity portfolios.

Furthermore, the coronavirus throws into sharp relief the interlocked embrace of globalisation and nationalism, as the pandemic leaps across the world showing no respect for national boundaries, and countries seek to contain it by fortifying national borders. It underscores the limits of both neo-liberal globalisation that has reigned supreme since the 1980s, and populist nationalisms that have bestrode the world since the 2000s, which emerged partly out of the deepening social and economic inequalities spawned by the former.

These are some of the issues I would like to reflect on in this essay, the political economy of the coronavirus pandemic. As historians and social scientists know all too well, any major crisis is always multifaceted in its causes, courses, and consequences. Disease epidemics are no different. In short, understanding the epidemiological dimensions and dynamics of the coronavirus pandemic is as important as analysing its economic, social, and political impact. Moments of crisis always have their fear-mongers and skeptics. The role of progressive public intellectuals is to provide sober analysis.

In the Shadows of 1918-1920

The coronavirus pandemic is the latest and potentially one of the most lethal global pandemics in a long time. One of the world’s deadliest pandemics was the Great Plague of 1346-1351 which ravaged larges parts of Eurasia and Africa. It killed between 75 to 200 million people, and wiped out 30 per cent to 60 per cent of the European population. The plague was caused by fleas carried by rats, underscoring humanity’s vulnerability to the lethal power of small and micro-organisms, notwithstanding the conceit of its mastery over nature. The current pandemic shows that this remains true despite all the technological advances humanity has made since then.

Over a century ago, as World War I came to an end, an influenza epidemic, triggered by a virus transmitted from animals to humans, ravaged the globe. One-third of the world’s population was infected, and it left 50 million people dead. It was the worst pandemic of the 20th century. It was bigger and more lethal than the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the late 20th century. But for a world then traumatised by the horrors of war it seemed to have left a limited impact on global consciousness.

Photo. British Red Cross – American Red Cross volunteers carry a Spanish flu victim, 1919

Some health experts fear Covid-19, as the new strain of coronavirus has been named, might rival the influenza epidemic of 1918. But there are those who caution that history is sometimes not kind to moral panics, that similar hysteria was expressed following the outbreaks in the 2000s and 2010s of bouts of bird flu and swine flu, of SARS, MERS and Ebola, each of which was initially projected to kill millions of people. Of course, nobody really knows whether or not the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 will rival that of the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, but the echoes are unsettling: its mortality rate seems comparable, as is its explosive spread.

The devastating power Covid-19 is wracking and humbling every country, economy, society, and social class, although the pervasive structural and social inscriptions of differentiation still cast their formidable and discriminatory capacities for prevention and survival. In its socioeconomic and political impact alone, Covid-19 has already made history. One lesson from the influenza pandemic that applies to the current coronavirus pandemic is that countries, cities and communities that took early preventive measures fared much better than those that did not.

Doctors’ Orders

Since Covid-19 broke out in Wuhan, China, in late December 2019, international and national health organisations and ministries have issued prevention guidelines for individuals and institutions. Most of the recommended measures reflect guidelines issued by the World Health Organization.

But the pandemic is not just about physical health. It is also about mental health. Writing in The Atlantic magazine of March 17, 2020, on how to stay sane during the pandemic one psychotherapist notes, “You can let anxiety consume you, or you can feel the fear and also find joy in ordinary life, even now”. She concludes, “I recommend that all of us pay as much attention to protecting our emotional health as we do to guarding our physical health. A virus can invade our bodies, but we get to decide whether we let it invade our minds”.

A Kenyan psychology professor advises her readers in the Sunday Nation of March 23, 2020, to cultivate a positive mindset. “Take only credible sources of information . . . Don’t consume too much data, it can be overwhelming. You may be in isolation but very noisy within yourself. Learn to relax and to convert your energy into other activities in order to nurture your own mental health . . . Such as gardening, learning a language, doing an online course, painting or read that book. Do the house chores, trim the flowers, paint, do repairs, clean the dust in those corners we always ignore . . . Exercise . . . Talk to someone if you feel terrified, empty, hopeless, and worthless. These are creeping signs of depression. This too will pass: Believe me that there will be an end to this”.

Scramble for Containment

Many governments were caught unprepared or underprepared by the coronavirus pandemic. Some even initially dismissed the threat. This was particularly the case among populist rightwing governments, such as the administrations of President Trump of the United States, Prime Minister Johnson of the United Kingdom, and President Bolsonaro of Brazil. As populists, they had risen to power on a dangerous brew of nationalist and nativist fantasies of reviving national greatness and purity, xenophobia against foreigners, and manufactured hatred for elites and experts.

To rightwing ideologues the coronavirus was a foreign pathogen, a “Chinese virus” according to President Trump and his Republican followers in the United States, that posed no threat to the nation quarantined in its splendid isolation of renewed greatness. Its purported threat was fake news propagated by partisan Democrats, or disgruntled left-wing labour and liberal parties in the case of the United Kingdom and Brazil that had recently been vanquished at the polls.

Such was the obduracy of President Trump that not only did he and his team ignore frantic media reports about the pandemic leaping across the world, but also ominous, classified warnings issued by the U.S. intelligence agencies throughout January and February. Instead, he kept assuring Americans in his deranged twitterstorms that there was little to worry about, that “I think it’s going to work out fine,” that “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA”.

Photo. Martin Sanchez/Unsplash

Trump’s denialism was echoed by many leaders around the world including in Africa. This delayed taking much-needed preemptive action that would have limited the spread and potential impact of the coronavirus firestorm. In fact, as early as 2012 a report by the Rand Corporation warned that only pandemics were “capable of destroying America’s way of life”. The Obama administration proceeded to establish the National Security Council directorate for global health and security and bio-defense, which the Trump administration closed in 2018. On the whole, global pandemics have generally not been taken seriously by security establishments in many countries preoccupied with conventional wars, terrorism, and the machismo of military hardware.

In the meantime, China, the original epicenter of the pandemic took draconian measures that locked down Wuhan and neighbouring regions, a measure that was initially dismissed by many politicians and pundits in “western democracies” as a frightful and an unacceptable example of Chinese authoritarianism. As the pandemic ravished Italy, which became the coronavirus epicenter in Europe and a major exporter of the disease to several African countries, regional and national lockdowns were embraced as a strategy of containment.

Asian democracies such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore adopted less coercive and more transparent measures. Already endowed with good public health systems capable of handling major epidemics—which capability was enhanced by the virus epidemics of the 2000s and 2010s—they developed effective and vigilant monitoring systems encompassing early intervention, meticulous contact tracking, mandatory quarantines, social distancing, and border controls.

Various forms of lockdown, some more draconian than others, were soon adopted in many countries and cities around the world. They encompassed the closure of offices, schools and universities, and entertainment and sports venues, as well as banning of international flights and even domestic travel. Large-scale disinfection drives were also increasingly undertaken. The Economist of March 21, 2020 notes in its lead story that China and South Korea have effectively used “technology to administer quarantines and social distancing. China is using apps to certify who is clear of the disease and who is not. Both it and South Korea are using big data and social media to trace infections, alert people of hotspots and round contacts”.

Belatedly, as the pandemic flared in their countries, the skeptics began singing a different tune, although a dwindling minority complained of overreaction. Befitting the grandiosity of populist politicians, they suddenly fancied themselves as great generals in the most ferocious war in a generation. Some commentators found the metaphor of war obscene for its self-aggrandisement for clueless leaders anxious to burnish their tattered reputations and accrue more gravitas and power. For the bombastic, narcissistic, and pathological liar that he is, President Trump sought to change the narrative that he had foreseen the pandemic notwithstanding his earlier dismissals of its seriousness.

His British counterpart, Prime Minister Johnson vainly tried Churchillian impersonation which was met with widespread derision in the media. Each time either of them spoke trying to reassure the public, the more it became clear they were out of their depth, that they did not have the intellectual and political capacity to calm the situation. It was a verdict delivered with painful cruelty by the stock markets that they adore—they fell sharply each time the two gave a press conference and announced half-baked containment measures.

Initially, many of Africa’s inept governments remained blasé about the pandemic even allowing flights to and from China, Italy and other countries with heavy infection rates. Cynical citizens with little trust in their corrupt governments to manage a serious crisis sought comfort in myths peddled on social media about Africa’s immunity because of its sunny weather, the curative potential of some concoctions from disinfectants to pepper soup, the preventive potential of shaving beards, or the protective power of faith and prayer.

But as concerns and outrage from civil society mounted, and opportunities for foreign aid rose, some governments went into rhetorical overdrive that engendered more panic than reassurance. It has increasingly become evident that Africa needs unflinching commitment and massive resources to stem the rising tide of coronavirus infections. According to one commentator in The Sunday Nation of March 22, “It is estimated that the continent would need up to $10.6 billion in unanticipated increases in health spending to curtail the virus from spreading”. He advises the continent to urgently implement the African Continental Free Trade Area, and work with global partners.

Cynical citizens with little trust in their corrupt governments to manage a serious crisis sought comfort in myths peddled on social media

In Kenya, some defiant politicians refused to self-quarantine after coming from coronavirus-stricken countries, churches resisted closing their doors, and traders defied orders to close markets. This forced the government to issue draconian containing measures on March 22, 2020 stipulating that all those who violated quarantine measures would be forcefully quarantined at their own expense, all gatherings at churches, mosques were suspended, weddings were no longer allowed, and funerals would be restricted to 15 family members.

The infodemic of false and misleading information, as the WHO calls it, was of course not confined to Africa. It spread like wildfire around the world. So did coronavirus fraudsters peddling fake information and products to desperate and unwary recipients. In Britain, the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau was forced to issue urgent scam warnings against emails and text messages purporting to be from reputable research and health organisations.

The coronavirus pandemic showed up the fecklessness of some political leaders and the incompetence of many governments. The neo-liberal crusade against “big government” that had triumphed since the turn of the 1980s, suddenly looked threadbare. And so did the populist zealotry against experts and expertise. The valorisation of the politics of gut feelings masquerading as gifted insight and knowledge, suddenly vanished into puffs of ignoble ignorance that endangered the lives of millions of people. People found more solace in the calm pronouncements of professional experts including doctors, epidemiologists, researchers and health officials than loquacious politicians.

Populist leaders like President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson and many others of their ilk had taken vicarious pleasure in denigrating experts and expert knowledge, and decimating national research infrastructures and institutions. Suddenly, at their press conferences they were flanked by trusted medical and scientific professionals and civil servants as they sought to bask in the latter’s reassuring glow. But that could not restore public health infrastructures overnight, severely damaged as they were by indefensible austerity measures and the pro-rich transfers of wealth adopted by their governments.

Economic Meltdown

When the coronavirus pandemic broke out, many countries were unprepared for it. There were severe shortages of testing kits and health care facilities. Many also lacked universal entitlement to healthcare, social safety nets including basic employment rights and unemployment insurance that could mitigate some of the worst effects of the pandemic’s economic impact. All this ensured that the pandemic would unleash mutually reinforcing health and economic crises.

Photo. Rick Tap/Unsplash

The signs of economic meltdown escalated around the world. Stock markets experienced a volatility that run out of superlatives. In the United States, from early February to March 20, 2020 the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by about 10,000 points or 35%, while the S&P fell by 32%. In Britain, the FTSE fell by 49% from its peak in earlier in the year, the German GDAXI by 36%, the Hong Kong HSI by 22%, and the Japanese Nikkei by 32%. Trillions of dollars were wiped out. In the United States, the gains made under President Trump vanished and fell to the levels left by his nemesis President Obama, depriving the market-obsessed president of one of his favourite talking points and justifications for re-election.

There are hardly any parallels to a pandemic leading to markets crumbling the way they have following the coronavirus outbreak. They did not do so during the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic, although they fluctuated thereafter. Closer to our times, during the flu pandemic of 1957-1958 the Dow fell about 25per cent, while the SARS and MERS scares of the early 21st century had relatively limited economic impact. Some economic historians warn, however, that the stock market isn’t always a good indicator or predictor of the severity of a pandemic.

The sharp plunge in stock markets reflected a severe economic downturn brought about by the coronavirus pandemic as one industry after another went into a tailspin. The travel, hospitality and leisure industries encompassing airlines, hotels, restaurants, bars, sports, conventions, exhibitions, tourism, and retail were the first to feel the headwinds of the economic slump as people escaped or were coerced into the isolation of their homes. For example, hotel revenues in the United States plummeted by 75 per cent on average, worse than during the Great Recession and the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks combined.

In the United States, the gains made under President Trump vanished and fell to the levels left by his nemesis President Obama

Other industries soon followed suit as supply chains were scuppered, profits and share prices fell, and offices closed and staff were told to work from home. Manufacturing, construction, and banking have not been spared. Big technology manufacturing has also been affected by factory shutdowns and postponing the launch of new products. Neither was the oil industry safe. With global demand falling, and the price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia escalating, oil prices fell dramatically to $20.3, a fall of 67 per cent since the beginning of 2020. Some predicted the prospect of $5 oil per barrel.

The oil price war threatened to decimate smaller or poorer oil producers from the Gulf states to Nigeria. It also threatened the shale oil industry in the United States because of its high production costs, thereby depriving the country of its newly acquired status as the largest oil producer in the world, to the chagrin of Russia and OPEC. Many of the US shale oil companies face bankruptcy as their production costs are fourteen times higher than Saudi Arabia’s production costs, and they need prices of more than $40 per barrel to cover their direct costs.

Falling oil prices combined with growing concerns about climate change, dented the prospects of several oil exploration and production companies, such as the British company Tullow, which has ambitious projects in Kenya, Uganda, and Ghana. This threatened these countries’ aspirations to join the club of major oil-producing nations. In early March, 2020, one of Tullow’s major investors, Blackrock, the world’s biggest hedge fund with $7 trillion, made it clear it was losing interest in fossil fuel investment.

