If we keep seeing incessant calls for decolonizing knowledge, research and teaching, that’s owed to stubborn imperfections in the political architecture of the Ivory Tower. The university is a site where colonial frames survive in the material and immaterial features of academia – whether in financial, linguistic, architectural, political or mental spheres. While these frames are cross-cutting, as the writings of Edward Said, Angela Davis, bell hooks or Aimé Césaire and others taught us, this essay focuses on epistemics, that is – in a nutshell – the ways in which we create, shape and legitimise knowledge. Inspired by Spivak and others, the starting point here is the observation that colonial imaginations keep questioning whether the subaltern can speak, leading – in academia and beyond – to longstanding trajectories of epistemic violence, marginalisation and exclusion.
Colonial frames are constructed to systemically preserve political, moral and economic authority of the people and nations that gained from exploiting others, or, for the very least, from imposing their worldviews. Some of it, however, is rooted in the pre-determined shaping of our thinking, the ways in which Western mindsets and mental frames are conditioned by a reproduction of in-group thought and truism in socialisation and education. This follows established colonial trajectories, but – going back to the opening line – it most virulently plays out where scientific capital is most powerful. This place is the Western university, flanked by an oligopoly of academic publishers and – crumbling but still unparalleled – funding schemes for research. Scores of writers, theorists and commentators regularly remind us of these issues. They point out how, despite the momentum to mobilise decolonial struggle, in academia and beyond, progress is slow. Like a turtle, colonial structures and institutions prove enormously resilient in defending an exclusive ‘permission to narrate.’
But what if Western thought itself is a victim of its own (neo-)colonial attitude? Admittedly, we’re entering a semantic minefield here, since nothing justifies colonialism by any acceptable notion of values, let alone reverse victimhood. But, for the sake of an experiment, this piece will discuss how colonial frames also harm the quality of individual and collective scholarship on the side of the privileged. Colonial socialisation and education do that by cutting to size our epistemologies as if we would be looking in the mirror when theorizing out of the window. As academics, Western-raised, Western-educated or both, we are trapped in our very own, self-made intellectual snares, complicating attempts to make sense of politics in most parts of the world. The writing process of a piece I recently wrote for ROAPE was good initial antidote, although I remain puzzled if it addressed only symptoms or actual root causes of my own incomplete mental decolonization process.
Dominant social theory is based on thought, conceptualisation and definitions developed by mostly Western scholars in their own lifeworlds. Hence, even if so-called fieldwork is done, analysis is usually done back home. It is therefore, knowledge situated out of context, with all its limitations. Human thought is dependent on language as a technique for both framing and transmission. Yet, concepts come into being through passive and active speaker competence, so it is rather difficult for someone who does not speak Yoruba, Arabic or Bengali to express the meaning of something in its context. Of course, we can translate, and sometimes chance helps making things fit, but more often, it results in erasure as specific type of epistemic violence. Forming precise equivalents of complex, situated social reality and abstraction into concepts faces problems of what Feyerabend and Kuhn called incommensurability – the lack of shared language across scientific concepts and those discussing them – or Derrida’s idea of ‘untranslatability,’ the lack of exact equivalent across languages. Epistemic decolonisation hence requires linguistic emancipation on all sides of the table. We all use definitions, most of which are based on wording we are familiar with. Hence, even the most engaged and immersed ethnographers face multiple risks of imprecision, such as taking correlation for causation, as fans of econometric analysis do. For several reasons, hence, such as the refusal to engage in collaborative research, intellectual laziness, linguistic diversity, academic conventions, and forms of structural violence – just to name a few – we as social scientists are thus collectively racing into our very own epistemic surrender.
These shortcomings are particularly visible is the study of conflict dynamics and contentious politics in most parts of the world. To employ one of the few truisms I’d subscribe to, there surely is a correlation between the degree to which social phenomena are complex and contested and to which we need detailed context and information to avoid shortcuts, errors and misinterpretations. This exponentially peaks whenever translation issues come on top. But social theory is clever. Generations of scientists and researchers have been working on frames to both boil down complexity and to transfer social reality from where it plays out into spheres from where we target understanding and explanation. That’s legit to some extent because otherwise both case study research and generalisations would be worthless and obsolete. Yet, it is also not legit to posit such as generally and genuinely infallible or true. Dynamics of conflict, violence and politics tend to be mired by competing narratives anywhere in the world. Before and even into the era of alternative facts and fake news, this leads us to point at Otherness, to use diverging discursive construction to describe things that perhaps are not that different.
What we call ‘corruption’ in Africa is often referred to as ‘nepotism’ when we talk about Europe. What we subsume under ‘terrorism’ in the Middle East are the ‘individual cases’ of white people killing scores of people with assault rifles in the US, owing to ‘mental health issues.’ What we call mindless and savage violence in the Congo, are joint efforts in migration policy by the European Union. Intriguingly, the concomitant result is humans killed and public money embezzled in all cases. Of course, and luckily, lots of good social research is far beyond such crude Manichean clichés and tropes, but down the ladder of gravity we find similarly constructed problems.
