We are here publishing a text entitled “Why Focus on Africa?” by Dr Thomas Jeffrey Miley, lecturer of political sociology at the University of Cambridge and patron of Peace in Kurdistan.
Why a Focus on Africa?
Why a focus on Africa? There are many reasons. For starters, the objective conditions in African countries vary in significant ways, but all exhibit tendencies that render them ripe, if not for revolution, at least for the spread of democratic confederalist ideals. Moreover, the Horn of Africa in particular is located in extremely sensitive geopolitical terrain. If democratic confederalizing practices and institutional arrangements were to flourish in one context, the example could rapidly spread to others, thereby opening up a third way, a freedom block, perhaps capable of countering both older and newer neocolonial narratives and rivalries.
Decolonization, as Frantz Fanon famously argued, means the realization of the dictum that the last shall be first. It is for this reason befitting to focus on the global region which is worst off in the neocolonial order, since it is here where, concentrated most densely and intensely, are subjects with nothing to lose but their chains.
Fanon, too, prescribed an alliance between the urban lumpen-proletariat and the rural peasants as the revolutionary coalition most propitious to forge. Democratic confederalising ideals can provide institutional arenas that bring these two segments of the population closer together, through the building of communes for the purpose of the pursuit of food sovereignty and collective autonomy, among other noble ends.
During my time in Kenya, I witnessed up close the salience of the memory of Dedan Kimathi in relation to the Mau Mau, or Land and Freedom Movement. Ghetto youth identified with the terms of the struggle for land and freedom. After all, they too struggle for land and freedom. Furthermore, the densely populated informal settlements have been created through a combination of powerful push and pull factors linking the rural to the urban. Organic kinship ties to people “up country” remain intact. The building of communes can fortify these relations, and lead to an end to the alienation from the land, in the slums. At the same time, in Nairobi itself urban farming is being propagated by the ecological justice network associated with the Social Justice Centre movement. Indeed, this ecological justice network speaks of greening the ghetto, and boasts of some of the most dynamic and energetic core of youth activists on the Nairobi scene.
Greening the ghettoes and building the communes, these two objectives are being prioritised by the slum-dwellers movement in general, and have been championed by those elements most active in the Grassroots Liberation Project.
In the process of advancing these objectives, political education is simultaneously integrated, and the praxiological tenets of a decolonised social ecology are being conjured. The birth of critical consciousness thereby accompanies the pursuit of tactical and strategic goals. The revolution in consciousness takes place by immersion into this organic movement. The more the movement struggles and manages to approximate or prefigure the democratic confederalising ideals it pursues, the more momentum it seems to build. Of course, all of this takes place within a context of dialectical confrontation with a brutal coercive apparatus, which has effectively criminalised the slum communities.
The movement struggles to prefigure the kind of social relations consistent with democratic confederalizing ideals. But this is a challenge, since it operates in a context characterised by extreme material deprivation and a very violent police force. Economic self-determination and self-defence seem like utopian fantasies. The movement would thus seem to be caught between the purse of the NGOs and the barrel of a police gun.
For the vast majority of ghetto inhabitants, there exists an imperative to hustle to survive. But the practice of the hustle emulates a competitive, cut-throat ethos, and a neo-Darwinian dystopia which undermines the values that need to be salient for communal opposition to neocolonial conditions to flourish.
The hustle, however, exists alongside a variety of well-entrenched mechanisms of mutual aid. There is a tension, at the horizontal level, among ghetto inhabitants, between the “rat race” or hustle, the ethos of which undermines communal cohesion, and the mechanisms of mutual aid that the community develops in order to protect itself from the structural violence unleashed upon it by the stark and depraved conditions of capitalist modernity and the neo-colonial order. It is, therefore, incumbent upon the movement to undertake a thorough audit of the existing communal mechanisms of mutual aid, for the purpose of coordinating and otherwise strengthening these practices of collective resistance and communal freedom. The knowledge of best practices can spread and in fact is spreading swiftly across the social justice centre network. The slums of Nairobi are waking up, and in the process are learning from one another about how best to resist the neocolonial order in this phase of what Abdullah Öcalan has plausibly diagnosed to be the terminal crisis of capitalist modernity.