Such are the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic that 51 per cent of economists polled by the London School of Economics believe “the world faces a major recession, even if COVID-19 kills no more people than seasonal flu. Only 5% said they did not think it would.” According to a survey reported by the World Economic Forum, “The public sees coronavirus as a greater threat to the economy than to their health, new research suggests. Economic rescue measures announced by governments do not appear to be calming concern . . . The majority of people in most countries polled expect to feel a personal financial impact from the coronavirus pandemic, according to the results. Respondents in Vietnam, China, India and Italy show the greatest concern”.

51 per cent of economists polled by the London School of Economics believe the world faces a major recession

Many economies spiraled into recession. The major international financial institutions and development agencies have revised world, regional, and national economic growth prospects for 2020 downwards, sometimes sharply so. Estimates by Frost & Sullivan, a consultancy firm, show that world GDP which grew by 3.5% in 2018 and 2.9% in 2019, will slide to 1.7% if the coronavirus pandemic becomes prolonged and severe, and it might take up to a year or more for the world economy to recover. The OECD predicts that “Global growth could drop to 1.5 per cent in 2020, half the rate projected before the virus outbreak. Recovery much more gradual through 2021”.

The OECD Economic Outlook, Interim Report March 2020 notes,

Growth was weak but stabilising until the coronavirus Covid-19 hit. Restrictions on movement of people, goods and services, and containment measures such as factory closures have cut manufacturing and domestic demand sharply in China. The impact on the rest of the world through business travel and tourism, supply chains, commodities and lower confidence is growing.

It forecasts “Severe, short-lived downturn in China, where GDP growth falls below 5% in 2020 after 6.1% in 2019, but recovering to 6.4% in 2021. In Japan, Korea, Australia, growth also hit hard then gradual recovery. Impact less severe in other economies but still hit by drop in confidence and supply chain disruption”.

Compared to a year earlier, the once buoyant Chinese economy shrank by between 10 and 20 per cent in January and February 2020. The Economist states,

In the first two months of 2020 all major indicators were deeply negative: industrial production fell by 13.5% year-on-year, retail sales by 20.5% and fixed-asset investment by 24.5% . . . The last time China reported an economic contraction was more than four decades ago, at the end of the Cultural Revolution.

In the United States, the recovery and boom from the Great Recession that started in 2009 came to a screeching halt. Some grim predictions project that as businesses shut down and more than 80 million Americans stay penned at home unemployment, which had dropped to a historic low of 3.5 per cent, might skyrocket to 20 per cent. This spells disaster as consumer spending drives 70 per cent of the economy, and 39 per cent of Americans cannot handle an unexpected $400 expense.

This economic bloodletting removes the second boastful pillar of President Trump’s re-election strategy, the robust health of the US economy

Various estimates indicate that in the next three months the economy will shrink by anywhere between 14 and to 30 per cent, ushering in one of America’s fastest and deepest recessions in history. This economic bloodletting removes the second boastful pillar of President Trump’s re-election strategy, the robust health of the US economy.

UNCTAD has added its gloomy assessment for the world economy and emerging economies. Launching its report in early March, the Director of the Division on Globalisation and Development Strategies at UNCTAD noted that,

One ‘Doomsday scenario’ in which the world economy grew at only 0.5 per cent, would involve ‘a $2 trillion hit’ to gross domestic product . . . There’s a degree of anxiety now that’s well beyond the health scares which are very serious and concerning . . . To counter these fears, ‘Governments need to spend at this point in time to prevent the kind of meltdown that could be even more damaging than the one that is likely to take place over the course of the year’, Mr. Kozul-Wright insisted.

Turning to Europe and the Eurozone, Mr. Kozul-Wright noted that its economy had already been performing ‘extremely badly towards the end of 2019’ . . . It was ‘almost certain to go into recession over the coming months; and the German economy is particularly fragile, but the Italian economy and other parts of the European periphery are also facing very serious stresses right now as a consequence of trends over (the last few) days’.

The UNCTAD announcement continues,

So-called Least Developed Countries, whose economies are driven by the sale of raw materials, will not be spared either. ‘Heavily-indebted developing countries, particularly commodity exporters, face a particular threat’, thanks to weaker export returns linked to a stronger US dollar, Mr. Kozul-Wright maintained. ‘The likelihood of a stronger dollar as investors seek safe-havens for their money, and the almost certain rise in commodity prices as the global economy slows down, means that commodity exporters are particularly vulnerable’.

Africa will not be spared. According to Fitch Solutions, a consultancy firm,

We have revised down our Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) growth forecast to 1.9% in 2020, from 2.1% previously, reflecting macroeconomic risks arising from moderating oil prices and the global spread of Covid-19. While the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in SSA remains low thus far, African markets remain vulnerable to deteriorating risk sentiment, tightening financial conditions and slowing growth in key trade partners. The sharp decline in global oil prices resulting from the failure of OPEC+ to reach agreement on additional production cutbacks will undermine growth and export earnings in the continent’s main oil producers, notably Nigeria, Angola and South Sudan.

In Kenya, there were widespread fears that the coronavirus pandemic would bring the national airline carrier and other companies in the lucrative tourism industry to their knees. Similarly affected will be the critical agricultural and horticultural export industry. Aggravating the sharp economic downturns, some commentators lamented, is widespread corruption. Domestically, the ubiquitous matatu transport industry is groaning under new regulations limiting the number of passengers.

The economy was already fragile prior to the coronavirus crisis. In the words of one commentator in the Sunday Standard of March 23, 2020,

Companies were laying off, malls were already empty even before the outbreak and shops and kiosks and mama mbogas were recording the lowest sales in years. Matters are not helped by the fact that our e-commerce (purchase and delivery) does not account for much due to poor infrastructure and low trust levels.

Another commentator in the same paper on March 17, 2020 wrote, “It’s a matter of time before bleeding economy goes into coma”. He outlined the depressing litany: increased cost of living, gutting of Kenya’s export market, discouragement of the use of hard cash, producers grappling with limited supply, a bleeding stock market, irrational investor fears, and moratorium on foreign travel.

As the crisis intensified, international financial institutions and development agencies loosened the spigots of financial support. On March 12, 2020 the IMF announced,

In the event of a severe downturn triggered by the coronavirus, we estimate the Fund could provide up to US$50 billion in emergency financing to fund emerging and developing countries’ initial response. Low-income countries could benefit from about US$10 billion of this amount, largely on concessional terms. Beyond the immediate emergency, members can also request a new loan—drawing on the IMF’s war chest of around US$1 trillion in quota and borrowed resources—and current borrowers can top up their ongoing lending arrangements.

For its part, the World Bank announced on March 17 that,

The World Bank and IFC’s Boards of Directors approved today an increased $14 billion package of fast-track financing to assist companies and countries in their efforts to prevent, detect and respond to the rapid spread of COVID-19. The package will strengthen national systems for public health preparedness, including for disease containment, diagnosis, and treatment, and support the private sector.

On March 19, the European Central Bank announced,

As a result, the ECB’s Governing Council announced on Wednesday a new Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme with an envelope of €750 billion until the end of the year, in addition to the €120 billion we decided on 12 March. Together this amounts to 7.3% of euro area GDP. The programme is temporary and designed to address the unprecedented situation our monetary union is facing. It is available to all jurisdictions and will remain in place until we assess that the coronavirus crisis phase is over.

Altogether, The Economist states,

A crude estimate for America, Germany, Britain, France and Italy, including spending pledges, tax cuts, central bank cash injections and loan guarantees, amounts to $7.4trn, or 23% of GDP . . . A huge array of policies is on offer, from holidays on mortgage payments to bail-outs of Paris cafés. Meanwhile, orthodox stimulus tools may not work well. Interest rates in the rich world are near zero, depriving central bank of their main lever . . . What to do? An economic plan needs to target two groups: households and companies.

Some of the regional development banks also announced major infusions of funds to contain the pandemic. On March 18, “The Asian Development Bank (ADB) today announced a $6.5 billion initial package to address the immediate needs of its developing member countries (DMCs) as they respond to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic”.

On the same day, the African Development Bank announced “bold measures to curb coronavirus”, but this largely consisted of “health and safety measures to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus in countries where it has a presence, including its headquarters in Abidjan. The measures include telecommuting, video conferencing in lieu of physical meetings, the suspension of visits to Bank buildings, and the cancellation of all travel, meetings, and conferences, until further notice”. No actual financial support was stipulated in the announcement.

Trading Ideological Places 

As the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic escalated, demands for government support intensified from employers, employees and trade unions. The pandemic is wreaking particular havoc among poor workers who can hardly manage in “normal” times. As noted above, across Kenya jobs were already being lost before the coronavirus epidemic. Those in the informal economy are exceptionally vulnerable because of the extensive lockdown the government announced on March 22, 2020.

Those earning a precarious living in the gig economy face special hurdles in making themselves heard and receiving support. With the lockdown of cities, couriers become even more essential to deliver food and other supplies, but they lack employment rights, so that many cannot afford self-isolation if they become sick. Customer service workers at airports and in supermarkets have sometimes been at the receiving end of pandemonium and the anxieties of irate customers.

The pandemic is wreaking particular havoc among poor workers who can hardly manage in “normal” times

The pandemic has helped bring political perspective to national and international preoccupations that suddenly look petty in hindsight. For example, as one author puts it in a story in The Atlantic of March 11, 2020, “It’s not hard to feel like the coronavirus has exposed the utter smallness of Brexit . . . Ultimately, Brexit is not a matter of life and death literally or economically. The coronavirus, meanwhile, is killing people and perhaps many businesses”.

The same could be said of many trivial political squabbles in other countries. In the United States, one observer notes in The Atlantic of March 19, 2020,

In the absence of meaningful national leadership, Americans across the country are making their own decisions for our collective well-being. You’re seeing it in small stores deciding on their own to close; you’re seeing it in restaurants evolving without government decree to offer curbside pickup or offer delivery for the first time; you’re seeing it in the offices that closed long before official guidance arrived.

The author concludes poignantly, “The most isolating thing most of us have ever done is, ironically, almost surely the most collective experience we’ve ever had in our lifetimes”. And I can attest that I have seen this spirit of cooperation and collaboration on my own campus, among faculty, staff, and students. But the pandemic also raises questions about how effectively democracy can be upheld under the coronavirus lockdowns. Might desperate despots in some countries try to use the crisis to postpone elections?

Also upended by the coronavirus pandemic are traditional ideological polarities. Right-wing governments are competing with left-wing governments or opposition liberal legislatures as in the United States to craft “big government” mitigation packages. Many are borrowing monetary and fiscal measures from the Great Recession playbook, some of which they resisted when they were in opposition or not yet in office.

In terms of monetary policy, several central banks have cut interest rates. On March 15, 2020, the US Federal Reserve cut the rate to near zero in a coordinated move with the central banks of Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The Fed also announced measures to shore up financial markets including a package of $700 billion for asset purchase and a credit facility for commercial banks. Three days later, as noted above, the European Central Bank launched a €750 billion Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme. These measures failed to assure the markets which continued to plummet.

The pandemic has helped bring political perspective to national and international preoccupations that suddenly look petty in hindsight

As for fiscal policy, several governments announced radical spending measures. On 20 March, the UK announced that the government would pay up to 80 per cent of the wages of employees across the country sent home as businesses shut their doors as part of the drastic coronavirus containment strategy. This followed the example of the Danish government that had earlier pledged to cover 75 per cent of employees’ salaries for firms that agreed not to cut staff.

In the United States, Congress began working on a $1 trillion economic relief programme, later raised to $1.8 trillion. The negotiations between the two parties over the proposed stimulus bill proved bitterly contentious. For President Trump and Republicans it was a bitter pill to swallow, given their antipathy to “big government”. It marked the fall of another ideological pillar of Trumpism and Republicanism. For some, the demise of these pillars marks the end of the Trump presidency, which has been exposed for its deadly incompetence, autocratic political culture, and aversion to truth and transparency. We will of course only know for sure in November 2020.

Might desperate despots in some countries try to use the crisis to postpone elections?

In Kenya employers, workers, unions and analysts have implored the government to undertake drastic measures to boost the economy by providing bailouts, tax incentives and rebates, and social safety nets, as well as increasing government spending. Demands have been made to banks to extend credit to the private sector and to the Central Bank to lower or even freeze interest rates for six months. The Sunday Nation of March 22 reported pay cuts were looming for workers as firms struggled to keep afloat, and that the government had scrambled a war chest of Sh140 billion to shore up the economy and avert a recession.

Home Alone

Home isolation is recommended by epidemiologists as a critical means of what they call flattening the curve of the pandemic. Its economic impact is well understood, less so its psychological and emotional impact. While imperative, social isolation might exacerbate the growing loneliness epidemic as some call it, especially in the developed countries.

According to an article in The Atlantic magazine of March 10, 2020, the loneliness epidemic is becoming a serious health care crisis.

Research has shown that loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. A lack of social relationships is an enormous risk factor for death, increasing the likelihood of mortality by 26 percent. A major study found that, when compared with people with weak social ties, people who enjoyed meaningful relationships were 50 percent more likely to survive over time.

The problem of loneliness is often thought to be prevalent among older people, but in countries such as the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, “The problem is especially acute among young adults ages 18 to 22”. Research shows that the feeling of loneliness is not a reflection of physical isolation, but of the meaning and depth of one’s social engagements. Among the Millennial and Gen Z generations loneliness is exacerbated by social media.

Photo. Anaya Katlego/Unsplash

Several studies have pointed out that social media may be reinforcing social disconnection, which is at the root of loneliness. This is because while social media has facilitated instant communication and made people more densely connected than ever, it offers a poor substitute for the intimate communication and dense and meaningful interactions humans crave and get from real friends and family. It fosters shallow and superficial connections, surrogate and even fake friendships, and narcissistic and exhibitionist sociability.

Loneliness should of course not be confused with solitude. Loneliness can also not be attributed solely to external conditions as it is often rooted in one’s psychological state. But the density and quality of social interactions matters. The current loneliness epidemic reflects the irony of a vicious cycle, a nexus of triple impulses: in cultures and sensibilities of self-absorption and self-invention, some people invite or choose loneliness either as a marker of self-sufficiency or social success, while the Internet makes it possible for people to be lonely, and lonely people tend to be more attracted to the Internet.

