In recent months it has felt like election rigging has run riot.
Citizens killed, beaten and intimidated and election results falsified in Uganda. Ballot boxes illegally thrown out of windows so their votes for the opposition can be dumped in the bin in Belarus. Widespread censorship and intimidation of opposition candidates and supporters in Tanzania.
So what do ordinary citizens make of these abuses?
If you follow the Twitter feed of opposition leaders like Uganda’s Bobi Wine, it would be easy to assume that all voters are up in arms about electoral malpractice – and that it has made them distrust the government and feel alienated from the state. But the literature on patrimonialism and “vote buying” suggests something very different: that individuals are willing to accept manipulation – and may even demand it – if it benefits them and the candidates that they support.
Our new book, “The Moral Economy of Elections in Africa” tries to answer this question. We looked at elections in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda over 4 years, conducting over 300 interviews, 3 nationally representative surveys and reviewing thousands of pages of archival records.
Based on this evidence we argue that popular engagement with democracy is motivated by two beliefs: the first is civic, and emphasises meritocracy and following the official rules of the democratic game, while the second is patrimonial, and emphasises the distinctive bond between an individual and their own – often ethnic – community.
This means that elections are shaped by – and pulled between – competing visions of what it means to do the right thing. The ability of leaders to justify running dodgy elections therefore depends on whether their actions can be framed as being virtuous on one – or more – counts.
We show that whether leaders can get away with malpractice – and hence undermining democracy – depends on whether they can justify their actions as being virtuous on one – or more effective – of these very different value systems.
We argue that all elections are embedded in a moral economy of competing visions of what it means to be a good leader, citizen or official. In the three countries we study, this moral economy is characterised by a tension between two broad registers of virtue: one patrimonial and the other civic.
The patrimonial register stresses the importance of an engagement between patron and client that is reciprocal, even if very hierarchical and inequitable. It is rooted in a sense of common identity such as ethnicity and kinship.
This is epitomised in the kind of “Big Man” rule seen in Kenya. The pattern that’s developed is that ethnic leaders set out to mobilise their communities as a “bloc vote”. But the only guarantee that these communities will vote as expected is if the leader is seen to have protected and promoted their interests.
In contrast, civic virtue asserts the importance of a national community that is shaped by the state and valorises meritocracy and the provision of public goods. These are the kinds of values that are constantly being pushed – though not always successfully – by international election observers and civil society organisations that run voter education programmes.
In contrast to some of the existing literature, we do not argue that one of these registers is inherently “African”. Both are in evidence. We found that electoral officials, observers and voter educators were more likely to speak in terms of civic virtue. For their part, voters and politicians tended to speak in terms of patrimonial virtue. But they all had one thing in common – all feel the pull of both registers.
This is perfectly demonstrated by the press conferences of election coalitions in Kenya. At these events, the “Big Men” of different ethnic groups line up to endorse the party, while simultaneously stressing their national outlook and commitment to inclusive democracy and development.
It is often assumed that patrimonial beliefs fuel electoral malpractice whereas civic ones challenge it. But this is an oversimplification.
Take the illegal act of an individual voting multiple times for the same candidate. This may be justified on the basis of loyalty to a specific leader and the need to defend community interests – a patrimonial rationale. But in some cases voters sought to justify this behaviour on the basis that it was a necessary precaution to protect the public good because rival parties were known to break the rules.
In some cases, malpractice may therefore look like the “right” thing to do. What practices can be justified depends on the political context – and how well leaders are at making an argument. This matters, because candidates who are not seen to be “good” on either register rapidly lose support.
Nothing demonstrates this better than the practice of handing out money around election times. Our surveys and interviews demonstrated that voters were fairly supportive of candidates handing out “something small” as part of a broader set of activities designed to assist the community. In this context, the gift was seen as a legitimate part of an ongoing patrimonial relationship.
But when a leader who had not already proved their moral worth turned up in a constituency and started handing out money, they were likely to be seen as using handouts to make up for past neglect and accused of illegitimate “vote buying..”
This happened to Alan Kwadwo Kyeremanten in Ghana, a political leader so associated with handing out money that he became popularly known as Alan Cash. But Cash has consistently failed to become the presidential flagbearer for his National Patriotic Party. We argue that this is because he failed to imbue gifts with moral authority. As one newspaper noted at the time:
Alan Cash did not cultivate loyal and trusted supporters; he only used money to buy his way into their minds not their hearts.
The problem of patrimonialism
A great deal of research about Africa suggests – either implicitly or explicitly – that democratisation will only take place when patrimonialism is eradicated. On this view, democratic norms and values can only come to the fore when ethnic politics and the practices it gives rise to are eliminated.
