It has been pointed out that the assassination of Amilcar Cabral marked the end of a sequence of history (Michael Neocosmos) namely the end of politics through armed struggles. In the process of thinking and re-thinking the legacy of Amilcar Cabral is it possible to say anything that has not been already said, either by himself, or by those who have written about him? Is it possible to go beyond just citing words and/or phrases that reconnect to his vision of an emancipated Africa? Is it possible to accept that, from the end of WWII, if not before, history has unfolded as imposed by the most powerful economic and political forces.
Discussing Amilcar Cabral, in a way, is no different from discussing other iconic and revolutionary figures whose lives were cut short precisely because of how they were perceived by their enemy. The long history of freeing Africa and Africans from the legacies of enslavement, colonization, apartheid, globalization seems like a never-ending task. The task could be made easier if one’s understanding of the above legacies were not too intimately tied to the Enlightenment.
In this essay, I would like to argue that one of the reasons Africa and Africans, and especially the poorest, are not better than they were in 1973 (possibly worse off), has to do, in part, with an inadequate understanding of how capitalism rooted itself in Africa, while uprooting its people, its culture, its history, and, at the same time pushing the splitting of humanity to levels that will make the task of coming back together appear impossible.
While most theorizers of capitalism and the processes linked to its expansion do mention violence, to my knowledge, none has really focused on the impact of cumulative violence on both sides. In addition, most theorizers, even if they may deny this, focus on the economic and financial impact of capital. The political and ideological impact resulting from the violence has not received the same kind of attention that the equation labor-capital has received. If capital, for the sake of its survival, shall feed on states, any of them, it will do so.
The financialization of capital and the kind of impunity it rests on must be analyzed through a theorization of how violence has been exercised while, at the same time, not being presented as violence. The towering dominance of finance capital is deeply connected with the violence present, represented and accumulated over the years in military organizations like NATO and the nuclear arsenals of countries with nuclear capability. In turn that latent violence which hangs over humanity like a Damocles sword has historical roots in processes that tend to be seen as separate. Ideologically speaking, capital and capitalism must be presented in the same light as, say the history of the US: the best, the greatest, incapable of committing crimes against humanity. The ruthlessness of capital, under any of its historical sequences, has been sanitized to the point of turning it into the “only acceptable alternative”.
The political and ideological power that has resulted from the violence inflicted during slavery and colonization deserves greater attention if the economic, political and cultural transitions are going to be understood, whether from slavery, colonial, apartheid to post-slavery, post-colonial, post-apartheid times. In a nutshell, the argument can be summarized as follows: from slavery through the current era called “globalization”, a type of power has emerged on a global scale that has not be given a name, as yet. In addition the cumulative effect of violence, physical and psychic has led to the emergence of a world in which violence will often take forms that have nothing or little to do with violence as is understood. To this kind of overwhelming power that is almost impossible to assess, one should add the power of technology. The creative side of technology is overemphasized while its destructive capacity has been growing beyond the imaginable.
For example, through advertizing (supposedly focused on creativity), consumers are led to believe that a given product (while in reality lethal for one’s health) is not only desirable, but also will enhance one’s health, and how one will feel, look, etc. Thus, while living under a socio-economic system that could be described as the most predatory in the history of humanity, humans seem to be unaware and/or unconcerned that, in the words of Aimé Césaire, “We have entered a tower of silence where we have become prey and vulture.” Indeed, one could convey the same idea by wondering whether capitalism has become the nicotine of humanity.
If it were to be analyzed in detail, this kind of power, rooted in how capitalism has imposed itself could lead one to conclude it has achieved the kind of dominance that Nazi leaders could never ever have dreamed of. Yet, it would be wrong to look at the end of WWII (i.e. how it came about, as a singular turning point. What is needed is a history of transitions (from slavery to colonization to apartheid to globalization) of capitalism, focused on where and how the concentration of economic, political, financial power was built.
One of the starting points has to be how the post-WWII has been presented by the powers that have been in control of that process: as a period that has brought greater progress, peace and security to everyone, under the twin aegis of capitalism and the United States. This narrative must be questioned in view of the crossroads in which humanity finds itself today. Asking for the narrative to be questioned does not mean that one has reached a conclusion with regard to how one should call the times under which we are living, but questioning at all times while maintaining fidelity to humanity can be the only way of maintaining fidelity to emancipatory politics.