Among the Millennial and Gen Z generations loneliness is exacerbated by social media

But technology can also help mitigate social distancing. To quote one author writing in The Atlantic on March 14, 2020, “As more people employers and schools encourage people to stay home, people across the country find themselves video-chatting more than they usually might: going to meetings on Zoom, catching up with clients on Skype, FaceTime with therapists, even hosting virtual bar mitzvahs”. Jointly playing video games, watching streaming entertainment, or having virtual dinner parties also opens bonding opportunities.

Besides the growth and consumption of modern media and its disruptive and isolating technologies, loneliness is being reinforced by structural forces including the spread of the nuclear family, an invention that even in the United States has a short history as a social formation. This is evident in sociological studies and demonstrated in the lead story in the March 2020 edition of The Atlantic.


The article shows that for much of American history people lived in extended clans and families, whose great strength was their resilience and their role as a socialising force. The decline of multigenerational families dates to the development of an industrial economy and reached its apogee after World War II between 1950 and 1975, when it all began falling apart, again due to broader structural forces.

One doesn’t have to agree with the author’s analysis of what led to the profound changes in family structure. Certainly, women did not benefit from the older extended family structures, which were resolutely patriarchal. But it is a fact that currently, more people live alone in the United States—and in many other countries including those in the developing world—than ever before. The author stresses, “The period when the nuclear family flourished was not normal. It was a freakish historical moment when all of society conspired to obscure its essential fragility”.

He continues, “For many people, the era of the nuclear family has been a catastrophe. All forms of inequality are cruel, but family inequality may be the cruelest. It damages the heart”. He urges society “to figure out better ways to live together”. The question is: what will be the impact of the social distancing demanded by the coronavirus pandemic on the loneliness epidemic and the prospects of developing new and more fulfilling ways of living together?

Coronavirus Hegemonic Rivalries

At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, China bore the brunt of being both the victims and the victimised. The rest of the world feared the contagion’s spread from China and before long the disease did spread to other Asian countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Iran. This triggered anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism in Europe, North America, and even Africa.

For many Africans, it was a source of perverse relief that the coronavirus had not originated on the continent. Many wondered how Africa and Africans would have been portrayed and treated given the long history, in the western and global imaginaries, of pathologising African cultures, societies, and bodies as diseased embodiments of sub-humanity.

Disease breeds xenophobia, the irrational fear of the “other”. Commenting on the influenza pandemic in The Wall Street Journal, one scholar reminds us, “As the flu spread in 1918, many communities found scapegoats. Chileans blamed the poor, Senegalese blamed Brazilians, Brazilians blamed the Germans, Iranians blamed the British, and so on”. One key lesson is that to combat pandemics global cooperation is essential. Unfortunately, that lesson seems to be ignored by some governments in the current pandemic, although like in other pandemics, good Samaritans also abound.

For many Africans, it was a source perverse relief that the coronavirus had not originated on the continent

As China, South Korea, and Japan gradually contained the spread of the disease, and Italy and other European countries turned into its epicenter, and as the contagion began surging in the United States, the tables turned. While the Asian democracies largely managed to contain the coronavirus through less coercive and more transparent ways, it is China that took centre-stage in the global narrative. As would be expected in a world of intense hegemonic rivalries between the United States and China, the coronavirus pandemic has become weaponised in the two countries’ superpower rivalry.

On March 19, 2020, China marked a milestone since the outbreak of the coronavirus when it was announced that there were no new domestic cases; the 34 new cases identified that day were all brought in by people coming from abroad. An article in the New York Times of March 19, 2020, reports,

Across Asia, travellers from Europe and the United States are being barred or forced into quarantine. Gyms, private clinics and restaurants in Hong Kong warn them to stay away. Even Chinese parents who proudly sent their children to study in New York or London are now mailing them masks and sanitizer or rushing them home on flights that can cost $25,000.

The Asian democracies largely managed to contain the coronavirus through less coercive and more transparent ways

Even before this turning point, as coronavirus cases in China declined, the country began projecting itself as a heroic model of containment. It anxiously sought to furbish its once battered image by exporting medical equipment, experts, and other forms of humanitarian assistance. Such is the new-found conceit of China that, to Trump’s racist casting of the “China virus” some misguided Chinese nationalists falsely charge that the coronavirus started with American troops, and scornfully disparage the United States for its apparently slow and chaotic containment efforts.

Another article in The New York Times of March 18, 2020, captures China’s strategy for recasting its global image.

From Japan to Iraq, Spain to Peru, it has provided or pledged humanitarian assistance in the form of donations or medical expertise — an aid blitz that is giving China the chance to reposition itself not as the authoritarian incubator of a pandemic but as a responsible global leader at a moment of worldwide crisis. In doing so, it has stepped into a role that the West once dominated in times of natural disaster or public health emergency, and that President Trump has increasingly ceded in his ‘America First’ retreat from international engagement.

The story continues,

Now, the global failures in confronting the pandemic from Europe to the United States have given the Chinese leadership a platform to prove its model works — and potentially gain some lasting geopolitical currency. As it has done in the past, the Chinese state is using its extensive tools and deep pockets to build partnerships around the world, relying on trade, investments and, in this case, an advantageous position as the world’s largest maker of medicines and protective masks . . . On Wednesday, China said it would provide two million surgical masks, 200,000 advanced masks and 50,000 testing kits to Europe . . . One of China’s leading entrepreneurs, Jack Ma, offered to donate 500,000 tests and one million masks to the United States, where hospitals are facing shortages.

Some analysts argue that the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the decoupling of the United States from China that began with President Trump’s trade war launched in 2018. American hawks see the pandemic as bolstering their argument that China’s dominance of certain global supply chains including some medical supplies and pharmaceutical ingredients poses a systemic risk to the American economy. Many others believe Trump’s “America First” not only damaged the country’s standing and its preparedness to deal with the pandemic, but also to create the international solidarity required for its containment and control.

In the words of one author in The Atlantic of March 15, 2020,

Like Japan in the mid-1800s, the United States now faces a crisis that disproves everything the country believes about itself . . . The United States, long accustomed to thinking of itself as the best, most efficient, and most technologically advanced society in the world, is about to be proved an unclothed emperor. When human life is in peril, we are not as good as Singapore, as South Korea, as Germany.

Some commentators even go further, contending that the pandemic is facilitating the process of de-globalisation more generally as countries not only lock themselves in national enclosures to protect themselves, but seek to become more economically self-sufficient. It is important to note that throughout history, there have been waves and retreats of globalisation. The globalisation of the late 19th century, which was characterised by massive migrations, growth of international trade, and expansion of global production chains with the emergence of modern multinational and transnational corporations, retreated in the inferno of World War I and the Great Depression.

The globalisation of the late 20th century, engendered by the emergence of new information and communication technologies and value chains, the rise of emerging economies as serious players in the world system, among other factors, had already started fraying by the time of the Great Recession. The latter pried open not only the deep inequalities that neo-liberal globalisation had engendered, but also gave vent to a crescendo of nationalist and populist backlashes.

Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic is also throwing into sharp relief the bankruptcy of populist nationalism. It underscores global interconnectedness, that pathogens do not respect our imaginary communities of nation-states, that the ties that bind humanity are thicker than the threads of separation.

Universities Go Online

The coronavirus pandemic has negatively impacted many industries and sectors, including education, following the closure of schools, colleges and universities. However, fear of crowding and lockdowns has also boosted online industries ranging from e-commerce and food delivery to online entertainment and gaming, to cloud solutions for business continuity, to e-health and e-learning.

The coronavirus pandemic is likely to leave a lasting impact on the growth of e-work or telecommuting, and other online-mediated business practices. Before the pandemic the gig economy was already a growing part of many economies, so were e-health and e-learning.

According to the British Guardian newspaper of March 6, 2020, General practitioners (GPs) have been “told to switch to digital consultations to combat Covid-19”. The story elaborates,

In a significant policy change, NHS bosses want England’s 7,000 GP surgeries to start conducting as many remote consultations as soon as possible, replacing patient visits with phone, video, online or text contact. They want to reduce the risk of someone infected with Covid-19 turning up at a surgery and free GPs to deal with the extra workload created by the virus . . . The approach could affect many of the 340m appointments a year with GPs and other practice staff, only 1% of which are currently carried out by video, such as Skype.

Another story in the same paper also notes that supermarkets in Britain have been “asked to boost deliveries for coronavirus self-isolation”.

The educational sector has been one of the most affected by the coronavirus pandemic as the closure of schools and universities has often been adopted by many governments as the first line of defense. It could be argued that higher education institutions have even taken the lead in managing the pandemic in three major ways: shifting instruction online, conducting research on the coronavirus and its multiple impacts, and advising public policy.

Ever since the crisis broke out, I’ve been following the multiple threats it poses to various sectors especially higher education, avidly devouring the academic media including The Chronicle of a higher EducationInside Higher EducationUniversity BusinessTimes Higher Education, and University World News, just to mention a few.

Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic is also throwing into sharp relief the bankruptcy of populist nationalism

These papers and magazines alerted me early, as a university administrator, to the need to develop early coronavirus planning in my own institution. A sample of the issues discussed in the numerous articles can be found in the following articles in The Chronicle of a higher Education (see textbox below).

Clearly, if these fifty articles from one higher education magazine are any guide, the higher education sector has been giving a lot of thought to the opportunities and challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic. Some prognosticate that higher education will fundamentally change. An article in the The New York Times of March 18, 2020 hopes that “One positive outcome from the current crisis would be for academic elites to forgo their presumption that online learning is a second-rate or third-rate substitute for in-person delivery”. There will be some impact, but of course, only time will tell the scale of that impact.

Certainly, at my university we’ve learned invaluable lessons from the sudden switch to learning online using various platforms including Blackboard, our learning management system, Zoom, BlueJeans, Skype, not to mention email and social media such as WhatsApp. This experience is likely to be incorporated into the instructional pedagogies of our faculty.

But history also tells us that old systems often reassert themselves after a crisis, at the same time as they incorporate some changes brought by responses to the crisis. As the author of the article on “7 Takeaways” (see textbox below) puts it, “Many forces exerted pressure on the traditional four-year, bricks-and-mortar, face-to-face campus experience before the coronavirus, and they’ll still be there when the virus is conquered or goes dormant”.

It is likely that at many universities previously averse to online teaching and learning, online instructional tools and platforms will be incorporated more widely, creating a mosaic of face-to-face learning, blended learning, and online learning.

Whither the Future

Moments of profound crisis such as the one engendered by the coronavirus pandemic attract soothsayers and futurists. The American magazine, Politico, invited some three dozen thinkers to prognosticate on the long-term impact of the pandemic. They all offer intriguing reflections. For community life, some suggest the personal will become dangerous, a new kind of patriotism will emerge, polarisation will decline, faith in serious experts will return, there will be less individualism, changes in religious worship will occur, as well as the rise of new forms of reform.

The coronavirus pandemic is likely to leave a lasting impact on the growth of e-work or telecommuting, and other online-mediated business practices

As for technology, they suggest regulatory barriers to online tools will fall, healthier digital lifestyles will emerge, there will be a boon for virtual reality, the rise of telemedicine, provision of stronger medical care, government will become Big Pharma, and science will reign again. With reference to government, they predict Congress will finally go digital, big government will make a comeback, government service will regain its cachet, there will be a new civic federalism, revived trust in institutions, the rules we live by won’t all apply, and they urge us to expect a political uprising.

In terms of elections, they foresee electronic voting going mainstream, Election Day will become Election Month, and voting by mail will become the norm. For the global economy, they forecast that more restraints will be placed on mass consumption, stronger domestic supply chains will grow, and the inequality gap will widen. As for lifestyle, there will be a hunger for diversion, less communal dining, a revival of parks, a change in our understanding of “change”, and the tyranny of habit no more.

In truth, no one really knows for sure.