As means of illustration, I will sketch two examples of epistemic challenges I have been facing. One is the ROAPE essay and another related one refers to an article Josaphat Musamba and I have been writing. In both, we have tried to investigate the “real governance” of conflict-affected mineral markets in the eastern Congo, a place where myths and stereotypes all too often clash with facts and analysis. In the course of the Congo wars around the millennium, the notion of conflict minerals arose to conceptualise the role of natural resources in a broader context of insecurity. Akin to existing – and problematic – assumptions on the economics of and in civil wars, this paradigm not only led to significant transnational policy but also framed an image of mineral trade and livelihoods as profoundly characterised by greed and violence. In consequence, a language of illegality and fraud came to dominate analyses on the matter. This however, shrouded our collective understanding of what mineral markets in eastern Congo actually look like, and why they work in the ways they work.
Instead, the conceptual arsenal of Western-dominated social science offered a number of theorizations ranging from neopatrimonialism, racketeering and greed to describe and analyse the personae of traders, business heavyweights and other participants of eastern Congo’s mineral markets. This is where we got stuck.
In our piece on the intermediary traders that oil cogwheels of domestic business – that is, before mineral goods are exported – we therefore had to look for solutions to name our protagonists. In French, the Congo’s colonially-inherited official language, these people are known as négociants – ‘negotiators.’ Now, negotiating is universal human activity and as such there is little chance of distorting the meaning of what these people do. Yet, it is insufficient to paint a fuller conceptual picture of their action and role. In this case, we did not find any further ‘emic’ (that means, arising from its very own, situated context) conceptualisation that would provide enough clarity. We thus began defining them as brokers of crisis. We did so because in the Congo, the notion of la crise is a ubiquitous reference and in literatures unsuspicious of too much colonial penchant, crisis is defined as “permanent or conditional category” or “ordinary and banal phenomenon.” Moreover, the notion of a broker, compared to that of a smuggler, is a functional term not a value judgment. In its broadest sense, it simply describes human connection for the sake to social, economic or political transactions.
The ROAPE article was a similar challenge, as it focused on another pivotal category of stakeholders in Congo’s political economy for which I borrowed the term incontournables. These are the people neopatrimonialism theory would call patrons, and Paul Collier would call them greedy. The incontournables are those, as the term suggests, that are hard or impossible to avoid due to their position and clout in a given context. Another emic solution, this term is French but while it comes out of a colonial language, it is used abundantly by Congolese. However, and most importantly, it is used in France itself with a positive connotation. There, for instance, extraordinary wines or outstanding literary works are incontournable. This is important, because while engaged scholarship is eminently political, we ought not to be blind as to the consequences of our epistemic choices. Hence, there is no issue with calling a corrupt person ‘corrupt’, but it is imprecise and prone to error to call entire groups ‘corrupt.’ Worse even, if we either use certain flattering (Western) language for ourselves, and pejorative (also Western) terms for the Other. Or if we simply decline to seek for emic, embedded meaning and explanation as we try to understand a context. All of that is amplified by a strong unidirectionality of scientific conceptualisation from the Global North to the South.
If these short examples are illustrative of the epistemic problems complicating social theory, they are not end points but mere entry doors into broader reflection. While decolonial scholars upped the game with works of enormous relevance – Kimberlé Crenshaw, Audre Lorde, Walter Mignolo and Boaventura de Sousa Santos to name a few – this debate also addresses our own issues, Western epistemic surrender. This means two things – the problem itself and a potential solution. The problem is that Western social theory has since long committed epistemic surrender, surrender as in abandoning this epistemic struggle. However, this surrender – as a conscious objective – can also mean to actively work towards surrendering our frames of thought and more actively embracing and applying epistemics not inherently ours, on the African continent and elsewhere so that, as Achille Mbembe suggested, ‘we will no longer have a university. We will have a pluriversity.’
This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy Journal.
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On the Sins of Colonialism and Insurgent Decolonisation
Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni writes how war, violence and extractivism defined the legacy of the empire in Africa, and why recent attempts to explore the ‘ethical’ contributions of colonialism is rewriting history.
In 2017, a professor at Oxford University in the United Kingdom proposed a research project. The key thesis: that the empire as a historical phenomenon – distinct from an ideological construct – has made ethical contributions and that its legacy cannot be reduced to that of genocides, exploitations, domination and repression.
Predictably, such a project raised a lot of controversies to the extent that other scholars at Oxford penned an open letter dissociating themselves from such intended revisionism and whitewashing of the crimes of the empire. One leading member of the project resigned from it, citing personal reasons.
Historically, theoretically and empirically, it should be clear that the empire was a “death project” rather than an ethical force outside Europe; that war, violence and extractivism rather than any ethics defined the legacy of the empire in Africa.
But it is the continuation of revisionist thinking that beckons a revisiting of the question of colonialism and its impact on the continent from a decolonial perspective, challenging the colonial and liberal desire to rearticulate the empire as an ethical phenomenon.
The ‘ethics’ of empire?
In the Oxford research project, entitled Ethics and Empire (2017-22), Nigel Biggar, the university’s regius professor of moral and pastoral theology and director of the MacDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Life, sought to do two important interventions: to measure apologias and critiques of the empire against historical data from antiquity to modernity across the world; and to challenge the idea that empire is imperialist, imperialism is wicked, and empire is therefore unethical.