Cabral’s famous warning about not claiming easy victory comes to mind. Yet, it could be argued that, in fact, systematically, at every transition there has been something akin to “claiming an easy victory”, or thinking that because some victories had been achieved, the rest, as Nkrumah so famously put it, will follow. In Frelimo’s publication during the struggle, an editorial was written, very critical of Nkrumah. Was Cabral thinking of Nkrumah when he issued his warning about not claiming easy victories?
As in any scientific endeavor, emancipatory processes, if they are going to be successful, can never end, if only because the temptations of one group seeking to take advantage of the rest is always going to be present. One of the difficulties, if not the principal one, is that the nature, form and appearance of the challenges will never be the same. Thus, Samora’s probing question “Who is the Enemy?” cannot ever have a prefabricated, or ready-made answer. It requires a constant battle whose shape, form, organization will never be the same. Sounds obvious, but is it? One of the reasons why there has been a tendency to claim easy victories (whether over slavery, colonization, Nazism or apartheid) comes from the imposition of historical narratives that see no connections (or very few) between these various phases when, in reality, the connections are structural, and should lead to constant re-examination.
For example, is it far fetched for an author like Claude Ribbe to look at Napoléon Bonaparte as a precursor of Hitler? Ribbe’s book focuses on how Napoleon ordered the restoration of slavery when he came to power. How that process was carried out may lead historians to other conclusions, but there is no doubt about how horrific it was (instructions coming from the highest levels were to make no prisoners, and asphyxiate them in massive numbers in the ship howls before throwing the dead bodies in the ocean). Moreover, Napoleon’s intentions were made clear: make the punishment as severe as possible so that the enslaved would think twice before engaging in overthrowing slavery. In other words, there are parts of the history of capitalism and/or nations that became powerful through its expansion that are considered sacred and untouchable. If impunity is going to be addressed seriously, then let it be done in a manner that does not flinch at investigating some of the most deeply embedded causes.
The enemy that allowed slavery to be abolished was actually working at modernizing slavery, i.e. getting rid of those shackles that were considered as obstacles on the growth of capital. The enemy that was later defeated in Indochina, Kenya, Algeria was in the process of modernizing its arsenal. This process has nothing to do with conspiracy theory; rather it has to do with the transition from colonization by European countries to US capital overtaking the latter. It has to do with the obvious: reconnecting histories that have continued to be treated as separate and unrelated to each other.
The history of the politics of emancipation as it has unfolded in Africa is one that should generate a process of rethinking à la Cabral. This would mean that emancipatory politics must understand the trajectories of colonization, apartheid, globalization, better than those who think that given that they always have won, there is no other lesson to learn from anyone, let alone from those who have been systematically slaughtered because their resistance was described as backward, barbarian, etc.
1. Power, violence and impunity
At the root of the long process of conquering Africa, one finds violence exercised with impunity. The end result, as can be seen today, is a practice of power that, implicitly and/or explicitly states that “power is only power if it is exercised with impunity”. In order to understand this, one has to look at the cumulative violence that has been unleashed for centuries, most of which went unrecorded in the annals or archives of the conquering forces.
It is not enough to note, as most observers do today, that there are two international justice systems, one at the service of the most powerful nations, corporations and one at the service of the weakest. For the latter, an arsenal of humanitarian, charitable organizations have been put in place since the days of the abolitionist movement in England, in particular, but not only.
Humanitarianism has a history longer than the birth of the United Nations and most charitable organizations. Humanitarianism can be looked at the manner in which the most powerful show their power to the weakest. Justice that is practiced out of charity is not justice. When adjectives begin to be added to justice, such as “social justice”, then one should be alerted to the fact that justice means different things to different groups of people.
For power to be exercised with impunity, the violence behind it must not be interpreted as questionable, or unjust. The most powerful nations and corporations are not interested in examining the reverberations/repercussions of how they exercise their power. It has reached levels of unaccountability that are usually associated with dictatorial rule.
For example, when it is decided in a given place that a group of people must be liquidated because one person has been identified as a threat to the well being of those controlling economic, political and financial power. Such a process makes a mockery of justice and reframes the parameters of international relations in a way that becomes impossible to challenge because impunity has become part and parcel of the definition of power as exercised by the most powerful.
2. Education, history
If one looks at the interest in history during the liberation struggles and the immediate aftermath, it is not difficult to notice that history was an important topic. Education was equally important. The reasons were obvious: if people were going to be mobilized to fight colonial rule, then it was important for them to understand its roots and how it worked, both physically and mentally.