Textbox


  1. American Colleges Seek to Develop Coronavirus Response, Abroad and at Home, January 28, 2020. Focuses on limiting travel to China and preparing campus health facilities.
  2. Coronavirus Is Prompting Alarm on American Campuses. Anti-Asian Discrimination Could Do More Harm. February 5, 2020. Focuses curbing anti-Asian xenophobia and racism on campuses.
  3. How Much Could the Coronavirus Hurt Chinese Enrollments? February 20, 2020. Focuses on the possible impact of the coronavirus on Chinese enrollments the largest source of international students in American universities.
  4. Colleges Brace for More-Widespread Outbreak of Coronavirus, February 26, 2020. Focuses on universities assembling campuswide emergency-response committees, preparing communications plans, cautioning students to use preventive health measures, and even preparing for possible college closures.
  5. Colleges Pull Back From Italy and South Korea as Coronavirus Spreads. February 26, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  6. An Admissions Bet Goes Bust: For colleges that gambled on international enrollment, now what? March 1, 2020. Focuses on the dire financial implications of the collapse in the international student market because of the coronavirus crisis.
  7. The Coronavirus Is Upending Higher Ed. Here Are the Latest Developments. March 3, 2020. Focuses on universities increasingly moving classes online, asking students to leave campus, lobbying for stimulus package from government, imposing travel restrictions, and worrying about future enrollments.
  8. CDC Warns Colleges to ‘Consider’ Canceling Study-Abroad Trips. March 5, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  9. Enrollment Headaches From Coronavirus Are Many. They Won’t Be Relieved Soon. March 5, 2020. Focuses on the financial implications of declining prospects for the recruitment of international students.
  10. The Face of Face-Touching Research Says, ‘It’s Quite Frightening’. March 5, 2020. Highlights research on the difficulties for people not to touch their faces, one of the preventive guidelines against the coronavirus.
  11. U. of Washington Cancels In-Person Classes, Becoming First Major U.S. Institution to Do So Amid Coronavirus Fears. March 6, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  12. How Do You Quarantine for Coronavirus on a College Campus? March 6, 2020. Provides guidelines on who should be quarantined, what kind of housing should be provided for quarantined students, the supplies they need, and what to when students fall ill.
  13. As Coronavirus Spreads, the Decision to Move Classes Online Is the First Step. What Comes Next? March 6, 2020. Provides advice on making the transition to online classes.
  14. With Coronavirus Keeping Them in U.S., International Students Face Uncertainty. So Do Their Colleges. March 6, 2020. Provides guidelines on how to help with the travel, visa, financial and emotional needs of international students.
  15. Going Online in a Hurry: What to Do and Where to Start. March 9, 2020. Provides guidelines on how to prepare for course online assignments, assessment, examinations, course materials, instruction, and communication with students quickly.
  16. Will Coronavirus Cancel Your Conference? March 9, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  17. What ‘Middle’ Administrators Can Do to Help in the Coronavirus Crisis. March 10, 2020. Provides advice to middle managers in universities on how to community with their people, be more responsive and available than usual, convene their own crisis response teams, and keeping relevant campus authorities informed of major problems in your unit.
  18. Communicating With Parents Can Be Tricky — Especially When It Comes to Coronavirus. March 10, 2020. Provides advice on how to provide updates to parents some of who might oppose the closure of campus.
  19. Are Colleges Prepared to Move All of Their Classes Online? March 10, 2020. Notes that this is a huge experiment as many institutions, faculty members, and even students have little experience in online learning and provides some guidelines.
  20. Why Coronavirus Looks Like a ‘Black Swan’ Moment for Higher Ed. March 10, 2020. Offers reflections on the likely impact of the move to online teaching in terms of prompt universities to stop distinguishing between online and classroom programs.
  21. Teaching Remotely While Quarantined in China. A neophyte learns how to teach online. March, 11, 2020. A fascinating personal story by a faculty member of his experience with remote teaching while living under strict social isolation, which has gone better than he expected.
  22. When Coronavirus Closes Colleges, Some Students Lose Hot Meals, Health Care, and a Place to Sleep. March 11, 2020. On the various social hardships campus closures bring to some vulnerable students.
  23. How to Make Your Online Pivot Less Brutal. March 12, 2020. Offers advice that it’s OK to not know what you’re doing and seek help, keeping it as simple and accessible as you can, expect challenges and adjust.
  24. Preparing for Emergency Online Teaching. March 12, 2020. Provides resources guides for teaching online.
  25. Academe’s Coronavirus Shock Doctrine. March 12, 2020. Discusses the added pressures facing faculty because of the sudden conversion to online teaching.
  26. Shock, Fear, and Fatalism: As Coronavirus Prompts Colleges to Close, Students Grapple With Uncertainty. March 12, 2020. Reports how college students are reacting to campus closures with shock, uncertainty, sadness, and, in some cases, devil-may-care fatalism.
  27. As the Coronavirus Scrambles Colleges’ Finances, Leaders Hope for the Best and Plan for the Worst. March 12, 2020. Reflects on the likely disruptions on university finances from reduced enrollments and donations.
  28. What About the Health of Staff Members? March 13, 2020. Discusses how best to ensure staff continue to be healthy.
  29. As Coronavirus Drives Students From Campuses, What Happens to the Workers Who Feed Them? March 13, 2020. Discusses the challenges of maintaining non-essential staff on payroll during prolonged campus closure.
  30. 2020: The Year That Shredded the Admissions Calendar. March 15, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  31. How to Lead in a Crisis. March 16. Insightful advice from the former President of Tulane University during Hurricane Katrina.
  32. Colleges Emptied Dorms Amid Coronavirus Fears. What Can They Do About Off-Campus Housing? March 16, 2020. Reports on how some institutions have taken a more aggressive approach to limiting the spread of the virus in off-campus housing.
  33. How to Quickly (and Safely) Move a Lab Course Online. March 17, 2020. The author discusses his positive experiences to move a lab course quickly online and still meet his learning objectives through lab kits, virtual labs and simulations.
  34. University Labs Head to the Front Lines of Coronavirus Containment. March 17, 2020. Discusses how university medical centers have taken the lead in coronavirus research and due to the national shortage of testing kits used tests of their own design to begin screening patients.
  35. Hounded Out of U.S., Scientist Invents Fast Coronavirus Test in China. March 18, 2020. An intriguing story of how the US’s crackdown on scholars with ties to China has triggered a reverse brain drain of Chinese-American scholars to China inadvertently promoting China’s ambitious drive to attract top talent under its Thousand Talent program. It features a scholar and his team that are leading the race to develop coronavirus treatment.
  36. Coronavirus Crisis Underscores the Traits of a Resilient College. March 18, 2020. Discusses the qualities of resilient institutions including effective communication, management of cash flow, and investment in electronic infrastructure.
  37. Coronavirus Creates Challenges for Students Returning From Abroad. March 18, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  38. As Coronavirus Spreads, Universities Stall Their Research to Keep Human Subjects Safe. March 18, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  39. The Covid-19 Crisis Is Widening the Gap Between Secure and Insecure Instructors. March 18, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  40. Here’s Why More Colleges Are Extending Deposit Deadlines — and Why Some Aren’t. March 18, 2020. Discusses how some universities are changing their admission processes.
  41. How to Help Students Keep Learning Through a Disruption. March 18, 2020. Provides guidelines on how to keep students engaged in learning and support instructors throughout the crisis.
  42. As Classrooms Go Virtual, What About Campus-Leadership Searches? March 19, 2020. Discusses how senior university leadership searches are being affected and ways to handle the situation by reconsidering the steps, migrating to technology, and staying in touch with candidates.
  43. If Coronavirus Patients Overwhelm Hospitals, These Colleges Are Offering Their Dorms. March 19, 2020. Discusses how some universities are offering to donate their empty dorms for use by local hospitals.
  44. As Professors Scramble to Adjust to the Coronavirus Crisis, the Tenure Clock Still Ticks. March 19, 2020. Discusses how at many universities junior faculty remain under pressure to meet the tenure timelines despite the various institutional disruptions.
  45. ‘The Worst-Case Scenario’: What Financial Disclosures Tell Us About Coronavirus’s Strain on Colleges So Far. March 19, 2020. Reports the financial straights facing many universities and that Moody’s Investors Service issued a bleak forecast this week for American higher education.
  46. As the Coronavirus Forces Faculty Online, It’s ‘Like Drinking Out of a Firehose’. March 20, 2020. Recorded video interviews with four selected instructors by The Chronicle to collect their thoughts on how they are managing the sudden change.
  47. A Coronavirus Stimulus Plan Is Coming. How Will Higher Education Figure In? March 20, 2020. The article wonders how universities will fare under the massive stimulus package under negotiation in the US Congress. It notes “Nearly a dozen higher-education associations have also asked lawmakers for about $50 billion in federal assistance to help colleges and students stay afloat” and an additional $13 billion for research labs.
  48. Covid-19 Has Forced Higher Ed to Pivot to Online Learning. Here Are 7 Takeaways So Far. March 20, 2020. The takeaways include the fact that “What most colleges are doing right now is not online education,” “Many of the tools were already at hand,” “The pivot can be surprisingly cheap,” “This is your wake-up call,” The pandemic could change education delivery forever…”, “… but it probably won’t”
  49. ‘Nobody Signed Up for This’: One Professor’s Guidelines for an Interrupted Semester. March 20, 2020. An interesting account on how one faculty changed his syllabus and communicated with his students.
  50. The Coronavirus Has Pushed Courses Online. Professors Are Trying Hard to Keep Up. March 20, 2020. Makes many of the same observations noted above.

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Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is a Malawian historian, academic, literary critic, novelist, short-story writer and blogger. He is the Associate Provost and North Star Distinguished Professor at Case Western Reserve University.

Long Reads

The Lion, the Gazelle and the Mountain: Migration Tales of the Cattle People

In Ateker lands, explanations about the root causes of migration are often elided, not talked about. Centuries since the young walked away from Karamoja, the migration of uninitiated young men is still a sore point.

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The Lion, the Gazelle and the Mountain: Migration Tales of the Cattle People
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The draining emotional stress of the last three years breaks up memory, bringing in hallucinatory waves the past as a refracted landscape. The depth of time grows deceptive so that the last weeks of March 2020 cave into a distant darkness, whereas events that happened before that, like the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals, seem more recent.

The pandemic broke up what I had thought would be a finalising of the then ten-year quest to understand the cultural and identity texture of the region’s migratory patterns. While I bemoaned the breakage, unbeknownst to me, the pandemic lockdown had, rather than interfere with the hard-earned and long-running project (self-funded), offered a very rare glimpse into the heart of the matter itself.

Dodging cattle rustlers’ bullets

I had since 2008 followed the migratory routes and fortunes of the Nilotic peoples of East Africa, and at the time of the lockdown, I had returned from the pastoralist societies straddling Uganda, South Sudan, and Kenya and was lining up a place for myself on a convoy to Kangaten, the capital of the Ethiopian Woreda of Nyangatom in the Omo region, on the northern shores of Lake Turkana.

The outbreak of the South Sudan civil war and the constant and armed cattle-rustling had stymied the travel. The civil war was not going to end any time soon, and cattle rustling was as ingrained into the culture of these pastoralist lands as a pancreas is to a stomach. You had then to ascertain where the civil war was and to study the seasonal rise and fall in the rustling calendar (there is such a thing) to know when and where to jump in and out.

Doing all of which seemed to have been for naught as the world’s lights went out in March 2020. You stood frozen to the spot, unable to go over that hill, driven early indoors to watch your mind fall to bits.

And yet that moment of global catastrophe was telling me, in reverse facsimile, the very story of what I had seen as a halted project. A global pandemic lockdown and migrations of the people are metanarratives on such a vast scale that like all metanarratives, are so big that even when they seem unrelated, leave no in-between spaces as small time factors do; they feed on and reflect on each other.

If the “migration of the peoples” is movement on a monumental scale, then a global lockdown is its polar opposite, immobility of a staggering momentousness. It goes without saying that the months of 2020-2021 had turned the globe into a laboratory to show us why human beings, like sand dunes and water, must be constantly on the move.

Stood still, human society, like decaying refuse left in one place too long, stagnates and begins to fester. The rapid depletion of food stores, collapse of economies, environmental meltdown, and the sudden and harsh tyrannical power structures enforcing the lockdown, would have been the chief factors behind the 15th and 16th century disintegration of the society some experts say had settled in roughly the present day location of Kotido in northeastern Uganda.

Christ over Lodwar

As if emphasising the faith of Christians, the last and enduring insight had come from climbing a big hill in Lodwar town to go have a look at the imitation Christ the Redeemer installed to look over Lodwar town, the capital of Turkana in northern Kenya. Under the outstretched arms of Christ, the breadth of Turkana (not its considerable length) can be seen from the haze over Lake Turkana to the East, to the wall of mountains to the West that separate Kenya from Uganda.

The aridity of the Turkana landscape is one that smites the senses, as a colonial-era explorer, the murderous, psychotic Hungarian Count Sámuel Teleki de Szék summed it up:

“I can’t imagine a landscape more barren, dried out and grim. At 1.22 pm (of March 17 1888) the Bassonarok appeared, an enormous lake of blue water dotted with some islands. The northern shores cannot be seen. At its southern end it must be about 20 kilometers wide. As far as the eye can see are barren and volcanic shores.”

The “Bassonarok” is what the Samburu—who pointed it out to Teleki so he could go and “discover” it—called the lake. Teleki promptly names it after his benefactor, the Austro-Hungarian crown prince, Rudolf, who had funded the expedition, as speculation had been that this was a possible source of the River Nile.

This “dried out and grim” landscape is where the migrating Turkana chose to make their home. Little visible in the land justifies this choice, for if migration is a search for the more conducive land as the common view will have it, then on first sight this does not appear to be the place.

If the “migration of the peoples” is movement on a monumental scale, then a global lockdown is its polar opposite, immobility of a staggering momentousness.

As the Turkana themselves will tell you, their ancestors came from across that wall of mountains, from present day Uganda. In contrast to Turkana, the Karamoja region is relatively better watered and drained, with the mix of sufficient pasture and absence of tsetse fly that favours animal husbandry. The often described route of this migration itself confounds the choice.

Whatever it was that was driving the Turkana away was not climate. When I started out on the quest, my aim had been a more general travel through the pastoralist lands of the region. A gargantuan and not well-advised choice given that up to 70 per cent of the Greater Horn of Africa is said to be pastoralist. You have to be a multi-state institution, rather than a self-funding peripatetic writer to undertake such a project.

The first foray out into Turkana lands in 2012 quickly forced me to draw a smaller plan, which still covered southeastern South Sudan, northeastern Uganda, northwestern Kenya and southwestern Ethiopia, a landmass bigger than many countries.

It took all of a decade to do, with some balance left uncleared.

Down the valley

In July 2012, I set off from Kitale on a recceing trip to size up the task, dropping down the escarpment and onto the floor of the Kenyan North Rift. At Kalem Ngorok, I happened to ask what the name of the place meant.

“Hornless cattle”, I was told.

From my formative years in boarding school in Teso in Uganda, I knew that Ngorok meant cattle. I had probably had an inkling of Kalem, but the connection that among the Luo-speaking Lango alem referred to hornless cattle, struck me like thunder out of a clear sky.

As I made my way back to Kitale, the premise upon which I had based the project started to fray and in the months that followed, grew confused, and what Kalem Ngorok had implanted in my mind would not go away.

As the Turkana themselves will tell you, their ancestors came from across that wall of mountains, from present day Uganda.

The pivot away from the original framing meant working out another. The ensuing search sent me scrounging through theology, culinary culture, language, naming systems, clan formation—all areas that yielded valuable knowledge but still did not adequately add up. Without a framework, information is just a pile of meaningless data. But frameworks are not useful just because they exist. The trick was finding one that went to the heart of the matter.

I did not find one; it found me. In the rain-soaked April of 2018, I was determined to make it to South Sudan. My target was Kapoeta, capital of the South Sudan state of Namorunyang. The route that I chose was via Turkana, seeing as it would also be my first time visiting Lodwar, hence bringing the insights that come from contiguity into the mix.