Against this, our analysis suggests that this could do as much harm as good.
Patrimonial ideals may exist in tension with civic ones, but it is also true that the claims voters and candidates make on one another in this register is an important source of popular engagement with formal political processes. For example, voters turnout both due to a sense of civic duty and to support those candidates who they believe will directly assist them and their communities.
This means that in reality ending patrimonial politics would weaken the complex set of ties that bind many voters to the political system. One consequence of this would be to undermine people’s belief in their ability to hold politicians to account, which might engender political apathy – and result in lower voter turnout. In the 2000s, as many as 85% of voters went to the polls, far exceeding the typical figure in established Western democracies.
The same thing is likely to happen if the systematic manipulation of elections robs them of their moral importance – signs of which were already visible in the Ugandan elections of the last few months.
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Doing Democracy Without Party Politics
Our various peoples had clear democratic practices in their pre-colonial political formations without the inconvenience of political parties. It is high time we learned from our indigenous heritages.
The formation of factions is part of group dynamics, and is therefore to be found in every society. However, it was 18th century Western Europe and its North American corollary that invented the idea of institutionalising factions into political parties — groups formally constituted by people who share some aspirations and who aim to capture state power in order to use it to put those aspirations into practice. Britain’s Conservative Party and the Democratic Party in the US were the earliest such formations. Thus party politics are an integral part of representative democracy as understood by the Western liberal democratic tradition. Nevertheless, Marxist regimes such as those in China, Cuba, the former Soviet Union and the former East Germany also adopted the idea of political parties, but in those countries single party rule was the norm.
The idea of political parties gained traction in the various colonial territories in Africa beginning with the formation of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa in 1912. The founders of the ANC were influenced by African American political thinkers with whom they associated in their visits to the US.
Political organisations during the colonial period in Kenya
Kenya’s first indigenous political organisation, the East African Association (EAA), formed in 1919, had a leadership comprising different ethnic groups – Kikuyu, Luo, Kamba, the various communities later subsumed under “Luhya”, and some Ugandans, then the dominant ethnic groups in Nairobi. Its political programme entailed protests against the hut-tax, forced labour, and the kipande (passbook). However, following the EAA-led Nairobi mass action of 1922 and the subsequent arrest and deportation of three of EAA’s leaders, Harry Thuku, Waiganjo Ndotono and George Mugekenyi, the colonial government seemed to have resolved not to encourage countrywide African political activity, but rather ethnic associations. The subsequent period thus saw the proliferation of such ethnic bodies as the Kikuyu Central Association, Kikuyu Provincial Association, Kavirondo Tax-payers Association, North Kavirondo Tax-payers Association, Taita Hills Association, and the Ukamba Members Association.
In 1944, the colonial government appointed Eliud Mathu as the African representative to the Legislative Council (LegCo). On the advice of the governor, the Kenya African Study Union (KASU) was formed as a colonywide African body with which the lone African member could consult. However, the Africans changed its name to the Kenya African Union (KAU), insisting that their grievances did not need study but rather organisation.
In 1947, James Gichuru stepped down as chairman of KAU in favour of Jomo Kenyatta whose mandate was to establish it as a countrywide political forum. However, there were serious disparities in political awareness, and the colonial government continued to encourage the masses to think of the welfare of their own ethnic groups rather than that of the country as a whole. Besides, KAU’s links with other communities were often strained because of what was perceived as Kikuyu domination of the organisation. By 1950, KAU was largely moribund because, through the Mau Mau Uprising, Africans challenged the entire basis of colonial rule instead of seeking piecemeal reforms. In June 1953, the colonial government banned KAU after it concluded that radicalisation was inevitable in any countrywide African political organisation.
From 1953 to 1956, the colonial government imposed a total ban on African political organisation. However, with the Lyttelton Constitution — which provided for increased African representation — in the offing, the colonial government decided to permit the formation of district political associations (except in the Central Province which was still under the state of Emergency and where the government would permit nothing more than an advisory council of loyalists). Argwings-Kodhek had formed the Kenya African National Congress to cut across district and ethnic lines, but the government would not register it, so its name was changed to the Nairobi District African Congress.