The correlation between knowing the past, the present and the future was crucial in the success of the armed struggles for liberation. If one takes the example of Frelimo and the teaching of who the enemy is, during the armed struggle, it is not difficult to see how crucial education and history were as mobilizing weapons. When the colonized (or the enslaved) stand up and affirm themselves as not colonized, as free, they state that they count in a way that goes counter to how they had been treated by the enslavers and/or colonizers. However, that affirmation does require constant updating if the pitfall of National consciousness (or claiming easy victories) is going to be avoided.
Is it not interesting that preoccupation with history and/or education tends to occur at moments of crisis or in times when there is a sense that things cannot go on as they are? Although still in power, Frelimo has adopted the dominant manners and practices of its former enemy by relegating history, education and health to the bottom of the priorities. The presupposition (from the US to Mozambique, to DRC, to Brazil) is that these disciplines are sought by the less intellectually gifted. According to those in power (corporations and/or state) this is as it should be because the best brains are headed for science, Business and Law Schools.
Post Apartheid South Africa devotes 20% of its budget to education, and yet education continues to suffer from the apparent determination that it is not crucial for a society driven by a bottom line that has stated, for centuries now, that Africa and Africans should not get the best education possible for every single person. The bottom line continues to be dictated by the notion that those who have risen to the top have done so thanks to their own merit. The idea that maintaining fidelity to humanity is crucial not just for the tiny few at the top, but for every single one, is simply anathema to those who have most benefitted from the process of dispossession and dehumanization that has taken place under capitalism.
3. Capitalism: toward eradicating humanity and its history?
Over and above the typical features of capital related to the relationship between labor and capital, what takes place at the same time is a process of dispossession that goes far beyond what has been understood. How lethal capitalism has been in its process of destroying humanity has not been fully understood. The discussions about whether primitive accumulation or dispossession best capture how capitalism as an economic system operates can only lead to claiming easy victories, because capitalism has impacted humans in ways that go far beyond the realm of economics.
It is not sufficient to provide a critique of capitalism by just focusing on its economic features. Sometimes it may take the voice of poets to see better through capitalism. I will refer here to just two of them: Aimé Césaire and Ayi Kwei Armah. For the first I can only send readers to his Discourse on Colonialism. In it he articulates the interconnections between capitalism, Nazism and colonialism in a way that does not follow the usual script. He points out how the reconstruction of Europe went hand in hand with a continuation of Nazism (in the colonies). After all, it is not Hitler who proclaimed the following: “We do not aspire to equality, but to domination. The foreign race country must become again a land of serfs, daily farm or industrial workers. The issue is not to do away with inequalities among people, but to amplify them and turn it into a law”. Ernest Renan, the western humanist, the idealist philosopher is the author of this quote, written immediately following the end of WWII.
In a few more paragraphs, Césaire illustrates, with quotes, the ideological kinship between French thinkers and Hitler and his acolytes; between the barbarism that colonization leads to do, and where Nazism led. For Césaire, both colonialism and Nazism are the by-products of a sick civilization that, in his word “irresistibly, from consequence to consequence, from renunciation to renunciation, calls for its Hitler, I mean its punishment”.
From the perspective of Africa and its enslavement, Ayi Kwei Armah has written about the reality brought about by the white destroyers and the way to heal from the carnage. He has done it not only in his writings, but also in his practices as a writer, a thinker, as a sharer of his vision and understanding of the way away from the destroyers’ way. In chapter 7 of Two Thousand Seasons, readers will find reflections that are pertinent to not claiming easy victories, as in the following lines where he describes what a liberator is: “For he is no liberator whose skill lies in calling loudly to the bound, the trapped, the impotent enslaved, to rise upon their destroyers. The liberator is he who from a necessary silence, from a necessary secrecy strikes the destroyer. That, not loudness, is the necessary beginning.” (p. 314) Further down, he warns of more difficulties: “Dangers will be in the newness of this discovery, dangers like the headiness of too quick, abundant faith from those too long sold to despair; the pull of old habits from destruction’s empire; the sour possibility of people helping each other turning in times of difficulty into people using each other to create a selfish ease…(p.315)
4. Cabral and Guiné-Bissau
As observers and scholars look today at the African continent, the general impression that emerges is certainly not the one that prevailed around 1973, just before the assassination of Cabral. Even the assassination of Cabral could not dampen the feeling that victory against Portuguese colonial rule was within reach. By April 1974, thanks to the pressure brought by the armed struggles in the colonies, the Portuguese army seized power and put an end to the dictatorship. With the independence of Mozambique the (September 1975) the focus shifted from ending Portuguese colonial rule to facing and defeating Ian Smith and its allies in South Africa. With the defeat of the Americans in Vietnam in 1975, it appeared as if anything was possible, including the end of the apartheid regime. There came Soweto 1976, but soon after that (September 1977) came the assassination of Steve Bantu Biko. And it was around this time (April 1976) that the US (under Henry Kissinger), decided that the timing of the end of apartheid had to take place according to what would be decided in Washington, London, and not by Africans pursuing their search for complete and total emancipation from centuries of domination.