I had by then learnt that the collective terminology by which the pastoralist group I narrowed my quest down to was “Ateker”. But this grouping is too big to look at all at once, so I settled for those who the Ugandan politician, David Pulkol controversially refers to as “core Ateker”—the Karamojong of Uganda, the Turkana of Kenya, the Toposa of South Sudan and the Nyangatom of Ethiopia who oscillate problematically within their collective circle.

In Lodwar, in the shadow of the great gathering of the Ateker peoples in the Tobong Loree festival that brought many Ateker from the region together, conversations yielded a word, “Asapan”. It was to be the turning point.

Bull worship

I liked it for that clipped, exact phonetics of which the Ateker language overflows. I did not pay much attention to it nor think it was more important than the other words and constructions I was meeting. What I liked about it at the time was its cultural texture, describing as it did the male rite of passage from an uninitiated youth to a full man allowed to slaughter bulls. Among the cattle keepers, the bull is held in special, god-like status. There is a becoming complexity to this, for while in economic terms the cow is of greater value, exchanging for 13 goats where the bull will collect only 7 good grade goats, the bull is special for spiritual and cultural purposes. For insight, a young man will have a bull calf pointed out as his. Henceforth, the two grow up as what can only be described as spiritual twins. They will share a name. When a young warrior returns successfully from a battle or raid, he is expected during the celebration to decorate his bull. He is mentioned in reference to his bull. Should his bull have a red coat, he will be given the pet name Apaloreng, and if black, Apalokwang, etc. Stories are told of men going into terminal shock upon the death or abduction of their bulls, and in Kapoeta, I was told that a man whose bull had been rustled, and who followed its track, began to walk into the fire in which the bull was being roasted.

To loosen the tongue of an Ateker man, start a conversation about bulls. To not be thought man enough to slaughter a bull has profound spiritual and political implications. And in what will have a bearing in the central theme of this essay, a man who cannot slaughter a bull has no political influence, cannot talk in an assembly and is the last to eat and drink.

This aspect of Asapan—the rite of passage allowing a man to slaughter a bull—fascinated me all the way to Kapoeta. And yet, the velocity of the provisional framing I had created was still bearing me forth, hence, I was interested in finding words which, like Kalemngorok, would explain to me just how connected to my Lango these peoples of the arid cattle fields were.

The lion, ostrich and mountain sets

In Kapoeta I asked what Toposa meant. They said to me, “We were heading west during our migration”.

“West?” I asked and before they could respond, I said, that is what “To” means, right?

They nodded in agreement. So I said, in that case, “The Toposa word for East is Kide?”

They were struck silent that a man from Lango in northern Uganda, so far from home, would know this. There were others that left me disoriented. Those who will remember the news from yesteryears will recognise the name Fr. George King’a. He was a South Sudanese priest and politician who played important roles in both the united Sudan and in peeling the South off it. There is more to him. But by the time I got to Kapoeta, I had gotten into the habit of asking the meaning behind everything. And so in Kapoeta, sitting next to his grave and talking to his nephew, then Kapoeta MP, Hon. Emmanuel Epone Lolimo, told me that his uncle, Fr. King’a had been so named because he was born at the border point of Kapoeta and Riwoto.

Where I was myself born, the line separating one allotment from the other, is called “wang king’a”.

That was as far as the words and names were concerned. Sitting there, just listening to the people, the texture of their voices and mannerisms, I could have been in any place in Lango. I had never met such close relatives of Lango before.

It was another word, this time in English, that pushed me further to understand the connection between asapan and why the Turkana most likely left Karamoja and chose to live in the desert instead. One evening, in Kapoeta, at Lorika’s Hotel where I stayed, I was in a small group with the governor, Louis Lobong and three of his state’s ministers discussing Toposa society when I started to understand the significance of asapan.

When a young warrior returns successfully from a battle or raid, he is expected during the celebration to decorate his bull.

One of the ministers, Lorika himself, drew an organogram of age sets and explained to me what he called “promotion”. These age sets proceed by order of birth, by which men born in a certain period belong in a socio-political cluster with influence. These age sets, like the generation sets, are mostly named after animals or mountains, so there is the mountain set—Ngimoru, ostrich set—Nguwana, gazelle set—Ngigetei, lion set—Ngingatunyo, etc.

(The age sets go by different names among the numerous Ateker groups, and one incredible man I met in Lodwar, Boniface Korobe, has traced the lineages back to the 1730s or thereabouts, when the effective split with Jie began for Turkana.)

I then asked about the generation age-set.

The response to this simple question removed the scales from my eyes.

They explained that ever since the Toposa left Jie (who live in present day Kotido), they had lost the generation set system. In their explanation, the ancestors of the Toposa had left without the transfer of power that a retiring generation proffers to their sons. No longer standing in the darkness, a lot about the Ateker began to make sense.  This “leaving”, as I was to understand it again and again, had not been made in good stead.

Becoming a full man at 70

Unravelling this would take me all of another year. How I undertook the project was to save enough money to last me a handful of weeks at a time. But before then, and when I returned to Moroto in Karamoja, the significance of asapan was no longer in doubt. I met an old man, John Napua who told me that he had received asapan at the age of 70, whereupon he felt like a full man. He was inducted into the Ngimoru generation set and wears the defining copper bracelet of his set. He did not have to tell me what that meant. A posse of young men, when I sat down with Napua in Naita Kwai, just outside Moroto town, circled him the same way that powerful politicians or bishops, are shadowed by aides.

There was a sad subtext to the story of Napua. During his childhood in the 1950s, his family had lost all their animals in one single raid. The further deaths of his sisters meant there would be no dowry to return animals to his family. They did not have boys in numbers and age enough to carry out compensatory, restocking raids. Napua and his family fell out of the structures of power. His father did not have the animals to fund his sons’ asapan when the time came. The one open option, albeit to an alternative, viable life, was to be sent to the colonial government schools. As a man who could read and write, and speak English, Napua found employment in the civil service. But it was not asapan and the distinction counted.

Lopiar, The Sweep

There was a further twist to this, and reconnects directly to the fate of the Ateker. The tragic 1980 famine that swept across much of Africa had a deleterious impact on the Ateker. In what is memorialised there as “Lopiar” —The Sweep, from the root verb Apiar, to sweep—it is estimated that the Ateker lands lost up to 21 per cent of their population. The sheer magnitude of this tragedy was in Uganda subsumed by the return of President Milton Obote to power, the elections of that year and the beginning of the Museveni rebellion.

What it meant was that the cholera outbreak and the death of cattle stock set Ateker societies back several generations. In Karamoja, there was no stock wealth to enable the expensive asapan ceremonies to be carried out. The impact was profound as Karamojong society was without effective government, albeit a traditional one. For the decades starting in 1980 till the 2010s, Karamoja nearly suffered the complete loss of generational age set linkages to ensure continuity of its political system.

A man who cannot slaughter a bull has no political influence, cannot talk in an assembly and is the last to eat and drink.

And yet that does not explain why Napua was initiated so late in life. That belongs to an age-old paradox and critique of gerontological systems generally, and may partly explain why so many branches of the Ateker family were forced to migrate and why some, like the Teso and Lango, were easy prey to absorption by other societies.

The age set system is simple to understand. Boys born within the range of say a five-year radius are considered members of the same age set. This means the rhythm of initiation is regular. But the generational set system is where the challenge lies. The generation set systems stump even scholars to unwind. The little I understood runs something like this: A generation refers to male issues of males of a similar generation, the entire progeny of an entire generation of fathers, by which the grandfathers are one generation, the fathers a second generation, sons a third and so on and so forth, each holding power in turns. That is about the simplest explanation. The complication lies in the peculiarity of pastoralist societies. Men can only marry when cattle are available, so Ateker men married comparatively late, often in their mid to late 20s and at times, in their early 30s. Then, they did not stop marrying, with the result that a first born son may be in his 50s when his own father sires a last born son, by which time he himself could well have sons in their late 20s. And those sons may well be fathers already. It is not uncommon that men will have uncles as young as their own grandsons. So the problems start.

As happened with Napua, the 50-year-old son belongs in the same generation as his 1-year-old step-brother. Assuming that the 50-year-old’s father had himself been the last born of his own father, the society is left with a generational range that can stretch up to 120 years. By this range, the 30-year old son is considered to be generationally junior to his 1-year old uncle. Political power is unlikely to come to the 30 year old. The oldest member of that generation could have died in the 1890s while in 2022, the youngest member is still alive. The 80-year old nephew would have died powerless in the 1980s.

It is a system that boggles the mind, or as Boniface Korobe, cultural researcher and official at the Turkana County Government office explained to me, it is a system that can only be explained to you; you may not necessarily understand it.

The result is political and psychological despair for men caught out in the middle generations. Picture Ateker men already in their 80s sitting waiting for their 10-year old uncles to age, assume political power and hand it over to them.

Migrating from political rigidities

In Ateker lands, explanations about the root causes of migration are often elided, not talked about directly because it is so personal and not without pain. Centuries since the young walked away from Karamoja, the migration of uninitiated young men is still a sore point. It is explained that it was these uninitiated young men—the Karachuna—who walked away with their old men’s grazing herds (lactating herds are kept closer to kraals to provide milk) and never returned. It is this sense of betrayal that the Karamojong still hold to this day, since the 1600s and 1700s, against the Lango, the Teso, the Turkana, the Toposa, the Nyangatom. What outsiders call cattle rustling boils down to calls for the migrants—seen as cow thieves, to bring those animals back, and the retaliation to regain them. But the order of who started it has since been lost in the back and forth grabbing of the herds.

Sitting there, just listening to the people, the texture of their voices and mannerisms, I could have been in any place in Lango.

As to why they left is a matter of analytical discourse and most explanations, including the one I am attempting here, are subject to strong challenges. But the gathering weight of pre-initiation men, who were coming of age, but were two to three generations waiting in line, and whose own elderly fathers were still taking young brides much to the chagrin of the very young men charged with maintaining them, would have rankled. To boot, it is this pre-initiation generation that are tasked with the equivalent of civil service duties, the generation set being political heads. With the imprimatur of asapan, and their hegemony in full force, the elders are that glittering circle of senatorial authority (senator deriving from the Latin word senilis, old—a senate literally meaning a council of elders), whose presence grants such magnificence at the Ateker Akiriket ceremonies. It is they that can slaughter bulls. They have first service rights. No crafted political decision is taken without their approval.

And yet, it is for the pre-initiation age set young men to carry these decisions out. Without formal power and uncertain about their place in the pecking order, the karachuna are often a troublesome lot; it is often they that you see in pictures or footage of Ateker men caught rustling livestock.

Away in the fields of 17th century Karamoja, and despairing at never gaining political power, why should they return to a life of tyrannical senators? It is a conjectural extrapolation. But it is one with very strong points to make. The glittering Akiriket ceremonies I described of Ateker hosts in full regalia of ostrich-plumed aworich headgear, with the authority of a generation in power, are sadly, meaningful mostly held in Karamoja.

When the young men migrated, the elders considered them lost—dead. In fact, it is believed that the word “Teso” may be translatable to “grave”, as the Karamojong considered their errant sons already dead to them. Such was the sense of betrayal felt back home. In a socio-political sense, the migrants were dead as the societies they founded were politically null and void. There was no one with respectable authority to call things to order. If they came upon a simpler political system such as the Lango when they encountered the Luo, kick-starting their politics meant adopting other people’s systems, in what amounted to a political reform. But at the price of losing language, gods, names and culture. To carry on without the generation with power at hand would be the equivalent of a ministry without a political head to approve decisions.

A further supporting factor to this argument of generation-system collapse is that those who left referred derisively to those they left behind as the elderly men in charge, hence the terminology, Karamojong—from the root noun emojong, the elderly. In Karamoja, the enlightened don’t want that name and prefer to be called Karatunga (the people).

In Turkana and Toposa, I was told that the generation system “ended so long ago” it is no longer possible to trace it. But even if it is traced back, the permission and blessing of the Jie, generally referred to as “our ancestors” by the Ateker diaspora, and who sit firmly in this knowledge in Kotido, would be needed for the generational age set to be reinstated, for as with church matters, only a consecrated bishop can consecrate a new bishop. Out of all proportions, the Turkana and Toposa still make entreaties for the Jie to do this.

The price for that, alas, is that the animals the young took be returned. Which is unacceptable.

Ateker in the post-independence state

Hence, in Turkana, as Boniface Korobe explained to me, there is asapan “lite”, no more than a marking of passage for boys and only marking the coming of age of age sets. There is little political force in it. It is the same in Toposa.

There is nothing untypical about this sad supply-end of migration. The European migration into “new worlds” was precipitated by dominative and frozen aristocratic systems, which after the collapse of the church in the Reformation, closed common lands and widened the wealth and power gaps between aristocrats and peasants. To boot, the collapse of what I am at times tempted to call the Ateker Empire corresponds to the period of general collapse of empires in Africa, whose roots trace back to antiquity. There is more to this story. As with new polities created by migrants fleeing ossified political systems, the Ateker in diaspora created what amounts to republics, to guard against age tyranny. Tragically, colonialists saw these societies as acephalous for not having the kinds of monarchies seen in the south. Tragic because the post-independence state carried on the cruel ignorance of colonialists in mistreating the Ateker.

The tragic 1980 famine that swept across much of Africa had a deleterious impact on the Ateker.

The price for this breakage has arisen in our own times to exact a terrible political price. In Karamoja, the 1989 famine stymied the rise to power of a new generation. This failure was marked by the lack of control of the 1990s and early 2000s when the karachuna, without powerful elders to command their obedience, and armed with the lately acquired AK47 (another story altogether), ran amok. The resulting raids and counter-raids destroyed Ateker society and were fought on the scale of civil wars. It was only in Karamoja, where the generation set system was salvaged from the ruins of the 1980 famine, that elders have managed to finally hold sway over the youth. The Museveni government takes credit for “pacifying” Karamoja, but it was the respected word of the elders—men like Napua—that convinced the youth to lay down their guns.

In comparison, there was no such voice in Turkana or Toposa to help Nairobi and Juba to disarm their pastoralists. Because these pose threats from Kenya and South Sudan, Karamoja began to re-arm.