Consequently, the period leading up to independence in 1963 saw a proliferation of regional, ethnic and even clan-based political organisations: Mombasa African Democratic Union (MADU), Taita African Democratic Union (TADU), Abagussi Association of South Nyanza District (AASND), Maasai United Front Alliance (MA), Kalenjin Peoples Alliance (KPA), Baluhya Political Union (BPU), Rift Valley Peoples Congress (RVPC), Tom Mboya’s Nairobi People Convention (NPC), Argwings-Kodhek’s Nairobi African District Council (NADC), Masinde Muliro’s Kenya Peoples Party (KPP), Paul Ngei’s Akamba Peoples Party (APP) later named African Peoples Party (APP) and others.
However, between 1955 and 1963, there developed a countrywide movement led by non-Mau Mau African politicians who appealed to a vision of Kenya as a single people striving to free themselves from the shackles of colonialism. Nevertheless, it was a fragmented movement, partly because the different peoples of Kenya had an uneven political development, becoming politically active at different times. The difficulties of communication and discouragement from the colonial government also contributed to the weakness of the movement.
Nevertheless, on the eve of Kenya’s independence in 1963, the numerous ethnically-based political parties coalesced into two blocks that became the Kenya African National Union (KANU), whose membership mainly came from the Kikuyu and the Luo, and the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) which mainly had support from the pastoralist communities such as the Kalenjin, Maasai, Samburu, and Turkana, as well as the Giriama of the Coast and sections of the Luhya of Western Kenya. During the 1963 elections, on the eve of independence, KADU only secured control over two out of the eight regions, namely, the Rift Valley and the Coast.
KANU under Jomo Kenyatta
Although at his release from detention in 1961 Jomo Kenyatta was not keen to join KANU, he ended up as its leader through the machinations of its operatives. He ascended to state power on its ticket at Kenya’s independence, first as Prime Minister, then as President. As Prime Minister, Kenyatta was directly answerable to Parliament, and it is this accountability that he systematically undermined.
First, the KANU government initiated a series of constitutional amendments and subsidiary legislation that concentrated power in the hands of the central government at the expense of the regional governments entrenched in the Independence Constitution. This KANU easily achieved because KADU was greatly disadvantaged numerically in Parliament. Thus within the first year of independence, KANU undermined the regional governments by withholding funds due to them, passing legislation to circumvent their powers, and forcing major changes to the constitution by threatening and preparing to hold a referendum if the Senate – in which KADU could block the proposals – did not accede to the changes.
It was clear to KADU that it was outnumbered and outmanoeuvred, and that the prospects for enforcing the compromise federalist Independence Constitution were grim. It was also clear to KADU that it was highly unlikely that it would win power through subsequent elections. Consequently, KADU dissolved and joined KANU, resulting in Kenya becoming a de facto single-party state at the beginning of 1964. These amendments produced a strong provincial administration which became an instrument of central control.
Second, with the restraining power of the opposition party KADU out of the way, KANU initiated amendments that produced a hybrid constitution, replacing the parliamentary system of governance in the Independence Constitution with a strong executive presidency without the checks and balances entailed in the separation of powers. Thus KANU quickly created a highly centralised, authoritarian system in the fashion of the colonial state.
In 1966, Oginga Odinga, the Luo leader at the time, who had hitherto been the Vice President of both the country and KANU, lost both posts due to a series of political manoeuvres aimed at his political marginalisation. Odinga responded by forming a political party — the Kenya Peoples Union (KPU) — in April of the same year. KPU was a loose coalition of KANU-B “radicals” and trade-union leaders. Although a fifth of the sitting MPs initially supported it, KPU was widely perceived as a Luo party. This was mainly due to the fact that Kenyatta and his cohorts, using the hegemonic state-owned mass media, waged a highly effective propaganda war against it.
Kenyatta took every opportunity to promote the belief that all his political opponents came from Oginga Odinga’s Luo community. Through a series of state-sponsored machinations, KPU performed dismally in the so-called little elections of 1966 occasioned by the new rule, expediently put in place by KANU, that all MPs who joined KPU had to seek a fresh mandate from the electorate.
During the 1969 General Election, KANU was for the first time unopposed. Those who were nominated by the party in the party primaries — where they were held — were declared automatically elected as MPs, and in the case of Kenyatta, President. Thus during the 1969 general election, Kenyatta also established the practice where only he would be the presidential candidate, and where members of his inner circle would also be unopposed in their bids to recapture parliamentary seats.
During Kenyatta’s visit to Kisumu in October 1969, just three months after the assassination of Thomas Joseph Mboya (Tom Mboya), a large Luo crowd reportedly threatened Kenyatta’s security, and was fired on by the presidential security guards in what later came to be known as the “Kisumu massacre”, resulting in the death of forty-three people. In an explanatory statement, the government accused KPU of being subversive, intentionally stirring up inter-ethnic strife, and of accepting foreign money to promote “anti-national” activities. Soon after this incident, the Attorney-General, Charles Njonjo, banned KPU under Legal Notice No.239 of 30th October 1969, and Kenya again became a de facto one-party state. Several KPU leaders and MPs were immediately apprehended and detained.