For the purposes of this essay and the current times, there is one question that is impossible to avoid: from the days of Nkrumah’s rise to power and the process of decolonization, what is it that, systematically, has not been dealt with as it should have been? Despite the volumes written on, around African unity, how come everything but unity prevails? What is it that prevented thinkers like Cheikh Anta Diop, Nkrumah, Cabral, Fanon, Nyerere, Mondlane, Ruben Um Nyobe, from joining their efforts? What is it that has led African political leaders to treat Cheikh Anta Diop’s individual work with the same disdain that, collectively speaking, Haiti’s overthrow of slavery has been treated? These questions will have to be answered sooner or later.
I mentioned earlier the fact that in the process of enslaving and colonizing the continent, the process of destruction did much more than what has been acknowledged, even by leaders like Cabral. It is one thing to call for African unity, it is another to articulate it in a way that any one on the continent would immediately understand the historical, cultural, linguistic, philosophical roots of that unity; provided such articulations were rooted in an understanding and conviction that, in fact, the unity that politicians talk about has in fact been in existence through the culture, the languages, the values that can be traced back to Egyptian civilization. Although Cabral himself pointed out that the history of Africa has deeper roots than alleged by the theoretical approach framed by the history of class struggle, there is no evidence that he or his close collaborators, like Mario de Andrade, for example, took the work of Cheikh Anta Diop seriously.
Today, what is the state of liberation (emancipatory politics) in countries that fought armed struggles? More broadly speaking what is the state of the continent compared to what it looked like it might become in 1973? Can one say that the leadership in charge today has carried on, with fidelity to humanity (as envisioned by Fanon in his conclusion to The Wretched of the Earth) from where Amilcar Cabral and others left?
Land grabbing in various countries is taking place as if cued by some sort of virtual replay of the Berlin Conference (more than a century later) aimed at dividing up the Continent according to the new configuration imposed by capitalism. If it is not land grabbing, laundering of the money made through drug trafficking is ensuring that capitalism does take root by any means necessary. The dispossessing or dehumanization of humanity has received a new lease of life on the continent thanks to a renewed process of aggression against the most precious treasure held by all human beings: conscience.
For emphasis, let it be said that the focus on African history and not on history has led to a failure to understand humanity and its history as a whole. By creating area studies for the sake of producing expert knowledge on areas like Africa, the US and its allies (mostly former colonizing countries) created a way of looking at African history that prepared the ground for the repeated stumbling that prevented a complete and total eradication of the consequences of enslavement and colonization. When looking at the history of Africa and Africans by only concentrating on the continent, one ends up distorting that history. In turn that distortion leads to a distortion of the history of humanity especially if, in the process, the humanity of Africans is systematically denied.
From within the emancipatory tradition, there are more voices of conscience than the ones referred to in this text. At the same time, what is not sufficiently appreciated is the degree to which capitalism has come to dominate humanity’s conception of itself, and its reliance on its conscience to keep coming back to its senses. Whether it was from Fanon, Ruben Um Nyobe, Biko, Sankara, Lumumba, Nehanda or Kimpa Vita, these voices expressed what humanity has in common: conscience. While it may have been eroded to the point of giving the impression that it has disappeared, I would suspect that it never will, but if it is going to succeed in reversing the current process, then there has to be a conviction that conscience is humanity’s most powerful weapon in resisting its ongoing liquidation.
If Césaire’s questioning of whether Nazism had ended (Discourse on colonialism) had been pursued systematically, one of the possible results could have led to an understanding of capitalism as a system that modernized Nazism so that it would automatically generate mechanisms (ways of thinking) aimed at getting rid of those members of humanity that are considered worthless: the poor, the Africans, the old people, the indigenous people, street children, the handicapped, the terminally ill, etc. In other words, what can be seen today (through so-called globalization, but not only) is a modernized form of Nazism in which there is no Hitler to point at as a scapegoat, but capitalism seeks the same lebensraum that Hitler was aiming at. The difference is that capitalism has been slowly transforming humanity into its opposite by occupying all of the spaces that were once considered sacred if fidelity to humanity was going to be maintained.
J. Depelchin (Hugh Le May Fellow at Rhodes University, July-December 2012—Visiting professor history department, Universidade Estadual de Feira de Santana, Bahia Brazil)