And yet, the movement is at the same time plagued with contradictions. The NGOs who fund it operate in a top down fashion, and provide career opportunities for a small minority, most often relatively privileged, albeit with some links to the ghetto community. Being a social justice activist can become a petit bourgeois career for a select few. Even when it is enunciated in the name of communal empowerment, we can glimpse the intrusion of a particularly insidious hierarchical form, between professional activists and community members. The former exist on the salaries provided by NGOs. The latter, by contrast, need to find another hustle if they and their loved ones are to eat and survive. This contradiction fuels a clear competition for a few coveted posts, while simultaneously causes the movement to appear as but an appendix to the operations of the big and mostly international NGOs. Such an appearance undermines the dynamism of the Social Justice Centre movement, even if it is a business model that ensures some organic links to the grass roots. The question therefore arises: is there not another model for ensuring funds for the activities of these centres? Can we not find a more inclusive, less capitalistic way of liberating some ghetto youth to become cadres of a professional sort? Is there a way around this hierarchy between professional activists and the community itself? How can we prefigure a world in which the hierarchy between leaders and led is itself liquidated? These are questions that require being addressed most urgently.
The Kurdish model, which by all means suffers from a somewhat understandable lack of transparency, would seem difficult to replicate in the stark conditions of neo-colonial Africa. The lumpen and peasant base of the movement renders impossible to replicate the tactic of taxing middle class elements in the movement’s milieu, a tactic successfully pursued in the Kurdish context, perhaps especially amidst its European diaspora. By contrast, the axis of class upon which the slum dwellers’ movement operates makes prefiguration quite difficult to fund in the African context. Though there are progressives, both locally and internationally, who can be approached for the purposes of fundraising. Some more expertise along the lines of popular crowd-funding proposals should perhaps be cultivated from within the movement’s grass roots.
Funding for the de facto leadership of this project of community empowerment thus constitutes one important obstacle for the spread of the democratic confederalist ideal across much of Africa. A second obstacle has to do with the question of self-defence. The Kurdish model, if it is to serve as a model, or even more modestly as a source of inspiration, is certainly Spartan in form. Community policing, to be championed by cadres associated with the movement, would seem to threaten the monopoly of legitimate violence currently in the hands of the neo-colonial state. Such initiatives remain for the most part unthinkable, since the agents of the state’s coercive apparatus view the population over which they exercise their violence as an excess population, to be contained and controlled. The idea that the community could control itself is fundamentally foreign to the neo-colonial nature of the state’s coercive apparatus. The criminality endemic to neo-colonial conditions in the Nairobi slums cannot be cured by more effective policing. Only a radical reconfiguration of social relations, to be achieved through a process of revolutionary mobilization of the people, in pursuit of community empowerment, could counter the incentives for hustling along the lines of black on black, horizontal violence. Which is why it makes so much sense to claim that the police are a neo-colonial institution, regardless of the race or nation of those who man the coercive apparatus.
Initiatives for achieving communal self-defence must proliferate. Neighborhood assemblies should be convoked for the purpose of organising this crucial task. Martial arts clubs and neighborhood watch groups can be convened, perhaps in alliance with the ecological justice network. The criminalisation of the community must end, and it can only end once the community forges its own mechanisms for self-defence. The Kurdish guerrilla model cannot flourish in the conditions prevailing in the ghettos. Instead, initiatives of a more civic than military nature must be advanced. Without, of course, rejecting the right to rebellion, the implicit recognition of which fuels the fears of the coercive apparatus of the state.
The right to rebellion, in turn, implies a right to bear arms, though the so-called war on terror, which entails the criminalisation of entire communities, would seem to render the exercise of this right utopian, to say the least. Can the criminal cartels be successfully incorporated into the community empowerment project? Only time can tell, even if there is reason to remain pessimistic, given the utterly capitalistic ethos imitated by those in power in the criminal cartels.
Öcalan has advanced the theory of the rose, in relation to this delicate matter of the right to self-defence. Even the rose, he points out, has thorns to protect itself. How can these thorns be cultivated in a fashion that converts the potential for horizontal violence into a cohesive threat to exercise and enforce vertical violence, in the name of the wretched of the earth?
Fanon emphasised the mental disorders that accompany colonial wars. The trauma that such experiences inculcate can hardly be hidden. The structural violence of the African ghettoes in the neo-colonial order continue to provoke mental disorders. The community is traumatised, to say the least. How can the interventions of the movement take on a therapeutic role for the community? This is a question perhaps more important than all of the questions that have preceded it. People are dying in the ghettoes, they appear doomed to die in seemingly Hobbesian conditions of the war of all against all. Though this is no state of nature, it is instead a social and political reality imposed by the neo-colonial order. The construction and consolidation of institutions of popular people power can serve therapeutically as well. It can help people find a sense of purpose, in the struggle to emancipate themselves, ourselves, from servitude and subhuman bondage. The moment for action is now!
The danger is that the social justice networks can become a hustle in their own right. Thus emerges the question of opportunism, which is perhaps ubiquitous in political life. The tension between collective freedom and individual advancement is felt acutely amongst activists in the so-called slum-dweller movement. Rumors abound about people getting paid in various amounts by the NGO benefactors. People need to eat, and a pay check is a pay check, a scarce and coveted good. The cadres from the communist party and its youth league seem to have access to some funding, though my impression could be wrong. Their living conditions are significantly better than those of the inhabitants of the informal settlements.