In 1973, the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association (GEMA) was formed with Kenyatta’s consent. In a chapter in Ethnicity and Democracy in Africa, the immediate former Attorney-General Prof. Githu Muigai, explains that GEMA had a two-pronged mission: to strengthen the immediate ethnic base of the Kenyatta state by incorporating the Embu and Meru into a union with the Kikuyu, and to circumvent KANU’s party apparatus in the mobilisation of political support among these groups. While posing as a cultural organisation, GEMA virtually replaced KANU as the vehicle for political activity for most of the Kikuyu power elite. Consequently, many other ethnic groups formed “cultural groups” of their own such as the Luo Union and the New Akamba Union. As Prof. Muigai further observes, with the formation of GEMA, the façade of “nationalism” within KANU had broken down irretrievably.
In October 1975, Martin Shikuku, then MP for Butere, declared on the floor of Parliament that “anyone trying to lower the dignity of Parliament is trying to kill it the way KANU has been killed”. When Clement Lubembe, then Assistant Minister for Tourism and Wildlife, demanded that Shikuku substantiate his claim that KANU had been killed, the then Deputy Speaker, Jean-Marie Seroney, stated: “According to Parliamentary procedures, there is no need to substantiate what is obvious.” Consequently, Shikuku and Seroney were detained without trial, and were only released after Kenyatta’s death in 1978.
KANU under Daniel arap Moi
Two years before Kenyatta’s death, more than twenty MPs sought to amend the section of Kenya’s constitution which stipulated that the vice president would become the interim president should the incumbent become incapacitated or die. Although the “Change the Constitution Movement” involved MPs from across the country, members of GEMA were among the most vociferous in seeking to block Daniel arap Moi’s succession in this way. Thus, upon assuming the Presidency, Moi set about reducing the influence of GEMA, especially its leaders who had been closest to his predecessor. Whereas Kenyatta had by-passed KANU, Moi revitalised and mainstreamed it, using it as the institution through which his networks would be built. By so doing, he undercut the power of established ethno-regional political leaders, and made the party an instrument of personal control.
Besides, Moi persecuted advocates of reform among university lecturers, university students, lawyers and religious leaders, many of whom were arrested, tortured, detained without trial, or arraigned in court to answer to tramped up charges and subsequently face long prison sentences, and all this forced some of them into exile.
Furthermore, Moi co-opted into KANU the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU), Maendeleo ya Wanawake (the countrywide women’s organisation), and any other organisation that he viewed as a potential alternative locus of political power. At one point during Moi’s reign, the provincial administration even harassed people who did not have KANU membership cards in their possessions in markets, bus stops and other public places. I remember my father purchasing these cards to give to all his grown-up children in a bid to help them avoid such harassment. MPs lived under the fear of being expelled from KANU — which would mean automatic loss of their parliamentary seats — and so outdid one another in singing Moi’s and KANU’s dubious praises inside and outside Parliament. On the Voice of Kenya (VOK), the state-run radio station which enjoyed a monopoly, songs in praise of Moi and KANU and others castigating dissenters were played after every news broadcast.
Moi only conceded to restore multi-party politics at the end of 1991 due to the effects of his mismanagement of the economy coupled with the end of the Cold War, both of which increased internal and external pressure for reform. Nevertheless, he declared that people would understand that he was a “professor of politics”, and went on to emphasise that he would encourage the formation of as many parties as possible — a clear indication that he was determined to fragment the opposition in order to hang on to power for as long as possible. Indeed, the opposition unity that had influenced the change was not to last, as ethnically-based parties sprang up all over the country, enabling Moi to win both the 1992 and 1997 elections. Furthermore, the Moi regime was reluctant to put in place the legal infrastructure for a truly multiparty democracy, and the same was later to prove true of the Kibaki regime that took over power on 30th December 2002.
Parties as obstacles to democratisation
In a chapter in A Companion to African Philosophy, Makerere University philosophy professor Edward Wamala outlines three shortcomings of the multi-party system of government in Ganda society in particular, and in Africa in general.