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Culture

Book Review: Power, Politics and the Law by Githu Muigai

Prof Githu Muigai book, whose full title is Power, Politics and Law: Dynamics of constitutional change in Kenya, 1887- 2022 delves into the history of constitutional change from the colonial era to the present day, and will be found helpful by those looking for an overview of the key developments in our constitutional history.

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Book Review: Power, Politics and the Law by Githu Muigai
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Kenyans are often chided for not being interested in their history, a claim that I find as reductive as it is insulting. There are many Kenyans who are interested in—and actually learn—our history, at least the one that has been presented to us. Even where we know that the history presented to us is curated to serve particular ends, we consume it and also attempt to read between the lines. Furthermore, history is not just what is written. There is a good tradition of oral history that helps us critique what has been presented to us in books.

That being said, it is delightful when Kenyan scholars and intellectuals set their sights on documenting various aspects of Kenyan history and offering it to us. In recent years, we have seen the publication of numerous memoirs by public figures that are, to varying degrees, helping us to catch glimpses of our history and of that part of our society that many of us do not have access to. These are useful and we need more of them; hopefully better written and more honest ones. However, we also need analytical texts that delve into particular topics in depth. Prof Githu Muigai’s book Power, Politics and Law: Dynamics of constitutional change in Kenya, 1887- 2022, published in 2022 by Kabarak University Press, is one such intervention.

Githu’s book presents a history of constitutional change from the colonial era to the present day. Overall, the book feels very much like a series of lectures that Prof Muigai would deliver to his Constitutional Law classes at the university. The core argument that he advances in the book, that constitution making is political, is a fairly straightforward one. Still, the book has important gems that are worth encountering. The book has a textbook feel, which is at once helpful and frustrating. It will no doubt be helpful for those looking for a consolidated overview of the key developments in our constitutional history. However, it will frustrate those who are looking for more depth into the political dynamics undergirding constitutional development, who Prof Muigai may argue are not his target audience. This notwithstanding, I have found the book useful and will certainly be referencing it in my writing because it documents things that we know but whose sources we may struggle to find and name.

The initial chapters of the book—especially chapters 2 and 3—kept me fully in their grip because they presented me with a history of Kenya that I have not encountered before, or that has not been presented to me in the systematic manner that Githu presents it. In my history classes both in primary school and secondary school, I learnt about Kenya’s colonial history from the Berlin conference of 1885 (the Partition of Africa), the entry of Imperial British East Africa (IBEA) company and the arrival of notable figures like Lord Delamere. We also learnt about the struggle for independence, the Lancaster Constitution and its mutilation in the post-independence years. In that sense, not much of what Githu presents here is new. Githu’s innovation—that I find incredibly helpful—is in drawing clear linkages between the various historical events that were presented to us as distinct and somewhat unrelated. He helps the reader to see the bigger picture.

Githu offers us some important historical insights that many readers will not have encountered. While the emergence of the Kenyan state is quite well known, the nuances of how the Imperial British East Africa (IBEA) company adopted and applied Indian Laws to Kenya are less well known. From Githu’s book, I learnt that the idea of dividing the territory into provinces and districts emanated from India. Additionally, Githu offers an interesting and nuanced historical analysis of the politics of European settlers in Kenya. We learn, for instance, that the settlers campaigned for Kenya to be made a colony in 1905 through their lobby group that was called The Colonists Association. Githu notes that their claims for Kenya to be made a colony were based on the idea that “a system of taxation without representation was unsatisfactory”. He also shows divisions between them as illustrated by the refusal of Lord Delamere, the leader of the settlers, to take up his appointment in the Legislative Council (Legco) in March 1913.

Githu’s innovation is in drawing clear linkages between the various historical events that were presented to us as distinct and somewhat unrelated. He helps the reader to see the bigger picture.

While I find the nuanced and complex picture of the settlers that Githu presents fascinating, it is also one of the sources of my frustration with the book, especially with respect to the treatment of Africans in the text. It is painfully obvious that Africans are completely absent from the early part of the book. As such, it appears as if the Kenyan state emerged in the complete absence of Africans. Assigning the same level of complexity to Africans as he does to the European settlers would have led Prof Muigai to note the collaboration and resistance of Africans to colonial rule. In fact, the first African to emerge in the book is Eliud Mathu (on page 72). We learn that he was a graduate of Balliol College at the University of Oxford who was nominated to the Legco in 1940s. This points to another challenge I have with the book: its focus on the elites. Notably, only the political elite and Western scholars are named in the main text of the book. Even where some Kenyan scholars are quoted directly and their contributions seem central to the argument being advanced in the text, Githu refers to them in generic terms, such as “student”, “scholar”, “historian”, with their names being relegated to the footnotes.

I need not go into his elaborate examination of pre-colonial constitutional change from 1945 to 1960, which he examines in Chapter 3, as this is probably well understood by anyone who is familiar with Kenyan colonial history. It is worth noting, however, that he presents a very useful overview of the various constitutions, from the Lyttleton Constitution to the Lennox-Boyd Constitution. He then proceeds, in Chapter 4, to examine the Lancaster conferences and the making of the Independence Constitution. Again, as these developments are widely presented in Kenya’s political history, it is not necessary to go into much detail here except to note how some of the conflicts between the political elite continue to resurface, albeit in varied forms, in present-day Kenya. One example here is on the structure of the executive representation. Here, Githu demonstrates that change has been a core part of our constitutional history because we have consistently postponed the most complex political questions that we face as a country.

Githu’s core argument is very adequately advanced in the latter part of the book (Chapters 5 to 8), where he examines constitutional change in post-colonial era. There are many gems here showing how elite conflicts were converted into constitutional questions, followed by constitutional amendments in some cases. Whenever the law was seen as an impediment to the exercise of power, it was changed. While society groups and foreign actors are completely absent in Githu’s analysis of the political and constitutional development of the 1960s to the 1980s, they emerge in a strong sense in the analysis of the period from the 1990s onwards. A divide that I find interesting here is between the mainstream churches, many of whose leaders stood against autocracy, and the evangelical churches that did not, saying that they were committed to “praying for the Government in obedience to the word of God and praying for those in authority”. This is an area that will require more scholarly engagement in the coming days especially given the ascendancy of evangelical Christianity in Kenya.

There are many gems here showing how elite conflicts were converted into constitutional questions, followed by constitutional amendments in some cases.

Githu also presents a good overview of the politics of expertise. He notes that the role of experts in the constitutional review process began with a consultancy offered by the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) to draft a model constitution. He then traces how “experts” came to increasingly occupy a central place in the drafting of the constitution that was eventually adopted by Kenyans in 2010. Here, it is curious that Githu fails to acknowledge that he was one of these “experts”. Even the reader who is not aware, going into the text, that Githu was a key actor in those processes will be made aware in the foreword by Prof Willy Mutunga, legal scholar and former Chief Justice, that Githu was a commissioner in the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (2000-2005). Githu would later become Attorney General. This is a crucial omission. Honesty about his involvement in these processes would be crucial at this point because it would not only help the reader understand the lens through which Githu is presenting his analysis of the processes that he is involved in but also how his experiences shape how he interprets the past. It is important to acknowledge that, ultimately, there is no such thing as a neutral observer, let alone a neutral participant. This section of the book leaves the reader feeling that there is a wealth of insight that we have not been offered. Perhaps, this is reason enough for Githu to document his experiences elsewhere.

My key takeaways from the book are that inter-elite conflicts have been and will continue to be central to the making of constitutions in Kenya and that the core areas of conflict in Kenya are never fully resolved, meaning that they will keep resurfacing.

On the inter-elite conflicts, Githu adds to the existing commentary showing how our political leaders play an ongoing game of musical chairs (forming and leaving alliances constantly) and changing their policy positions guided by contingent political realignments. One may vehemently oppose a constitutional amendment today and become its most ardent defender tomorrow and vice-versa. There are so many examples of this phenomena that it is not necessary to present any here.

On the “never-quite-done” point, devolution presents a good example. It has been an issue from the pre-colonial days to the present day, and as Githu observes, is likely to continue being debated into the future. The structure of the national executive is another example whose continuity is best illustrated by the efforts of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) to re-establish the position of Prime Minister—by whatever name—and the appointment of Musalia Mudavadi to such a position (Prime Cabinet Secretary) by President Ruto recently.

Following his extensive historical survey of constitutional development in Kenya, I think that Githu aptly identifies the areas where efforts to review the 2010 constitution will emerge: devolution, senate, gender representation and the system of government, particularly as it relates to the structure of the executive. I would add that paying attention to the ascendancy of the evangelical movement, the issues on which the evangelical movement and the leadership of the current government campaigned against the 2010 constitution, such as abortion and Kadhi’s Courts, are likely to re-emerge.

Githu aptly identifies the areas where efforts to review the 2010 constitution will emerge.

In the end, Githu is optimistic about the 2010 constitution. He argues that “a rigid Constitutional amendment procedure, an active and vigilant citizenry, and the presence of activist judges in the Judiciary” will serve to anchor the resilience of the 2010 constitution. As such, he predicts that the fate that befell the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) is likely to befall many of the reform efforts that are likely to emerge. I would like to agree with him. However, my reading of Kenyan politics, and given that none of the factors he notes are immutable, makes me more reticent about this outcome. To me, the resilience of the 2010 constitution remains to be seen; that is, if one is to say that it is the resilience of the constitution that matters more to the Kenyan people rather that its dynamism.

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Long Reads

The Crisis of the US dollar: Lessons From the Meltdown in Britain

The progressive forces in Europe and North America must join with the Global Social Justice Movements and embrace the global call for a New International Economic Order

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The Crisis of the US dollar: Lessons From the Meltdown in Britain
Photo: Adam Nir on Unsplash
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Citizens of the Global South need to organize at all levels to abort the threat of neo fascism internationally. These societies will have to organize to defend living standards, save the environment and build effective finance and trading blocks to stop the transfer of the costs of the financial crisis onto the backs and shoulders of the peoples of the Global South. The accelerated push for the de dollarization of the international financial system will intensify the push of US militarists and prop up neo fascist forces.

Where are we now? 

The political and economic implosions in Europe in the midst of the global meltdown of capital has tremendous implications for all peoples of the world, but especially for peoples of the Global South. Within the countries of Africa there are military interventions, increased hunger, massive displacements of youth, instability for poor farmers and workers along with a reckless outflow of capital generated by the supine African political class. In most of Asia, the working peoples are seeking defensive measures to ensure that global capital does not intensify the pain of the people. Especially in the ASEAN states, the presence of alternative bases for financial and trading relations ensure that finance capital does not have full sway over all sections of society.

The COVID -19 pandemic has alerted peoples in all parts of the world to struggle for universal health care and to control the big pharmaceutical industries. Within the Americas, it is in the region of Latin America where there is now a vigorous social movement to challenge the local forces that represent the International Monetary Fund and finance capital. From Bolivia to Chile and from Colombia to Peru, the mass of the peoples has resorted to electoral struggles to oppose the local representatives of foreign capital. These electoral victories provided some political space for Cuba and Venezuela.

Within the USA, the ruling Democratic Party controls all three branches the political system: the Presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, but they have been too compromised to stand up to finance capital, the barons of Wall Street and big Pharma. With the frustrations of the working people bubbling over, the conservative sections of the political class have resorted to nativism and the crudest forms of white supremacist mobilization to divide the over 160 million employed in the country. The traditional trade union formations have been unable to build a coherent organizational platform to address the needs of a diverse workforce. After four decades of the deindustrialization of the society, with capital shifting jobs to cheaper labor markets, the traditional working class hubs in the midwestern states have succumbed to the appeals of those who are demanding to Make America Great Again (MAGA). The strategy of mobilizing collective ignorance and illiteracy about the realities of the global economy ensures that even so-called economists and pundits are naive about global shifts.  Dependence on the narrow band of information coming from their English counterparts reinforce a false sense of the global balance of forces. In this narrow frame, the so called ‘special relationship’ represents another blinder from grasping the dynamic forces at work globally, and especially in Europe. The challenges posed by the war in Ukraine and by the move to neo fascism are whether the entire planet will be engulfed in the unforeseen circumstances of the weaponization of everything.

All over Europe, the political and economic disasters have been exacerbated by the intensification of militarism in the Ukraine front. This Russian invasion of Ukraine emanated from the unresolved contradictions that precipitated two imperialist wars starting in 1914. This current war has brought to the surface the full implications of the fragility of the US political system as de dollarization accelerates around the world.  Citizens in all continents are confronted with the deep effects of runaway profiteering by the billionaire class, escalating food and energy costs, inflation, extreme climate catastrophes, insecurities and deteriorating economic conditions for all but the super-rich. In the absence of the tools available to the Federal Reserve in North America, the European political managers have increased interest rates to the point where many homeowners cannot afford to pay their mortgages. Many small businesspersons are finding it difficult to survive. Workers are threatening to carry out industrial actions to defend their standard of living.

The United States energy czars are demanding that the Europeans pay four times the price for natural gas so that the Europeans can disconnect their energy supplies from Russia. So far, the Germans have been able to offer a 200 billion Euro subsidy to the German people for the coming winter, but most of Europe are sacrificing their societies to please the militarists in the United States. In the midst of these economic pressures, it is the white racists and neo fascists who are reaping the political benefits. One has seen this trend already in Italy and Sweden where the neo fascists are coming to dominate the political spaces. In France, the neo–Fascist National Party are now the top political force in the country. The political strength of the extreme right in the USA forced President Biden to warn the society of ‘the threat of a rising fascistic movement to the stability of the republic, which is to say that undercurrents, or elements of fascistic politics in America have steadily grown more extreme in recent decades, particularly in recent years under Trump’s presidency.”