In support of its thesis, the description of the research project lists “examples” of the ethics of the empire: the British empire’s suppression of the “Atlantic and African slave trades” after 1807; granting Black Africans the vote at the Cape Colony 17 years before the United States granted it to African Americans; and offering “the only armed centre of armed resistance to European fascism between May 1940 and June 1941”.
But the selective use of such examples does not paint an accurate picture. Any attempt to credit the British empire for the abolition of slavery, for instance, ignores the ongoing resistance of enslaved Africans from the moment of capture right up to the plantations in the Americas. The Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 still stands as a symbol of this resistance: enslaved African people rose against racism, slavery and colonialism – demonstrating beyond doubt that the European institution of slavery was not sustainable.
The very fact that, in the Oxford research project, the chosen description is “the Atlantic and African slave trades” reveals an attempt to distance itself from the crime of slavery, to attribute it to the “ocean” (the Atlantic), and to the “Africans” as though they enslaved themselves. Where is the British empire in this description of the heinous kidnapping and commodification of the lives of Africans?
The second example, which highlights the very skewed granting of the franchise to a small number of so-called “civilised” Africans at the Cape Colony in South Africa as a gift of the empire, further demonstrates a misunderstanding of how colonialism dismembered and dehumanised African people. The fact is that African struggles were fought for decolonisation and rehumanisation.
The third example, that the British empire became the nerve centre of armed resistance to fascism during the second world war (1939-45), may be accurate. But it also ignores the fact that fascism became so repugnant to the British mainly because Adolf Hitler practised and applied the racism that was meant for “those people” in the colonies and brought it to the centre of Europe.
Projects like Briggar’s, and others with similar thought trajectories, risk endangering the truth about the crimes of the empire in Africa.
Afro-pessimism: Seeing disorder as the norm
What, fundamentally, is colonialism? Aimé Césaire, the Mantiniquean intellectual and poet, posed this deep and necessary question in his classical treatise Discourse on Colonialism, published in 1955. In it, he argues that the colonial project was never benevolent and always motivated by self-interest and economic exploitation of the colonised.
But without a real comprehension of the true meaning of colonialism, there are all sorts of dangers of developing a complacent if not ahistorical and apologetic view of it, including the one that argues it was a moral evil with economic benefits to its victims. This view of colonialism is re-emerging within a context where some conservative metropolitan-based scholars of the empire are calling for a “balance sheet of the empire”, which weighs up the costs and benefits of colonialism. Meanwhile, some beneficiaries of the empire based in Africa are also adopting a revisionist approach, such as Helen Zille, the white former leader of South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance party, who caused a storm when she said that apartheid colonialism was beneficial – by building the infrastructure and governance systems that Black Africans now use.
Both conservative and liberal revisionism in the studies of the empire and the impact of colonialism reflect shared pessimistic views about African development. The economic failures, and indeed elusive development, in Africa get blamed on the victims. The disorder is said to be the norm in Africa. Eating, that is, filling the “belly” is said to be the characteristic of African politics. African leadership is roundly blamed for the mismanagement of economies in Africa.
While it is true that African leaders contribute to economic and development challenges through things like corruption, the key problems on the continent are structural, systemic and institutional. That is why even leaders like Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, who were not corrupt, did not succeed in changing the character of inherited colonial economies so as to benefit the majority of African peoples.
Today, what exacerbates these ahistorical, apologetic and patronising views of the impact of colonialism on Africa is the return of crude right-wing politics – the kind embodied by former US President Donald Trump. It is the strong belief in inherent white supremacy and in the inherent inferiority of the rest.
But right-wing politics is also locking horns with resurgent and insurgent decolonisation of the 21st century, symbolised by global movements such as Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall. However, to mount a credible critique to apologias for the empire, the starting point is to clearly define colonialism.
On colonisation, colonialism, coloniality
Three terms – colonisation, colonialism and coloniality – if correctly clarified, help in gaining a deeper understanding of the empire and the damage colonialism has had on African economies and indeed on African lives.
Colonisation names the event of conquest and administration of the conquered. It can be dated in the case of South Africa from 1652 to 1994; in the case of Zimbabwe from 1890 to 1980; and in the case of Western and Eastern Africa from 1884 to 1960. Those who confused colonisation and colonialism conceptually, ended up pushing forward a very complacent view of colonialism which define it as a mere “episode in African history” (a short interlude: 1884-1960). While this intervention from the Ibadan African Nationalist School of History was informed by the noble desire to dethrone imperialist/colonialist historiography which denied the existence of African history prior to the continent’s encounter with Europeans, it ended up minimising the epochal impact of colonialism on Africa.
It was Peter Ekeh of the University of Ibadan, in his Professorial Inaugural Lecture: Colonialism and Social Structure of 1980, who directly challenged the notion that colonialism was an episode in African history. He posited that colonialism was epochal in its impact as it was and is a system of power that is multifaceted in character. It is a power structure that subverts, destroys, reinvents, appropriates, and replaces anything it deems an obstacle to the agenda of colonial domination and exploitation.
Eke’s definition of colonialism resonated with that of Frantz Fanon who explained, in The Wretched of the Earth, that colonialism was never satisfied with the conquest of the colonised, it also worked to steal the colonised people’s history and to epistemically intervene in their psyche.
Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe is also correct in positing that the fundamental question in colonialism was a planetary one: to whom does the earth belong? Thus, as a planetary phenomenon, its storm troopers, the European colonialists, were driven by the imperial idea of the earth as belonging to them. This is why at the centre of colonialism is the “coloniality of being”, that is, the colonisation of the very idea and meaning of being human.
This was achieved through two processes: first, the social classification of the human population; and second, the racial hierarchisation of the classified human population. This was a necessary colonial process to distinguish those who had to be subjected to enslavement, genocide and colonisation.
The third important concept is that of coloniality. It was developed by Latin American decolonial theorists, particularly Anibal Quijano. Coloniality names the transhistoric expansion of colonial domination and its replication in contemporary times. It links very well with the African epic school of colonialism articulated by Ekeh and dovetails well with Kwame Nkrumah’s concept of neo-colonialism. All this speaks to the epochal impact of colonialism. One therefore wonders how Africa could develop economically under this structure of power and how could colonialism be of benefit to Africa. To understand the negative economic impact of colonialism on Africa, there is a need to appreciate the four journeys of capital and its implications for Africa.
Four journeys of colonial capital and entrapment
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, in his Secure the Base: Making Africa Visible in the Globe, distilled the four journeys of capital from its mercantile period to its current financial form and in each of the journeys, he plotted the fate of Africa.
The first is the epoch of enslavement of Africans and their shipment as cargo out of the continent. This drained Africa of its most robust labour needed for its economic development. The second was the exploitation of African labour in the plantations and mines in the Americas without any payment so as to enable the very project of Euro-modernity and its coloniality. The third is the colonial moment where Africa was scrambled for and partitioned among seven European colonial powers (Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal) and its resources (both natural and human) were exploited for the benefit of Europe. The fourth moment is the current one characterised by “debt slavery” whereby a poor continent finances the developed countries of the world. Overseeing this debt slavery is the global financial republic constituted by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other financial institutions. All these exploitative journeys of capital were enabled by colonialism and coloniality.
Empirically and concretely, colonialism radically ordered Africa into economic zones of exploitation. This reality is well expressed by Samir Amin who identified three main colonial zones. The first is the “cash crops zone” covering Western and Eastern Africa, where colonialism inaugurated “peasant trade colonies” whereby Africans were forced to abandon cultivation of food crops and instead produce cash crops for an industrialising Europe.
The second zone was that of extractive colonial plantations symbolised by the Congo Free State which was owned by King Leopold II of Belgium; Africans were forced to produce rubber, and extreme violence including the removal of limbs was used to enforce this colonial system.
The third zone was that of “labour reserves” inaugurated by settler colonialism. The Southern Africa region was the central space of settler colonies, where Africans were physically removed from their lands and the lands taken over by the white settlers. Those African who survived the wars of conquest were pushed into crowded reserves where they existed as a source of cheap labour for mines, farms, plantations, factories, and even domestic work.
This colonial ordering of economies in Africa has remained intact even after more than 60 years of decolonisation. This is because achieving political independence did not include attaining economic decolonisation. At the moment of political decolonisation, Europe actively worked to develop strategies such as Eurafrica, Françafrique, Lomé Conventions, the Commonwealth and others to maintain its economic domination over Africa.
Roadblocks to development
Like all human beings, Africans were born into valid and legitimate knowledge systems which enabled them to survive as a people, to benefit from their environment, to invent tools, and to organise themselves socially on their own terms.
The success story of the people of Egypt to utilise the resources of the Nile River to build the Egyptian civilisation, which is older than the birth of modern Europe, is a testimony of how the people and the continent were self-developing and self-improving on their own terms.
The invention of stone tools and the revolutionary shift to the iron tools prior to colonialism is another indication of African people making their own history. The domestication of plants and animals is another evidence of African revolutions. This is what colonialism destroyed as it created a colonial order and economy that had no African interests at its centre.
Flourishing pre-colonial African economies and societies of the Kingdom of Kongo, Songhai, Mali, Ancient Ghana, Dahomey were first of all exposed to the devastating impact of the slave trade and later subjected to violent colonialism. What this birthed were economies in Africa rather than African economies – economies that were outside-looking-in in orientation – to sustain the development of Europe.
Fundamentally, the economies in Africa became extractive in nature. By the time direct colonialism was rolled back after 1945, African leaders inherited colonial economies where Africans participated as providers of cheap labour rather than owners of the economies. These externally oriented economies could not survive as anything else but providers of cheap raw materials. They were and are entrapped in well-crafted colonial matrices of power with a well-planned division of labour.
Today, the economies in Africa remain artificial and fragile to the extent that any attempt to reorient them to serve the majority of African people, sees them flounder and collapse. This is because their scaffold and pivot are colonial relations of exploitation, not decolonial relations of empowerment and equitable distribution of resources.
For real future development and a successful move from economies in Africa towards true African economies, there is a need to revolutionise the asymmetrical colonial power structures that still govern the fate of the continent.
Editors Note: This is an edited version of an article first published by Al Jazeera English. It is republished here as part of our partnership with the Review of African Political Economy.
Whiteness and the Future of Artificial Intelligence
Tracing the digital contours of the settler colony helps us understand how old inequalities will shape a future with artificial intelligence.