First, the party system destroys consensus by de-emphasising the role of the individual in political action. Put simply, the party replaces “the people”. Consequently, a politician holding public office does not really have loyalty to the people whom he or she purportedly represents, but rather to the sponsoring party. The same being true of politicians in opposing parties, no room is left for consensus building. We have often witnessed parties disagreeing for no other reason than that they must appear to hold opposing views, thereby promoting confrontation rather than consensus.
Second, in order to acquire power or retain it, political parties act on the notorious Machiavellian principle that the end justifies the means, thereby draining political practice of ethical considerations that had been a key feature of traditional political practice. We are thus left with materialistic considerations that foster the welfare not of the society at large, but rather of certain suitably aligned individuals and groups.
Third, as only a few members at the top of a party wield power, even the parties that command the majority and therefore form the government are in reality ruled by a handful of persons. As such, personal rule, after seeming to have been eliminated by putting aside monarchs and chiefs, makes a return to the political arena of the Western-type state. Thus the KANU-NDP “co-operation” and ultimate “merger” was the result of the rapprochement between Daniel arap Moi and Raila Odinga; the Grand Coalition Government was formed as a result of the decision of Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga; The Handshake and the Building Bridges Initiative was the result of private consultations between Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta. In all these cases, party organs were only convened to ratify what the party leaders had already decided, and dissenters threatened with disciplinary action. We have very recently seen the same approach in the debate on the allocation of revenue, where what was supposed to be the opposition party acquiesced to the ruling party’s view simply because of the Handshake and the Building Bridges Initiative.
In my youth, I was convinced that if only multi-party rule would be restored in Kenya, autocracy would be a thing of the past. With hindsight, however, it is now clear to me that just as middlemen enjoy the bulk of the fruit of the sweat of our small-scale farmers, so party leaders enjoy the massive political capital generated by the people. In short, party politics, whether with one, two or many parties in place, hinder true democratisation by perpetuating political elitism and autocracy.
Towards a no-party system of governance
In Cultural Universals and Particulars, the Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu advances the view that the no-party system has evident advantages over the multi-party system:
When representatives are not constrained by considerations regarding the fortunes of power-driven parties they will be more inclined in council to reason more objectively and listen more open-mindedly. And in any deliberative body in which sensitivity to the merits of ideas is a driving force, circumstances are unlikely to select any one group for consistent marginalisation in the process of decision-making. Apart from anything else, such marginalisation would be an affront to the fundamental human rights of decisional representation.
However, Yoweri Museveni’s “no-party system” which he instituted when he took power in Uganda in 1986 was simply a one-party system in disguise. Indeed, in his Sowing the Mustard Seed, Museveni unintentionally reveals a party orientation in his analysis of his electoral victory in 1996: “Although I was campaigning as an individual, I had been leading the movement for 26 years. Therefore, the success of the NRM and my success were intertwined.”
Our various peoples had clear democratic practices in their pre-colonial political formations without the inconvenience of political parties. For example, Prof. Wamala, in the chapter already cited, informs us that the Kabaka of the Baganda could not go against the decision of the Elders. It is high time we learned from our indigenous heritages.
Life at the End of the American Empire
The poverty of ideas in America’s political arena reflects the barbarism of our historical moment. While Trump’s minions promote authoritarianism and jingoism, their ideological opponents within the Democratic Party offer equally bankrupt solutions, from a return to “civility” to the rebuilding of national “unity” all the while forgetting the critical lesson: White supremacy does not love White folks.
Americans have a knack for demonstrating, in spectacular fashion, that they possess neither the political language nor the maturity to address the crises of our time.
As the climate catastrophe hurtles past the point of return, US pundits are content to debate “cancel culture.” As levels of economic inequality soar from the obscene to the unfathomable, half the political class obsesses over Russian meddling while the other half nurtures conspiracy theories about the “deep state.”
Critics have long characterised American politics as a form of mass paranoia. Witnessing recent events, one is reminded that American identity itself is an act of self-deception. As a society we remain trapped in petulant adolescence, incapable of and uninterested in developing any real awareness of ourselves.
For decades this willful ignorance made the US an especially dangerous superpower. Now, as the decline of US empire accelerates, our practiced innocence is fueling a sense of collective disorientation and despair.
Critics have long characterised American politics as a form of mass paranoia. Witnessing recent events, one is reminded that American identity itself is an act of self-deception
To grasp our predicament we must recognise modern American politics as a clash between competing delusions. The populist insurgents of the right pursue one set of ideological fantasies while elite apologists for the status quo pursue another. Even as political polarisation increases, both camps embrace the myths of American virtue that perpetuate our national blindness.