It is in the British Isles where the delusions of Global Britain are manifest in the circus variety performance with the political ups and downs of the ruling conservative party. After succumbing to the xenophobic appeals of the push to leave the European Union (Brexit), the British workers are now faced with a political and economic class who have no interest in seeking to lessen the pain of the working people. The ascension of the multi-millionaire Rishi Sunak to be the Prime Minister is being celebrated as the advent of diversity with a nonwhite as the Prime Minister, but Sunak is openly contemptuous of working people. His utterances have been consistent with his social class, with the added naivete of one who have been cut off from the reality of working people all of his short life.  The British media welcomed his becoming the third Prime Minister in four months saying, “Ultra rich, young and the first person of colour to become UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak will also make history as the first practising Hindu to lead the country.” Sunak once boasted that he had changed Labour party policies “which shoved all the funding into deprived urban areas” so that funding could go to wealthy towns instead.

This is the current imperial strategy to shift resources from the poor to the rich. As the dominant imperial power for centuries, Britain had been the master at covering up genocidal policies and criminal acts of plunder. The Global Reparations movement has brought out these crimes to the point where even insiders such as Ferdinand Mount have written on the  “The Tears of the Rajas.” Rishi Sunak is not about to call on Britain to account for the crimes of the British East India Company.

For four centuries, Britain had presented itself as a bastion of the rule of law, fair play and the stability of the financial and political system. This exaggerated representation of British capital had been challenged by the anti-colonial forces in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. After the Suez debacle of 1956, the British rulers had been able to attach themselves to the US dollar in a ‘special relationship’ which meant that Britain would be junior partners in halting self-determination projects globally. In this 2022 moment, even that ‘special relationship’ is being tested as the IMF and the US ruling classes are seeking to punish the British for not carrying out the necessary propaganda work to ensure that now dead Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng subsidies to capital were properly marketed by the right-wing media.  The now disgraced Liz Truss and her Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng attempted to force the subsidies for the capitalists in a mini budget after the funeral ceremonies of Queen Elizabeth II. The plan, presented by Kwarteng on September 23, promised huge tax cuts and increased borrowing. Kwarteng’s proposed mini budget included a plan to scrap the highest rate of income tax to 40% from 45%, which was later abandoned after public anger. A removal of the cap on bankers’ bonuses also deep fury amid a cost-of-living crisis hitting British families. It quickly plunged the value of the pound and government bonds over fears that it would further juice inflation at a time when prices are already rising at their fastest rate in about 40 years. That prompted the Bank of England to warn of a serious risk to UK financial stability and announce three separate interventions to calm a bond market meltdown that put some UK pension funds on the brink of default.

The objection of the IMF and the money markets was not that billions of dollars were to be handed out to the corporations and the super-rich. It was that they were not funded by cutting spending but by an increase in government debt to the tune of  close to 70billion pounds.

The current implosion of the ruling elements in Britain is now opening the eyes of working peoples in other parts of the globe. Because the British represented themselves as global players, the effects of the political crisis in Britain have global implications. It is now important to have a short review of the new tensions that have arisen for the pound and the dollar in the face of the current global crisis of capitalism,

Bring back Thatcherism in the 21st century 

After the decolonization struggles of the sixties and the failure to roll back the forces of national independence, the bankers of North America and Europe popularized the ideas of Milton Friedman that capital should be given free rein to the point of rolling back the social gains of health, education, pensions, and social security of social democratic capitalism. Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman were two economists from the period of World War II who opposed Keynesian economics. These economists were rescued by the conservative political wave of Reaganism and Thatcherism at the end of the seventies when most of the countries of the world were calling for a New International Economic Order (NIEO). By1971, the refrain of Friedman was that sole responsibility of a company is to its shareholders, the mantra of shareholder value and the relentless pursuit of profits must be the raison d’être of capital. This was the ideological legitimation to conceal the big push for the US dollar to recover and for the United States to launch a campaign of the military management of the international system.

The story of Thatcherism  and Margaret Thatcher is now well known by citizens who oppose hyena type capitalism. Her party in 1979 enthusiastically agreed to this deal of the military management of the system with the City of London and the financial sector of Britain acting as the back stop for the forms of illicit financial activities that could not pass the eyes of the tame US Congressional Committees. The Thatcherite years of so called ‘growth, growth’ economic agenda was pushed through on the basis of the massive repression of the British working class, most vividly expressed in the crushing of the mine workers union. Finance capital cheered on both sides of the Atlantic as the banks and financial houses with Goldman Sachs in the lead went on a vigorous campaign to roll back social democracy all over Europe.

Despite the Friedman doctrine that the state should leave economic outcomes to the market, after four years of the Reagan Administration, the US was faced with a large budget deficit and high interest rates. The twin problems of budget deficit and high interest rates had fueled a relentless climb in the dollar, opening a huge gap in the trade balance. The state did not stay out of the marketplace. In September 1985, the Reagan Administration forced the Germans and Japanese buy yen and marks to reduce the value of the dollar. (The Plaza Accord, 30 Years Later | NBER) When the Germans and the Japanese attempted to protest by calling on the US to be fiscally responsible and cut their budget deficit, Reagan quipped that the sacrifices of Germany and Japan were needed because the US had troops on their soil protecting them from communism.

The folly of the Wall Street strategy of feeding greed and speculation was brought out in the open in the big stock market crash of the US in October 1987. In response to the crash—at more than 22 percent, one of the largest one-day fall in history—then chair of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, committed the Federal Reserve to supply the stock market with all the liquidity it needed. This policy of the Federal Reserve was to become a permanent component of US militarism as the US understood that every major financial crisis led to the strengthening of the US dollar. Hence since 1987, this Greenspan Guarantee to the financial market became official policy. This was policy that whenever the speculative activities of Wall Street produced a crisis, the Fed would be on hand to bail it out and provide more money with which to finance new levels of speculation. This was the Fed’s response to every financial storm in the 1990s and into the first years of the new century. This promise was to be restated after the 2008 financial meltdown when the US came up with the policy of Quantitative Easing (QE) where the federal Reserve of the US bought up treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities, which was basically printing dollars.

After the October 1987 crash which reverberated around the world, the German French alliance had deepened in the face of the dollar becoming a fiat currency. The removal of the gold backing for the US dollar in August 1971 had induced the, then, French president Charles De Gaulle to rail against the Exorbitant Privilege of the Dollar. France and Germany were going to align to challenge the Exorbitant privilege by the expansion of German capital in Europe, the deepening of French imperial exploitation of Africa.

The push for deeper European financial and monetary integration accelerated with the Treaty of Maastricht that laid the legal architecture for the emergence of the European Union. The Union was established after the enlargement of the German base for accumulation across Southern Europe spread to Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today the EU embraces 27 states across Europe. After the Reagan bullying of the Plaza accords, both former President Valery Giscard d ‘Estaing of France and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of Germany mooted the idea of the European Monetary System (EMS) but this idea was pushed through after the German unification in 1990 culminating with the arrival of the Euro to contest the dollar as the dominant global currency. Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany had taken the diplomatic offensive to unite Germany and immediately took the offensive to engage with the new emerging capitalist forces of China and the ASEAN countries.  Years earlier, Chancellor Schmidt and President Giscard d’Estaing encouraged joint French-German aerospace and arms production, as well as joint nuclear reactor development: inaugurated regular EU summits that took Europe’s political direction away under the thumb of the US military. Later the German Chancellors, Kohl and Merkel sought to extend the independence of Europe by building closer relations with Russia with massive German investments in Russia.

The solidarity of western capital behind Anglo American finance capital had held as long as there was a challenge to the capitalist mode of production. Once the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the solidarity had evaporated, and the European capitalists led by France and Germany embarked on establishing an alternative to the dollar hegemony. The Germans and the French started discussing creating their own military alliance (PESCO) to distance Europe from the domination of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) was the Franco German Initiative to pave the way for the creation of a European army. The plan was for the European army to back up the European currency.

Deepening of the Capitalist Crisis in the 21st Century. 

The dawn of the 21st century saw the expansion of US military adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and in Africa. Britain had joined with the USA as junior partners in these military escapades with NATO becoming the military force to prop up the financialization of energy markets. By the start of the Iraq war, German and French leaders were outspoken against this brand of overt militarization. German Finance Capital was seeking room to enforce its own brand of neo liberalism to roll back social democratic gains and to strengthen the German banking system with the context European Central Bank as the backbone of the Euro system.

European capitalists in all parts of that continent could not escape the contagion from the 2007/8 financial crisis. The underlying instability generated by the recklessness of the Wall Street bankers had brought the western financial system close to disaster with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. In that crisis, the Greenspan Guarantee was to be implemented via the Obama administration and under the stewardship of Ben Bernanke. For that period of crisis management, Bernanke was in 2022 awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics.

The Federal reserve spent more than $4tn in its various rounds of bond buying. Most defenders of the money managers have produced reams of papers to convince the world that the first round of printing money was a success – it was big enough, and lasted long enough, for in the eyes of the opinion makers, this printing of money had prevented a more dire economic situation. These opinion makers drowned out the calls for the nationalizing of the banks and to make the financial sector accountable to elected officials who were not dependent on Wall Street.  The Fed increased its holdings of government debt from around $800 billion to about $4 trillion, leading to the creation of a mountain of debt and fictitious capital, reflected in the rise of Wall Street to record highs after reaching its nadir in March 2009. By the time of the COVID -19 pandemic ten years later, this impulse of printing dollars had gone out of control. After perfunctory meetings of the G20 in 2010, the Federal Reserve of the US alone more than doubled its holdings of financial assets, almost overnight, from $4 trillion to nearly $9 trillion, and became the guarantor for all forms of debt, government and corporate. The total amount injected into the financial system by central banks is estimated to be around $13 trillion.

For a moment after the 2008/9 Wall Street Meltdown became global, the social movements for peace and social justice expanded all over the world with electoral victories for progressive forces in Brazil. In the USA, the alliance between the peace, environmentalists and anti-capitalist forces had merged in the Occupy movement. This briefly galvanized people, but the forces of darkness organized the extremists (epitomized by the Tea Party) while the Obama administration doubled down to support Wall Street. A massive offensive against the Occupy movement was sustained internationally by the assault on the last vestiges of social democracy in Europe. Austerity measures at the economic level provided the economic background for the drastic social expenditures on health, housing, education, and pensions. Many of the surviving social democratic alliances crumbled in Europe. The Eurozone crisis deepened in the absence of the ability of the Europeans to fully unleash Quantitative Easing. By 2015, the Bernanke forces allowed the Japanese and the Europeans to implement their own Quantitative Easing, but by then the US had to resort to the weaponization of finance to coerce countries such as China, Venezuela, Iran and Russia to abide to the dictates of Wall Street.

Effects of printing Money 

The weaponization of finance by the USA had rippling effects across the planet. The Iranian and Cuban economies demonstrated that despite tremendous hardships, Third World societies could navigate the weaponization of the dollar. In Asia, the ASEAN countries refined the Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI) to be beefed up as the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization (CMIM), a single pooled reserve scheme to protect the ASEAN countries from the bullying of the IMF. According to McKinsey, Asia is on track to contribute more than 50 percent of global GDP by 2040 and to drive 40 percent of the world’s consumption. Asia’s share of global capital flows now stands at 23 percent, compared to 13 percent just a decade ago.  Quiet as it is being kept, it is the countries of the ASEAN states and the RCEP that are the most aggressive in the current push for de dollarization. Singapore is positioning itself as the hub for new and innovative digital transactions outside of the sphere of the dollar.

China and Russia began to experiment with the establishment of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) bank. Russia took the lead within BRICS to call for ending the dominance of Wall Street and the dollar as the dominant reserve currency. After the collapse of the centrally planned system of the USSR in 1991, there had grown a class of Russian billionaires, but the political class was still nationalist and did not seek to become a client state of the USA. This nationalism within Russia placed the leadership on a collision course with the barons of Wall Street and their gendarme represented by NATO. The provocations generated by the plans to expand NATO right up the borders with Russia in Ukraine precipitated a new war which is still unfolding.

Within Latin America and the Caribbean, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States called CELAC rallied to short circuit the military and economic push to remove the Venezuelan government. Inside Brazil, Lula has been campaigning for the creation of a Latin American currency capable of overcoming the region’s dependence on the dollar.

Despite the nationalist responses in CELAC, BRICS and the ASEAN societies, global capital was immeasurable strengthened in relation to the mass of the peoples of the planet.   The Fitch Ratings-London-21 October 2022 noted that,

“The Federal Reserve continues to act aggressively on interest rates, pushing the US dollar to historically high levels against several Fitch20 currencies. Given that other central banks are also tightening in response to rising inflation, government bond yields are rising to levels not seen in years.”………… “Many Fitch20 currencies including the euro, the Japanese yen, the British pound, the Australian dollar, the Canadian dollar, the Chinese yuan and many other emerging market currencies have lost ground against the US dollar.”

If convertible currencies have lost ground, Fitch and the financial rating agencies have not begun to compute the impact of the Global South. Raising rates draws capital toward the US economy and away from emerging markets. As capital inflows push up the dollar’s value, capital outflows pull down emerging-economy currencies, which makes it much harder for governments and companies to service their US-denominated debt. The global poor are hit especially hard by food and energy costs, because those commodities are priced in dollars on the world market. US and EU sanctions on Russia are also ruining economies around the world by creating acute scarcity of key commodities and supercharging

Transferring wealth from Poor to Rich

If Rishi Sunak boasted that he steered resources from poorer communities to richer communities in Britain, he is now a key partner for his former employers Goldman Sachs to steer resources from the poor in the world to the rich countries. The neo liberal policies of the past 35 years facilitated the transfer of wealth into the hands of a global corporate and financial oligarchy. Despite the scandals of the LIBOR corruption among bankers, the British accomplices of Wall Street still seek to be global players giving offshore cover to billionaires.

Data published by Forbes in April showed that in 2020 alone the collective wealth of the world’s billionaires increased by 60 percent from $8 trillion to $13.1 trillion, described by the magazine as “the greatest acceleration of wealth in human history.” According to Institute for Policy Studies analysis of Forbes data, the combined wealth of all U.S. billionaires increased by $2.071 trillion (70.3 percent) between March 18, 2020 and Ocobter 15, 2021, from approximately $2.947 trillion to $5.019 trillion. Of the more than 700 U.S. billionaires, the richest five (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, and Elon Musk) saw an 123 percent increase in their combined wealth during this period, from $349 billion to $779 billion.