For much of the nineteenth century, Sundays in an open field at the gates of New Orleans saw a spectacular congregation of human activity. Picture a hot, humid, swampy Louisiana summer day, the Spanish moss dripping from the trees, and the bass drum pulse reverberating as you approach a mass gathering at the fringe of the United States’s most Caribbean city.
You’d see New Orleaneans of all stripes, dressed in everything from the latest Parisian fashions to simple rags, standing around in circles, watching the most talented musicians, dancers, actors, and diviners of their city on full display.
If you could have angled your head to see inside the circle, you would be privileged to witness the diversity of humanity coming together. People from across Africa and the Americas co-mingling, sharing their culture, celebrating the arrival of the one day they can express their home and ancestral cultures in public.
Unaware that their communing would one day birth a novel culture, which would in turn branch out to influence cultures in the rest of the world, there must have been an urgent feeling to the gatherings, fleeting if not quite ephemeral, but temporary enough to make them feel dreamlike, religious even. As soon as that feverish dream of a day would break, they would be returning to unpaid labor, toiling in fields or answering to the whims of their white masters. Because they were not, in the society in which they lived, human.
In 2018, after returning to the US from living in Brazil, I visited New Orleans for the first time. While there, I picked up a book on the history of Congo Square, and in the following months I couldn’t help from periodically daydreaming about the historical Sunday gatherings in that city. I drew parallels to the basement house party or the rented community center of my childhood in Milwaukee, where immigrants would dance the night away, speak in their own language, eat their own food, even worship in their own cosmos.
They were also there at the nightclub that I frequented as a student in Madrid, filled with young men who may have risked their lives crossing deserts and seas to arrive in Europe, and who now danced in the center of circles to Youssou N’Dour. Or they were in the hidden away bars and nightclubs of New York and San Francisco, where migrants of a variety of classes and national origins brushed up against each other, catching up on the latest sounds from their various home lands. They were also in online spaces, in which young people across the world found a foothold for expression, with various permutations of digital soul music pulsing on the parallel circuits of a global capitalism still guided by the logic of white supremacy.
Connecting a historical moment like Congo Square to my own experiences helped to challenge lingering colonial logics embedded within my imaginings of America’s past. It particularly helped to destroy an invisible line that tends to be drawn between those whose ancestors arrived on these shores from Africa in bondage hundreds of years ago, and those who arrived more recently for other purposes. It forced me to recognize that African migration to the Americas (or elsewhere) can and should be thought of as a continuum, and the humanity of those who migrate, forced or by choice, is unbroken across space and time.
Last summer, I sat in a parking lot in King City, California, a small town surrounded by mountains and endless fields of fruit and vegetables, listening to a local Spanish language radio broadcast. On it, alongside various Mexican regional musics, they had public service announcements about COVID-19 and ads for English language classes. King City sits in the heart of one of the centers of industrial agriculture in the United States.
The manual labor performed in this region is done by workers from Mexico and Central America, some undocumented, but all descended from people who occupied and moved around these lands freely for thousands of years. Largely invisible in nearby wealthy urban enclaves, they are an integral labor force that save for a periodic scapegoating, demonization, and dehumanization in the media, isn’t normally seen as part of the nation—let alone having their hopes, joys, or individual expressions considered in mainstream discourse.
So I sat there, listening to the bright horn choruses and upbeat snare drum rolls, and imagined that these local radio broadcasts served to provide a sense of community and humanity to their audiences, not unlike those of the Sunday gatherings in New Orleans two hundred years ago. Humanity denied, humanity reclaimed, the contours of citizenship and their interplay with labor are perpetually dancing at the edges of the settler colony.
Contemporaneous to the gatherings at Congo Square, the American settler colony was in an expansive phase moving west across the North American continent. Around the same time, European powers were doling out territories for themselves in Africa, and across the world they accomplished these “civilizing missions” by pushing the existing inhabitants off of the land, killing or imprisoning them, or attempting to wipe out their way of life. The privileges of white settlers in these extensions of Europe were fortified by the legal structures of the colonial state. In the United States, laws like the Homestead Act and the Second Amendment to the Constitution turned white frontier families into state-sponsored militias, their structural advantage scrawled across the physical landscape of the continent.
In the wake of the guns and military campaigns (sometimes manned by colonised peoples themselves), urban professionals of the colonial metropoles followed with their pens, phonographs, and cameras and became the documentarians of the folk culture of the marginals, misfits, Native Americans and Africans at the frontier (as well in the working class neighborhoods of cities). These state agents and entrepreneurs would chronicle the transition from an Atlantic society based on slave labor to capitalism. The legends they constructed would become the foundation for an imperialist ideology that continues to this day.
Starting around the mid-1800s, the US witnessed the rise in popularity of the blackface minstrel show. Through the medium of vaudeville, and with Congo Square as one of the direct source materials, the minstrel show denigrated people of African descent (or anyone deemed other at the time), mocking the expressions of humanity that they managed, while simultaneously integrating them into the identity of the nation. This form of entertainment would produce America’s first pop stars who would in turn become global ambassadors for the new American society that was emerging.