The mob that recently stormed the Capitol is a toxic outgrowth of the cult of lies on the right. Among those lies is the assertion that “Blue Lives Matter.” Americans who watched footage of the Capitol invaders pummeling cops with flags and other objects (one officer was bludgeoned to death with a fire extinguisher) might wonder whether “Blue Lives Matter” is actually a principled declaration of support for police, rather than a cynical effort to subvert Black Lives Matter and justify racist state terror.
Many antiracists have long known the truth. Many of us recognise, as well, something that few Americans will ever discover; namely, that White supremacy does not love White folks. Whiteness is simply a method of conquest. It is a necessarily antihuman mode of domination. When the hordes at the Capitol called for the head of Mike Pence, a great White patriarch, and erected gallows outside the halls of Congress, they were enacting a philosophy not of tribal loyalty but of capricious and unrelenting violence.
If the forces on the right wing are driven by lies, the moderate defenders of liberal democracy are no less devoted to deception. Business and political elites condemned the Capitol siege in the wake of the attack. Yet they routinely launch their own “raids” on the commons through the practice of corporate sovereignty and unrestrained capitalism. Some members of the ruling class have framed Trump’s departure from the White House as an opportunity to restore the rule of law and the prestige of American democratic institutions. They cannot be serious. The net worth of US billionaires has risen by a trillion dollars since the pandemic began. Precisely which democracy are Americans supposed to reclaim?
In reality, US plutocrats can offer only a more polished racial capitalism as a remedy for the vulgarity of Trumpism. Their revitalized America will continue to imprison legions of black people, hunt undocumented immigrants, and wage unrelenting war on brown populations abroad. But it will do so under an African American woman vice president and a rainbow cabinet. Voila. White supremacy lite.
If the forces on the right wing are driven by lies, the moderate defenders of liberal democracy are no less devoted to deception. Business and political elites condemned the Capitol siege in the wake of the attack. Yet they routinely launch their own “raids” on the commons through the practice of corporate sovereignty and unrestrained capitalism.
The poverty of ideas in the political arena reflects the barbarism of our historical moment. While Trump’s minions promote authoritarianism and jingoism, many of their ideological opponents within the Democratic Party offer equally bankrupt solutions, from a return to “civility” to the rebuilding of national “unity.” (We are asked to forget that it was decades of “unity” between the Democrats and the billionaire class that helped produce the social and economic dystopia we now inhabit.)
Thus do the reigning forces in American political life—the populist right and the liberal center—sustain their crusades of disinformation. Both factions brandish the bloody flag of patriotism. Both long for the revival of a glorious order. Both preach fundamentalist creeds, whether they use the jargon of White evangelicalism or that of underregulated markets. And both are doomed. They are combatants on the deck of a sinking ship.
In truth, the disintegration of American civilisation has been evident for some time. The perverse murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were symptoms of deeper pathologies. Our trillion dollar military budget, our gleeful binge of fossil fuels, our support for the occupation and degradation of the Palestinian people—all signal the malignancy of a decadent and cruel nation.
In reality, US plutocrats can offer only a more polished racial capitalism as a remedy for the vulgarity of Trumpism. Their revitalized America will continue to imprison legions of black people, hunt undocumented immigrants, and wage unrelenting war on brown populations abroad.
Meanwhile our intellectual decay intensifies. Capitalism was never going to be satisfied with just seising our social wealth. It has gutted our cultural and educational institutions as well. Small wonder most Americans are strangers to critical thought, and are unable to perceive or meaningfully address the social contradictions that shape their lives. Absorbing the ideas of their religious and political leaders, they find themselves searching for meaning in gospels of prosperity and theories of lizard men.
There may still be an alternative to bewilderment and depravity for the American masses. Recent months and years have witnessed promising countersigns. Popular antiracist and environmental movements reinvigorated our traditions of dissent. Attempts to organize Amazon warehouses, fast food chains, the ridesharing and tech industries and other stubbornly antiunion establishments raised the prospect of renewed worker power. Despite the social devastation of the coronavirus, a period of extreme isolation and anxiety spawned mutual aid projects and tenant struggles.
Progressive dissidents and workers may yet draw on these expressions of solidarity to reconstruct a fractured republic. As feckless Joe Biden takes office, he and his administration should be greeted by waves of radical agitation. We should expand resistance to austerity and endless war, even as we escalate campaigns for climate repair, Medicare for all, living wages, student debt cancellation, and equitable vaccine distribution. Quests for human rights and dignity may not heal America, but they may well preserve some semblance of grace as our society collapses under the weight of its lies.
The Souls of White Folk Revisited
At another historical inflection point, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized white Americans’ delusions as the property of the West more broadly.