From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs. This is the principle animating the movement. But how to apply that principle in conditions of scarcity, when not everyone’s basic needs can be met? Socialism would seem to presuppose abundance. And though there is much scarcity at the local level, this is really a matter of social relations, for we live in a world in which the relatively privileged live opulently and at the same time enforce scarcity on the global majority.
Another element of the discussion that needs to be addressed has to do with the roles of China and the US in the African context. The US and its European partners focus on mineral extraction, while the Chinese seem willing to fund broader national developmental infrastructure. But this description remains overly speculative and vague. A more precise accounting of the international rivalry between declining and rising superpowers in relation to Africa would seem in order.
At the more abstract or general level, the kind of development to be pursued is in play. Reminiscent of the late Marx’s correspondence with Vera Zasulich, where the mature Marx admitted that socialism could be arrived at without having to pass through a period of primitive accumulation followed by industrialization. Rural communal structures could in principle provide a more direct, less painful, indeed less brutal, trajectory towards socialism.
If the Chinese come offering carrots, the Americans brandish a big stick. AfriCom has bases across the continent, and solid relations with the national armed forces which sometimes come together with their blue helmets, under the auspices of the UN.
The social justice centres movement offers a different, bottom-up, horizontal version of social relations, one which entails a greening of urban spaces and the communalisation of rural spaces. Semi-urban, semi-rural, and in the Kenyan case, with a constitutional mandate to radically devolve power to the local level. Fanon, after all, once declared that proper political education requires decentralisation in the extreme.
The tensions between the Chinese and the Western neocolonial projects can be felt in the informal settlements. But our model constitutes a third way, a radical democratic alternative, just in time for the consummation of the terminal crisis of capitalist modernity. The moral and political resources of the rural communes and the urban neighborhood assemblies can be brandished with a logic and momentum pushing towards self-determination, both localised in the extreme but simultaneously enmeshed in global networks of resistance.
The World Social Forum may now seem defunct, but something like it is necessary, a call for a global peoples assembly under the rubric of the United Nations, a lower chamber operating via proportional representation of the global demos, one person, one vote.
The multiple and inter-related crises, of species extinction, of climate change, of global plutocracy, of pandemics, of never ending war, all threaten Africans immensely. They are in the trenches, so to speak, they receive many of the blows most directly. This is why their struggle is ours. For as I have said many times, a revolution is a return to the origins. And in this case, the origin is also the weakest link in the global capitalist system, and therefore the place most propitious to prepare for the onset of the age of freedom revolutions. What starts in Kenya, or the Sudan, can easily be emulated. See Katsiafakis on the question of the eros effect, the serendipity of synchronicity of revolutionary moments. Though perhaps I would prefer to use the term the “zeitgeist effect.”
And so the Africans stand in the forefront of resistance to capitalist modernity. The stone that the builder refused shall be the head corner stone. Africa need not “develop” in accordance with the dictates of capitalist modernity. It can lead the resistance in forging local communal networks that operate in radical, direct democratic fashion. It need not urbanise; to the contrary, existing urban spaces need to be greened. Technologies can be shared which allow for local projects to communicate effectively with fellow communards around the globe. The goals of economic self-determination and ecological justice can be prioritised over the neo-colonial rhetoric of even sustainable development. And by all means, if we are to persist in using that tainted language, let us remind ourselves of Walter Rodney’s powerful narrative about how Europe underdeveloped Africa.
The language of municipalism can replace urbanisation, reminded as we are about Bookchin’s important work on urbanism without cities. The proper balance between the centralisation of power at the level of the global governing institutions, and the radical localisation of power in horizontal, direct democratic neighborhood spaces, will only be worked out in praxis. We can only see so far into the future.
One way to describe our project is to say that we seek to subordinate economic forces to democratic imperatives. Which is why, within economic enterprises, we argue for democratisation as well. A thousand flowers of cooperatives, may they bloom! Let the local assembly be empowered, if not sovereign, at least oriented towards self-determination. And let the horizontal relations of all residents in their local assemblies set the pace and fix the contours for social relations more generally.
As we build these alternative institutions, we engage in popular, grassroots educational initiatives simultaneously. This is why we say that the revolution in consciousness takes place in democratic confederalising praxis. It is not a purely theoretical endeavor, to raise consciousness, it requires interactive seminars to accompany the agenda of building ecologically just, ever greener spaces.
Dr. Thomas Jeffrey Miley
Lecturer of Political Sociology
Fellow of Darwin College
The University of Cambridge