The legal mechanisms for enclosure in the world of ideas mirrored those of physical territory. As communication technology rapidly advanced, the mechanical copyright emerged to protect property in the cultural realm. This mechanism ensured a structural advantage for those with the resources to extract and define the value of the culture of those at the margins. The owners of patents and copyrights did more than just document their changing world, they also ossified racial categories and ushered racism along from the biological realm into the cultural one. This was the foundation on which the global entertainment industries of today were built.
After the very slow and wrought process of abolishing Atlantic slavery, and the violent consolidation of the colonial territories, by the turn of the twentieth century debates about citizenship and civil rights would arise to mask the battlefield over humanity. As Native Americans were cordoned off to reservations, Africans in the Americas would be folded into the nation as Black (Negro, Colored, etc). And as the western literary genre moved from the written word to the screen, and the minstrel show moved from live theater, to radio and phonograph, to film and television, the twin legacies of the fascination with and denigration of a dehumanized other would leave their mark on each.
White capitalist copyright owners would position themselves as the authoritative gatekeepers on the pure folk cultures of the inferior races, or white performers, on stage with their actual faces, would insert themselves as the individual genius responsible for the synthesis of a unique cultural innovation, the social relations behind the slick final product forever obscured. While various cultural rebellions have arisen throughout the years to counter these processes of dehumanization, the tools of extraction inherited from the nineteenth century have proven to be more than effective in upholding the logic of empire and racial capitalism.
In parallel to this cultural push and pull, a political debate would arise amongst Black Americans over how to (or whether to) integrate into the settler colonial society. Visions of a return to Africa would wax and wane, while an anti-colonial politics was violently repressed. Ultimately, the call to own property as a way to secure one’s rightful place within the nation, the ghosts of 40 acres and a mule, would ring out loud over the decades. This echo has found new life in today’s discourse around race, resulting in an ascendant black nationalist purism, particularly online. This trend is unfortunate. While there is certainly agency within the beauty and virtuosity that has come into the world as a result of the cultural resilience of African descended peoples in the Americas, it doesn’t mean that it is the result of some intrinsic quality unique to one racial group or national historical context.
In fact, it could be argued that the African retentions that remain in the Americas survived because the dominant systems either tolerated them or weren’t able to read them as such. In other words: Black American cultures have arisen as a result of both black resilience and white supremacy. Still, America’s Blackness is one of the most important cultural expressions of resilience and resistance in modern society. To put an enclosure around it only reinforces the settler colonial mentality, leaving the aims of universal humanism incomplete. Even those Africans at Congo Square, who helped start this whole thing in the first place, would likely remain outside of the gates.
Just over an hour drive from that King City parking lot where I was listening to the radio in Spanish, and on the western edge of the continental territory colonised by the United States, sits the headquarters of the world’s most valuable companies: Google, Facebook, Tesla, Apple—the heart of the global information economy. Even though the bubble of the California Gold Rush has long since burst (a process that seems to repeat itself every few decades), it has turned into a region with one of the largest concentrations of wealth in the world. If mass media was born amongst the colonization project of Euro-American imperialism, the dehumanization of non-European peoples, and the consolidation of racial capitalism, then today’s information economy is also built upon that same infrastructure.
On the wild frontiers of the early internet, online communities emerged that would freely exchange infinitely replicable digital material. In what many thought was a new reality of a post-scarce digitally permanent world, the reign of the regime of copyright briefly found itself in crisis. Music was the most fertile ground from which to declare one’s liberation, but it wasn’t the only one.
And while interaction with the old guard of racial capitalism allowed a tradition of gatekeeping and cultural appropriation inherited from vaudeville to continue, what had emerged within the confines of the virtual world—torrent libraries, file sharing sites, personal blogs, forums and chat rooms—collectively could be thought of as a sort of digital Congo Square. The response from the United States Department of Homeland Security, alongside other policing efforts, was to raid the safe houses of free exchange and try and put an end to it all through intimidation.
Before the average uploader became familiar with the DMCA takedown, some big companies looked at the anarchistic landscape and lured the loosely organized scattering of digital cultural producers onto their free platforms. Soundcloud, Youtube, Instagram, Twitter, etc all provided sleek design, convenience, and a veneer of protection from the harshest crackdowns by the state.
Yet, these platforms were not immune to the demands of capital or its watchdogs. Perhaps, they never were meant to be. Investors eventually wanted returns, and the landed copyright elite needed their cut too, and whether planned or not, all the platforms would eventually make concessions that favored the biggest property owners over the public. These concessions would eventually evolve into the phenomenon now popularly known as surveillance capitalism.
Eventually, the ideological struggles of our time would also move on to the individualized “feeds” and “timelines” of the Silicon Valley platforms. No longer reserved for the stage of fights between or within nations, political speech is tailored, tracked, and manipulated in the interest of generating more interaction with minimal regard to the real world consequences. We may constantly measure ourselves against how we think other people might see us online, but when you strip us back down to our most human needs and desires, the questions that concern much of the population of this planet are fairly simple: What is the right of any individual human to exist wherever they are on Earth? And, under what conditions do they have a right to do so?
So today, across the world, young people leave rural communities to work in the fields, mines, and factories that fuel the supply chains of multinational corporations with the slightest hope that integration into the global economy will provide a better future for them and their families. Masses from the urban margins take to the streets with the belief that by facing state violence head on they might bring about a more just reality for their communities.