When US Congress members resumed deliberations on the Electoral College vote after a pro-Trump mob violently stormed and temporarily occupied the Capitol building on January 6, many of them expressed shock and dismay that such an event had occurred in the United States. The scene was certainly abominable. More than fifty people were injured, and five people died in the attack, including a Capitol police officer. But the greatest damage had been inflicted upon the feeble facade of American exceptionalism and white innocence.
In a revealing display of historical delusion, the mantra in Congress that evening and throughout the following day was that the barbaric attempt to subvert the outcome of the election was an aberration in US political history and culture. “This is not who we are,” members of congress repeated. Instead of introspection, there was deflection. “This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic—not our democratic republic,” former President George W. Bush related through a formal statement, without any apparent awareness of his own irony and racism.
And there were even boasts. Vice-President Mike Pence, in his address to the reconvened Senate envisioned a world in awe of the US. “The world will once again witness the resilience and strength of our democracy,” he said. New York Senator Chuck Schumer, revealing the limits of his historical literacy, was aghast that this aberrant event will stain America’s image. “Unfortunately,” he said to his colleagues, “we can now add January 6, 2021 to that very short list of dates in American history that will live forever in infamy.”
A half a century ago, at another historical inflection point, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wisely recognised these delusions as the property not simply of the United States, but of the West more broadly. The US, he discovered, shared with European states and their imperialist outposts in Africa and the Caribbean a near pathological determination to dress up labour exploitation, gross materialism, militarism, and white supremacy as democracy. We are at a similar historical moment.
This myth of exceptionalism and white superiority continues to yoke the white working class in the US and elsewhere—France, Britain, Brazil, and in South Africa, among other places—to an economic system that is destroying them. King, in his time, implored us to recognize this fact. Today, he would remind us that what Americans saw on January 6 was a domestic variant of a world problem of persistent adherence to white supremacy casually cloaked in political and economic grievance.
The US, like South Africa, needed collective myths to fuel its national pride, and allow its leaders the self-assurance they displayed. Their myopic sense of exceptionalism fueled their claims to superiority vis-à-vis the rest of the world. The same internal inhibitors to self-reflection allowed Donald Trump to label country’s “shitholes” and former President Bush to dismiss others as “banana republics.” This absence of self-reflection compounded by delusion inspired the pro-Trump white-nationalist mob to attack the US Capitol building in an act of domestic terrorism.
We can learn from King’s prescient admonition for white Americans, Western Europeans generally, to recognise the inevitable calamity that will result from the ease with which they hold aloft the banner of racial superiority, while they trod aggressively toward an all-encompassing conflagration. King offered an alternative path forward borne of his engagement with non-violent movements in Asia and Africa to end of European imperialism, and the movement in the US against racial segregation and economic exploitation.
King’s analysis of global white supremacy grew increasingly astute in the early 1960s, through his involvement in initiatives to end white-minority rule in southern Africa. King was not alone in his thinking. He espoused a philosophy that was in the tradition of the Black social gospel theologians who mentored him, such as Benjamin E. Mays, Howard Thurman, and King’s father, Martin Luther King Sr. The inspiration they derived from Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolence was immense, first in his struggle for Indian rights in British-ruled South Africa and then, after 1915, in India, toward its independence from Britain. Others, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, and South Africa’s Albert Luthuli, shaped the rich, internationally-oriented intellectual and political environment that nurtured King and shaped his political outlook.
King’s goals for the Civil Rights Movement were also consistent with those of his contemporary radical activists who were unsatisfied with arguments for integration into an unaltered American society. His Black social gospel predecessors, as would King himself, insisted that the US social and economic system be understood in its global context, which would evince the necessity of a radical reordering. The global perspective that King and his contemporaries in the Civil Rights Movement gained through their involvement in the struggle against white-minority rule in southern Africa, equipped them to discern the global dimensions of capitalism, white supremacy and resulting forms of creeping authoritarianism.
Part of King’s brilliance and his usefulness for understanding the current political moment was his capacity to link culture, philosophy, and national politics within broad, global economic and political structures. In his speech to the First Conference on New Politics Chicago in 1967, King derided the persistent myth of the US as a paragon of justice, equality, and freedom. He diagnosed America’s social malady as a “triple-prong sickness that has been lurking that is the sickness within our body politic from its very beginning. That is the sickness of racism, excessive materialism and militarism. Not only is this our nation’s dilemma, it is the plague of Western civilisation.”