Thomas Piketty in seeking to grasp the impact of Capital in the 21st century had focused on inequality, but Income inequality was only one indicator of the inbuilt relations of finance capital, the front line shock troop for modern imperialism. Piketty had excluded the military component of the expansion of capital and modern imperialism. Michael Hudson succinctly outlined three ways in which the flooding of dollars through debt leverage and QE supports the US military.: (1) the surplus dollars pouring into the rest of the world for yet further financial speculation and corporate takeovers; (2) the fact that central banks are obliged to recycle these dollar inflows to buy U.S. Treasury bonds to finance the federal U.S. budget deficit; and most important (but most suppressed in the U.S. media, (3) the military character of the U.S. payments deficit and the domestic federal budget deficit. He continued, “Strange as it may seem  and irrational as it would be in a more logical system of world diplomacy  the “dollar glut” is what finances America’s global military build-up. It forces foreign central banks to bear the costs of America’s expanding military empire  effective “taxation without representation.” Keeping international reserves in “dollars” means recycling their dollar inflows to buy U.S. Treasury bills  U.S. government debt issued largely to finance the military.”

One limitation of Hudson’s analysis is that he has not sufficiently grasped the impact on Africa since he wrote the ‘Sieve of Gold’ over fifty years ago.

It is in Africa where the intensification of exploitation was manifest in militarism, massive flights of capital, instability, and general looting. Britain and France had orchestrated the destruction of Libya in order to shore up the European economies with the massive foreign currency reserves of Libya. European workers were suborned to the destructive activities by finance capital by raising the twin bogey of terrorism and the massive immigrant flow to Europe. European workers were not informed of the collaboration of the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council in stoking instability in Africa. The US military strengthened its military operations all across Africa with the US military actually training coup plotters in Guinea when the working people wanted to organize the workers to fight for better conditions. The Pentagon stoked the fires of war and destruction in the Indian Ocean and West Asia area by deploying former top generals to manage warfare in places such as Yemen as consultants.

The military management of the international system received a major setback for US capital with the military defeat of the US military in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. With every military setback overseas, militarism and white supremacy surged in the USA with the billionaire class bankrolling MAGA.  Six billionaires stood out from among the billionaire class in supporting the extreme nativism of the MAGA forces. Peter Thiel, Stephen Schwarzman, and Ken Griffin, Steve Wynn, Mike Lindell and Patrick Byrne represented one faction of Global Capital that had the Fox organization of Rupert Murdoch to amplify the neo fascist ideas of the MAGA elements. As the COVID 19 deaths and suffering escalated around the world in 2020, the Federal Reserve government handed Larry Fink of Blackrock the authority to manage its massive corporate debt purchase program in response to the Covid-19 crisis. Larry Fink (of Blackrock private equity) and Stephen Schwarzman (of Blackstone private equity) were ring leaders for the Donald Trump Strategic and Policy Forum. Once the COVID 19 pandemic exploded on the world, Fink and Blackrock were handed the responsibility to manage the US $4.5 trillion  corporate slush-fund. Millions died from this pandemic while Wall Street and the corporate media silenced those sections of the globe who were calling for universal health care and for reigning in the power of the billionaires.

Like the Occupy movement of 2010, the Black Lives Matter movement erupted as a social force to oppose militarism and white supremacy. But by the middle of the COVID -Pandemic and the launch of the war in Ukraine there was a convergence of interests between the MAGA forces and those in the Democratic party who were beholden to Wall Street.

From Crisis to Crisis: COVID 19, war and neo fascism.

From the economic downturn of 2001 through the financial meltdown of Wall Street to the Euro zone Crisis to Brexit and the War in Ukraine, economic polarization and political repression in Europe went hand in glove. The climate crisis demanded state intervention and international cooperation, but with every climate calamity, the right-wing media doubled down to oppose closer international cooperation to turn a new leaf in economic management. British Capital had been a weak link in the chain of imperial domination since the Suez crisis of 1956. Britain held grudgingly to its position as an offshore base for speculative capital basing a lot of illicit financial flows in Britain or in colonial outposts such as the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean. In the face of the strength of German capital in Europe, those elements of British capitalism that wanted to be free of German domination in Europe orchestrated the exit of Britain from the European Union. The British Economy had been stagnating throughout the 20 year period after 2001, with the economy of India overtaking the economy of Britain by 2022. At the time of the Brexit vote in 2016 the British economy was 90 per cent the size of Germany’s. Now in 2022 it is less than 70 per cent. For the British ruling class a return to the era of Rule Britannia was to be the basis for the recovery of British capital. This was based on a false understanding of the new multi polar realities of Global capital.

The ruling Conservative alliance in Britain had mobilized the British workers against European workers and divided the British workers with racism and jingoism. Boris Johnson as the right-wing puppet master had imploded in 2022 leading to a change in political leadership. However, this change in leadership did not evince any change in the supine role being played by the British military in Ukraine. When the Russian army invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the British were the leading cheerleaders for supporting the militaristic forces in Europe and opposing negotiations. Germany and France had been negotiating with Russia over the outstanding issues between Russian and Ukraine since the breakup of the USSR in 1991. Among the outstanding issues that had been discussed at Minsk 1 & 2 were the future of Crimea, the future of the Russian speaking areas of Ukraine,  the expansion of NATO and the brazenness of the neo fascist forces. These issues can only be resolved by diplomatic interventions and not by war.

The USA was willing to push the war to the last Ukrainian and to force the working peoples of Europe to subsidize the war. It was in the escalating cost of food, energy and basic necessities where a new political leadership was necessary. But the baggage of the neo liberal ideas of Thatcherism prevented any kind of serious alternatives to austerity measures. Boris Johnson was forced to resign in July and by September a new leader appeared in the person of Liz Truss. Two days afterTruss was formally appointed prime minister  the very aged, 96 year old  Queen Elizabeth II decided to exit the scene. This exit robbed the ruling elements in the City of London one distraction that could divert them from the intense social crisis.

But the crisis would not go away, high prices for energy, food and the high interest rates fell on the backs and the shoulders of the British workers.

The political and economic crisis in Britain deepened by the day with the absence of clear thinking on how to curb the greed of the capitalist class. US capital is now isolated, even if it seems to be riding out this moment with the rise in the value of the US dollar. In many respects, Ukraine War represents one front in the multi-dimensional struggle to save the US dollar as the currency of world trade. The German and European dependence on Russia for energy had to be undermined because the possibilities of the Euro replacing the dollar as the currency of energy transactions in Europe was real.

The Ukraine War speeds de dollarization

Temporarily, collective Western sanctions has seized all the foreign exchange reserves of the Central Bank of Russia that were held in the West. The US led campaign against Russia is inspiring states all over the world to develop alternative financial and monetary platforms, systems and nerve centers beyond the direct control of Washington. In 2014, the Central Bank of Russia has already created its own messaging System for Transfer of Financial Messages (SPFS) to replace the SWIFT system dominated by the dollar and the EURO. The SWIFT system- Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, is technically a Belgian cooperative society created in 1973 and providing services related to the execution of financial transactions and payments between banks worldwide. Up to February 2022, this SWIFT messaging service successfully linked 11,000 banks and institutions in more than 200 countries, cushioning the dominance of the US dollar and its subaltern the Euro in polite competition.

With the SWIFT system drawn into the financial and trade wars, Russian banks have deepened their relations with Chinese state banks in order to build a substitute for SWIFT. With the System for Transfer of Financial Messages (SPFS) in place since 2014, the Russian leadership is now working with China to connect to China’s Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CIPS). CIPS is a Chinese alternative to SWIFT which processes payments in Chinese Yuan. The Russian leaders have stated that they are in no rush to refine this new payment system. If the SWIFT system has served the dollar since 1973, Russia can slowly develop this new system with China. In the words of one financial leader in Russia,

“We proceed from the need for a gradual transition from SWIFT to financial information transfer mechanisms protected from external pressure, for which we are actively developing the System for Transfer of Financial Messages (SPFS) of the Bank of Russia. This is a forced, but completely natural decision in an environment where Russian banks and their clients regularly encounter problems with routine international payments.” ..

The weaponization of finance has reinforced the determination of the BRICS countries to bypass and even challenge both the status of the US dollar as the hegemonic reserve currency and the transnational financial arteries organically linked to its circuits through vehicles such as gold and other hard assets with intrinsic value. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have applied to be members of BRICS while the leaders of Saudi Arabia have explicitly signaled a new alliance with Russia and China away from the US dollar. China and Saudi Arabia are negotiating oil being sold to China in Yuan. China is Saudi Arabia’s largest customer purchasing about 2 million barrels per day. The U.S. only purchases about 500,000 per day. Allowing China to purchase its oil in Yuan would reduce Dollar oil transactions by around 20% daily. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Qatar and are all queuing to become members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).The SCO is a military alliance which comprises of eight members (China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan ) Formed as a security alliance to counter the advance of NATO ,at the September summit of the SCO, the leaders of the SCO agreed on to take steps to increase the use of national currencies in trade between their countries. The group – – said “interested SCO member states” had agreed a “roadmap for the gradual increase in the share of national currencies in mutual settlements”, and called for an expansion of the practice.

As one Venezuelan news outlet commented,

“the message now is plain enough – if even a prominent G20 state can have its reserves cancelled at a flick of the switch, then, for those who still hold ‘reserves’ in New York, take them elsewhere whilst the going is good! And if you need to keep something of value in reserve against a rainy day, buy and hold gold.”

There is now a major push in all parts of the world to hoard gold in the face of the lessons of the sanctions against Iran, Venezuela and Russia. Buying and hoarding gold means intensified militarization in Africa with Russia aligning with France, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates in the Sudan and West Africa.  The full extent of the Ukrainian conflagration exposes the interconnections between military, finance, cyber, economic  and psychological warfare. The current war in Ukraine has set in motion a chain of events that will lead to unintended consequences for all of humanity.

Mobilizing oppressed peoples internationally against neo fascism and war 

The interconnecting crises have pointed to the need for an alternate social system. Movements for social justice have emerged in all parts of the planet, but at this moment there is no central organizing strategy among these forces. The environmental justice and movements for reparative justice and healing from racial capitalism have seized the intellectual, moral and political leadership embracing peoples from all parts of the world. Thus far the traditional ‘left’ forces in Europe and North America have remained outside of the struggles for reparative justice. Even those inside the environmental justice movements have not seen the logical alliance between the struggles for environmental justice and reparative justice. It is inside Latin America where the alliances between indigenous peoples and African descendants have shifted the political balance where the reparations question is now front and center of the political agenda.

In one country where this alliance is most manifest, Colombian President, Gustav Petro, in his remarks to the General Assembly of the UN last month, stated: “The US is Ruining Economies Around the World” The new Colombian political leadership has pledged to demilitarize public life in Colombia and to strengthen the political place of African descendants and indigenous peoples.

The peoples of Chile, Brazil are also faced with the challenges of protecting property and privilege or dismantling centuries of militarism and oppression. These societies are faced with the stark choices between elaborating the rights of citizens or entrenching the traditions of neo fascist elements from the Pinochet era. Brazilian right wing forces are seeking to bring back the kind of  repression and murder that came with the military dictatorship in Brazil, April 1964 to March 1985. The coup d’état by the Brazilian Armed Forces, with support from the United States government, against President João Goulart was a blow to all oppressed in the world. We are now on the threshold of whether the US will support anther right wing political destruction in Brazil. Lula has brought new energy to repair the militaristic traditions that Bolsonaro wants to revive.

German capitalists have some experience in managing a reparative platform while strengthening German capital. From Willy Brandt’s apology in Poland, to the apologies for the Holocaust and the apologies for the genocide in Namibia, the German intelligentsia have been able to massage the reparative claims by mobilizing the kind of reparations enterprise which would strengthen global capital as in the case of the reparations paid to the state of Israel and the descendants ofthose who perished in the Holocaust. White supremacists in North America are totally opposed to any opening of admission of crimes committed in the period of racial capitalism to the present. The Make America Great Again movement is instead calling on peoples of European descent to celebrate the crimes of genocide, enslavement, and colonialism.

Already in Europe the economic disruptions unleashed by rising energy prices has generated the new energies for right wing populism with pressures inside Europe to reassess the strategic pertinence of sanctions against Moscow. Serbia and Hungary have already broken ranks with the NATO sanctions. The big challenge is that the beneficiary of this war situation is the neo fascists. The neo fascists are forcing the progressive forces to combine their efforts to oppose war and neo fascism. Within the Global South, the client states of the US empire are threatened by massive resistance. Even the allies of US imperialism in West Asia are seeking room for maneuver outside the hegemony of the dollar. The decision of the Saudi Arabians to index their sale of oil to China in the Chinese currency (the Yuan) has only exacerbated their differences with the USA over the current energy prices. That the nominal leader of Saudi Arabia has chosen an alliance with Russia spoke volumes to the political tensions among militarists.

The combined opposition of the BRICS societies, RCEP, CELAC, Gulf Cooperation Council and France with Germany (supporters of the Euro) point to the increased isolation of the United States. As the weaponization of the dollar deepens, there is the alternative demand for a new international monetary system. All over the world the economic disruptions unleashed by rising energy prices, health pandemics, IMF calls for the devaluation of the return to workers and militarism has generated the new energies for progressive forces. It is in Europe where the baggage of racial capitalism holds back the ability of the left to build a new internationalist political program. Into this vacuum the right has stepped in with right wing populism. This populism is a double edged sword, because some sections of the people may pressure their leaders  to reassess the strategic pertinence of sanctions against Moscow. Serbia and Hungary have already broken ranks. The big challenge is that the beneficiary this war situation are the neo fascists.

The progressive forces in Europe and North America must join with the Global Social Justice Movements and embrace the global call for a New International Economic Order. The challenge of the left is to understand the outline of the alternative social project and translate this into practical day to day programs so that wherever one lives and works one should not succumb to despair and pessimism.

This article was first  published on Counter Punch.

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