And, when members of both groups feel like they have no alternative but to hit the unmarked highways of the world’s most dangerous migration routes and seek a better future elsewhere, they are doing so with the idea that the same world that can beam images and sounds via satellite to a mobile phone in their pocket must be able to recognize a humanity denied as a result of neocolonial economic, environmental, and military policy.
Like in the post-Reconstruction era in the US, many of the proposed solutions to the injustices that have emerged in the digital age have concentrated on finding technological fixes to restore (old) systems of fair(er) compensation for the output (input) of online denizens. However, rather than provide solutions to the structural inequalities inherent to capitalism, technological fixes such as blockchain capitalism, cash app mutual aid, personalized sponsorship accounts, and other enclosure-oriented solutions ultimately retrofit the infrastructures of exploitation against the claims of universal humanism. While there certainly is value in building community online, especially as a form of resistance or resilience, the question remains: What forms of online participation emerge from the claims to humanity of the marginals, misfits, Native Americans and Africans at the frontier?
And in our resistance, we should also never forget that the reality of surveillance capitalism is that one person’s individual wealth, clout, or social relevance is insignificant in comparison to the aggregate picture of all the behaviors of the world’s population.
By the time the platforms had a monopoly on audiences, they no longer needed the cultural products they claimed to be supporting to have any exchange value at all (with human moderation becoming fertile ground for corruption or payola). While influencers try to squeeze out a few pennies from sponsors or trickle down monetization schemes based on clout they’ve managed to accumulate in their online and real world social networks, the runways of the digital future are paved with the promise of returns from the proprietary algorithms built on data hoarded from the behavior of the masses.
As it stands, a few companies, concentrated in specific geographic locations, fortified by an accumulated wealth never seen before, defended by the largest military force ever to exist, swallow and secure all the information we give them: our behaviors, our desires, all of our humanistic acts and expressions, and employ small armies to sort, categorize, process and program, with the end goal of creating an “artificial intelligence” that can ultimately stake a claim to humanity too.
However, unlike the popular science fiction fantasy in which the future battles for humanity will happen between robots and humans, as big tech plans an exit from a planet in crisis, our future struggles are more likely to look like the age old one of humans who can harvest the fruits of their enclosures versus those of us who can’t. So, if blackness is the foundational currency on which the capitalist information economy is built, what will whiteness mean to a cyborg.
Combatting the Desert Locust Menace
In January 2020 Kenya experienced the worst locust invasion in 70 years. So intense were the infestations that they posed a serious risk of food insecurity to the country and the region.
Locusts are small creatures measuring approximately 0.5 to 3 inches long and weighing 0.07 ounces that belong to the grasshopper family. The average lifecycle of a locust is three to six months. In normal circumstances they are solitary but can change their behaviour and become gregarious under certain conditions. During the dry season, they tend to swarm together in the scant patches of vegetation. The swarming causes serotonin to release into their central nervous system, promoting rapid movement, giving them appetite for a more varied diet leading to their rapid spread.
The onset of rains brings with it an increase in lush vegetation, favouring the rapid increase of the insects and triggering their gregarious phase during which the desert locust can be devastating, consuming its weight in food in a day. In each square kilometre of a swarm there can be as many as 40 million individuals capable of destroying in day enough food to feed more than 35,000 people.
Towards the end of 2019, the East African region experienced an invasion of desert locusts of a scale not witnessed in the region in decades. The desert locusts descended on farmland in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia in their hundreds of millions.
According to scientists, two cyclones in 2018 — Cyclone Mekunu in May and Cyclone Luban in October — caused massive rainfall in the Arabian Desert, a factor that facilitated the breeding of desert locusts. The rains were enough to create ephemeral lakes in the desert, a favourable breeding ground for desert locusts. It is believed that this phenomenon is likely to have enabled the formation of three generations of locust deserts, increasing the number of the swarming locusts 8,000-fold.
As is the nature of the desert locust, the swarms began to migrate and by the summer of 2019 they were crossing the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden into the Eastern Africa countries of Ethiopia and Somalia. The desert locusts continued to breed for several months, with the autumn rains experienced in the East Africa region — capped by cyclonic storm Pawan, experienced in December of 2019 and responsible for rainfall in Somalia — triggering another reproductive cycle of the desert locusts.
The swarms of locusts continued to grow and arrived in Kenya towards the end of December 2019, rapidly moving through the northern and central parts of the country. By the end of January 2020, Kenya was experiencing the worst locust invasion in 70 years. So intense were the infestations — which moved through the neighbouring countries of Eritrea and Djibouti, finding their way to northern Tanzania and northeast Uganda in mid-February — that they posed a serious risk of food insecurity in the region.
The impact of the locust invasion was severe and continues to be felt to this day. In as much as Kenya has made significant steps in combating desert locusts infestations, new infestations continue swarming into the country and farmers in the north and in some parts of central Kenya continue to grapple with the huge losses caused by the invasions.
According to reports by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), about 20.2 million people in the Eastern Africa region faced acute food insecurity in 2020 alone, a condition that was worsened by the desert locust infestations and the Covid-19 pandemic. Further, according to the FAO, desert locusts have the potential to affect 20 per cent of the earth’s land and put into jeopardy the livelihoods of a tenth of the world’s population.