King did not issue diagnoses without prescriptions for a more healthful body politic. He strove toward the realisation of what he referred to as the “Beloved Community,” built on justice and equality. Toward that end, we must be honest about and learn from our own history.
King warned that it was detrimental to the US to continue to deny that “capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves,” and demanded the acknowledgement that capitalism “continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor, both black and white, both here and abroad.” Again, his antidote for this sickness was not mere social integration, but true social justice, which required a radical remaking of American society. “The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice,” he argued, “cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.” What he called for, in other words, was a social revolution.
King’s internationalism and the deepening sophistication of his social analyses in a global context were most fully displayed in his Human Rights Day address at Hunter College in 1965, in which he warned that the delusion of superiority and exceptionalism among white South Africans was propelling that country toward internal violence, as he feared it would among whites in the US. The prospect of white violence prompted King to muse on the image of the African savage in the European imagination, reinforced by innumerable books, motion pictures, and magazine photos. He lamented that this figment of Africa as home to backward savages had persisted for more than a century despite the nimiety of facts that controverted it.
King contrasted the African-savage narrative with Europe’s well-documented economic and political savagery on the African continent: “Africa does have spectacular savages and brutes today, but they are not black. They are the sophisticated white rulers of South Africa who profess to be cultured, religious, and civilised, but whose conduct on philosophy stamp them unmistakably as modern-day barbarians.”
He feared that the persistence of these brutes, these barbarian white rulers would propel South Africa toward a race war, as Africans exhausted all peaceful routes to liberation and self-determination. To forestall or, even better, prevent such an outcome, King called for an international moral coalition against white-minority rule in southern Africa. “The leaders of South Africa’s openly and virulently racist regime were very specific about their intention to secure and maintain white dominance in the country. Quoting Prime Minister Verwoerd [of South Africa]: ‘We want to keep South Africa white.’ Keeping it white can only mean one thing, namely white domination, not ‘leadership,’ not ‘guidance,’ but control, supremacy.”
King neatly summed up apartheid’s corrosive efficiency for securing white political and economic power in the country, while ensuring a stable reserve of cheap Black labor. Rather than a southern outpost of Western civilization, as many South African leaders claimed, their country’s social and economic system made it, as King put it, “a formidable adversary of human rights.”
He emphasised his endorsement of international sanctions against South Africa, in this speech. Although the push for sanctions in the US would fail to shift the US government’s position on South Africa until the 1980s, King recognised the potential for a sanctions campaign, beyond the specifics of its immediate goal to cripple the apartheid regime, to form the basis of a global movement; what he called an “international alliance of all peoples of all nations against racism.”
As the minister extolled the virtues of sanctions, he singled out the US for its hypocritical and economically gratuitous embrace of South Africa. There had always been quick and deliberate US action in international events when the US believed its interests were at stake. He said that when the US invaded the Dominican Republic, which took place that year, it showed what it was capable of doing if willing. “We inundated that small nation with overwhelming force, shocking the world with our zealousness and naked power.” But toward South Africa, he bemoaned, “our protest is so muted and peripheral, it merely mildly disturbs the sensibilities of the segregationists, while our trade and investments substantially stimulate our economy to greater heights.”
Such is the hypocrisy of exceptionalism. The US would not condemn South Africa at the height of its own hypocrisy on race relations, because to do so would indict both countries. They mirrored each other, with their racist economic and political systems, hyper militarism and historical delusions. “Colonialism and segregation,” he wrote in an essay published that year in the New York Amsterdam News in 1962, “are nearly synonymous; they are children in the same family, for their common end is economic exploitation, political domination and the debasing of human personality.”
King would have recognised the raiding of the US Capitol building as a stark reflection of what America has always been. Like the white rulers of South Africa during the 1950s and 60s “who profess to be cultured, religious, and civilized,” US leaders have conjoined mythology and delusion to blind themselves to the fact that the marauding horde that brought such shame to the US Capitol on January 6 and, indeed, to the US, acted in the long and dependable tradition of white nationalism in America and in the indomitable spirit of global white supremacy.
King endeavoured to steer whites from the course on which their historical delusion had fixed them and that would lead them inevitably toward violence. His legacy inspires a clear-eyed examination of movements like Marine Le Pen’s National Front (National Rally), Boris Johnson’s Brexit, and Trumpism, to understand their deep-rootedness in the ethos and praxis of white supremacy. Naming it, as King counseled, will allow for self-reflection and an opportunity for true exceptionalism. Success within this process will enable US politicians to recognize the marauding horde wandering the corridors of the Capitol building as themselves and a product of their history.
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