As explained at the beginning of this article, the desert locust has the potential to destroy in one day food that can feed over 35,000 people, threatening a country with food insecurity. But while this might be the immediate impact of a desert locust invasion, infestations have other long short- and long-term effects.
It is said that a healthy nation is a productive nation. However, locust invasions have the potential to nullify this statement in less than a week of their landing in a region. The recent and ongoing wave of locust infestations has driven families and vulnerable groups into poverty and hunger, a situation that has been worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Desert locusts have the potential to affect 20 per cent of the earth’s land and put into jeopardy the livelihoods of a tenth of the world’s population.
Desert locust infestations are not only a threat to crops but they also threaten the survival of livestock. The FAO reported that in Ethiopia alone, an early assessment of the impact of the wave of locust invasions showed that more than 5,000 square miles of pastureland and 800 square miles of cropland were destroyed. The infestation also caused the loss of over 350,000 metric tonnes of dry grains and cereal, resulting in over one million people experiencing hunger and needing food aid.
A nation that is not food secure is a nation that is not secure at all. Hunger and poverty contribute to increased crime in a country, driving people to engage in all manner of vice in an effort to survive.
Food insecurity is also a leading cause of increased government borrowing in a bid to alleviate the suffering of the population. The borrowing, which is meant to cushion the nation from the effects of the invasion and other resultant challenges, leads to a ballooning national debt and a high cost of living. Locust invasions also seriously affect a country’s export earnings which has a direct effect on previously planned expenditures. Locust infestations also tend to derail the development agenda of a country as it is forced to put scheduled plans on hold in order to deal with the invasion.
How then can a country deal with locust infestations to guarantee its food security and avert the challenges associated with such invasions? Biological methods of pest control are safest, both for the environment and for humans. However, biological methods of desert locust control may not be effective, especially in cases where swarms are involved.
The most commonly used biological method of pest control is the use of a predator to eliminate the pest. However, the challenge with this method is that it cannot be effective in controlling large swarms of locusts as they can easily fly away from their predators. Another challenge is that locusts barely stay put for more than a day or two since they are constantly looking for food and therefore cannot be easily contained and controlled.
A nation that is not food secure is a nation that is not secure at all.
The other option of locust control would be to use of nets to capture swarms. However, this method of control can only be effective on a small scale since large swarms of locusts can fly above and past the nets.
Scaring the swarms away is yet another method of locust control. However, it can only be implemented in small areas since scaring the pests away only drives them to the next available vegetation for them to devour.
Consequently, the most effective method of controlling large swarms of desert locusts is to spray organophosphate chemicals in small, concentrated volumes using aerial sprayers, vehicle-mounted sprayers, or from knapsack or handheld sprayers in smaller areas.
However, spraying chemicals to control locusts also has adverse effects on nature and on living organisms. For instance, while the use of the Metarhizium biopesticide was found to be 70 to 90 per cent effective in the control of locusts, with no measurable impact on non-target organisms, this is not the case with other chemical formulations that wipe out both the target and non-target organisms, immensely impacting the ecological balance.
During the recent wave of locust invasions experienced in Kenya and the larger East African region, the FAO has collaborated with the local and national governments to mitigate the spread of these swarms to other areas by spraying pesticides both on the ground (to kill any eggs or nymphs) and aerially in areas where it is safe to do so. Research is ongoing to develop formulations that have the least impact on non-target organisms.
Notably, the FAO is working closely with 51 Degrees Ltd. to bring the desert locust situation under control using a hotline system integrated with tracking software, trained scouts, and aircraft. The EarthRanger system captures and transmits locust sightings and movements, making it easier to control the warms. Initially developed to track poaching, the method has been yielding positive results in locust control in Kenya.
Planning by governments is essential in ensuring that a country is not caught off-guard by infestations in the future. Having mitigation measures in place to reduce the impact of locust infestations on a country’s economy is crucial.
Locusts are an important part of the grassland ecosystem as they stimulate nutrient cycling and play a crucial role in food chains. As such, governments should think of balanced ways to control these insects while at the same time maintaining the much-needed balance in the ecosystem. Controlling the locusts ensures that a country enjoys food security and also averts other challenges brought on by locust invasions.
While biological control may prove hard to implement, especially where large swarms of locusts are involved, the government can come up with other safe control mechanisms that do not affect the environment and ecological balance. For instance, finding a way of preventing swarms of locusts from landing on crops as they migrate can be a good way to ensure that a country’s food security is safeguarded.
Planning by governments is essential in ensuring that a country is not caught off-guard by infestations in the future.
Additionally, investing in research to better understand the biology of locusts, their breeding habits and migratory patterns, and applying the ecological niche modeling approach to predict the breeding sites of locusts can be very useful in controlling these insects. Institutions such as the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Kenya have been at the forefront in researching better ways to combat locust infestations using this approach.
The model proposes the use of historical datasets of the breeding patterns of desert locusts in the Middle East and in the Sahel region to predict the probability of locusts breeding in the East African region. This type of research identifies the desert locust breeding hotspots and better prepares a country to combat the menace. Through such an approach, the government can come up with a cost-effective, site-specific, and targeted management of crawling hoppers before they become gregarious adults, thus minimising the risk of an outbreak.
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