The Congo Wars as Africa’s Thirty Years’ War

The First and Second Congo War saw upwards of 6 million people killed between the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, and involved armed forces and militias from across the continent.  How are we to understand this horrific and protracted war?

From Gerard Prunier’s Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe (2009):

…the expression “Africa’s First World War,” used by the Africans themselves, is only partially correct.  Yes, Rwanda and the Congo experienced in several ways the anger, the fear, the hatred that were evident in Belgrade, Paris, and Berlin in 1914.  But in the case of Angola, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Burundi, and Namibia the pattern of conflict was much older and prenationalistic: it was more like the Thirty Years’ War that had ravaged Europe between 1618 and 1648.  For most of the African countries involved, as had been the case for seventeenth-century Sweden, Poland, France, and Lithuania, the war took place purely because of the princes’ ambitions, prejudices, and security fears.  And the Congo, like Germany in the seventeenth century, was their battlefield.  The violence and the meaninglessness were the same.  In Burundi and Angola, already ravaged by civil wars of their own, projecting troops into the DRC had just been an extension of internal conflicts, and in Zimbabwe and Uganda, where the Congolese intervention was highly unpopular, it was perceived as an elite strategy that had nothing to do with the ordinary lives of ordinary people.  For the really peripheral actors, such as the Sudan, Chad, Libya, and the Central African Republic, the populations were barely aware of their country’s involvement in the Congo; if and when they were aware, they saw it as their leaders’ political calculations about domestic problems, having almost nothing to do with the Congo itself.  None of the nationalistic fervor that was such an essential feature of the First World War was in evidence in any of these countries.  This set Rwanda and the Congo, where the mass of the population deeply cared about the war, in a category apart.  (285-6)

…”Africa’s First World War” will probably remain a unique phenomena, but one that was, here again like the Thirty Years’ War in Europe, a transforming moment in the history of the continent.  Albeit in ways that are quite far from the international community-approved ways, Africa has now entered the modern age.  Following its own rocky road. (364)

Sunday Interesting Links

  • History of the theory and practice of social reproduction, from Black Marxist-feminists to Althusser, from Issue 5 of Viewpoint
  • Notes on “Fortress Los Angeles”
  • Interview with RadAzns TC on Black Lives Matter, community organizing, and communication

Some takeaways on Project Cybersyn and socialist technology

I recently read Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile (2011) by Eden Medina, an excellent narrative history of the experiences of Chile’s socialist government (1970-1973) in Project Cybersyn, an effort to develop a telex-based cybernetic industrial control system along socialist lines, in order to help the project of simultaneously nationalizing the economy and empowering workers.  There are many lessons here for modern socialists, especially when it comes to how we ought to understand science, technology, and engineering in the context of political organizing, radical politics, and class struggle.

Medina herself wrote an essay for the Spring 2015 issue of Jacobin Magazine, on what she argues to be the five main lessons of Project Cybersyn: 1) the importance of the state in influencing technological development, 2) the ease with which social biases can enter into supposedly radical and egalitarian development spaces, 3) the potential in re-configuring old technologies (rather than fetishizing the high-tech and cutting edge), 4) the importance of designing privacy into communications and information technologies from the get-go, and 5) the critical importance of properly contextualizing technological development into the larger social, political, and economic picture.

The fifth point is arguably the most important argument, as it cuts directly against the kind of technological determinism that defines mainstream science and engineering culture; that is, the notion that any and all technological progress is inherently good, and any resistance or skepticism is inherently bad.

We must resist the kind of apolitical “innovation determinism” that sees the creation of the next app, online service, or networked device as the best way to move society forward. Instead, we should push ourselves to think creatively of ways to change the structure of our organizations, political processes, and societies for the better and about how new technologies might contribute to such efforts.

Technology and its ethical dimensions cannot be understood outside of its social and political context, and efforts to create “socialist technology” need to be embedded in larger processes that revolutionize the way people interact with one another (i.e. workplace hierarchies); you can’t develop a “socialist technology” that is detached from a wider struggle against capitalism and its social/political organizations and networks.

It’s important to apply this argument to the nature of sub-divisions within the working class — specifically, that between science/engineering workers and everybody else.  One major goal of Project Cybersyn was to help revolutionize workplace hierarchies and empower workers; but the technical development of the system (programming the network, building the mathematical models of the factory, etc.) was done entirely with educated engineers and programmers working with managers and administrators, leaving little role for average workers to influence the design of system, or its political dimensions.  From the book:

In theory, Cybersyn engineers also consulted with members of the rank-and-file.  Beer writes that the engineers were expected to create “quantified flowchart models with the help and agreement of the workers’ committees” and to determine the “recovery times for each index on the same terms: that is with help and agreement”.  The modelers did talk to committees of workers in some cases but not as a rule.  More often technocracy eclipsed ideology on the factory floor.  Despite the explicit instructions the engineers received to work with worker committees, often the converse occurred, and the engineer treated the workers with condescension or would ignore the workers altogether and deal directly with management.  Moreover, the engineers frequently hid or overlooked the political facets of the project in favor of emphasizing its technological benefits, thereby avoiding potential conflicts. (131)

The lesson here is that simply getting engineers to deploy a blueprint of a “socialist technology” isn’t enough–the effort has to involve nothing less than a parallel effort to break down the division of labor and smash the class gap between technical workers and the rest of the working class.  Otherwise, the same assumptions and practices of capitalist technology and management will re-emerge in a supposedly socialist system.  In other words, political and social organization must be the foundation of any successful effort to develop a “socialist technology”.

Sunday Interesting Links

  • Reflections on climate justice, anti-pipeline activism, and socialism in Canada
  • Critique of the US-guided export of Colombian security practices around the world
  • Essay on digital humanities, neoliberalism, and white supremacy
  • Article on a new $1 billion privatized migrant detention center in Texas
  • Analysis on the floods in Louisiana and the role of climate change

Capitalist recomposition = educational recomposition

A recent NPR Marketplace segment covered an expansion of government-backed student financial aid to include for-profit “nontraditional training and education programs”, many of which are geared toward technology work; the featured company is a coding bootcamp that produces software engineers via an intensive 3-5 month course.

We can expect these kinds of changes to the national education system–away from traditional avenues of university-centered higher education, toward more rapid, industry-centered schools — to accelerate as the economy becomes more and more dependent on software and programming.  This will be driven both by increased demand from workers who are looking to gain skills for entry into a world of relatively high wages, and by corporations looking to fight these high wages by increasing the supply of labor.  And as this process accelerates, we can expect an intensification of the attacks on subjects, fields, and departments that are not geared toward producing workers (i.e. ethnic studies, history) — attacks that have already been underway with the seemingly inexorable privatization of public colleges and universities that started back in the early 1990s.

How will leftists on the campuses respond?  I’m not particularly optimistic; for the past couple of decades, the student movement seems to be stuck in a reactive, defensive position that continually fails at influencing the general direction of how higher education is funded and run.  This is probably because of the class and social position of students and other people in academia; its far too easy to abstract campus struggles away from the rest of society, and without any concrete connections to movements outside the ivory tower, student/academia struggles are impotent against administrators, who have many friends in government and industry.

Off-campus, the growing “tech-ification” of the workforce points toward a future where tech workers face proletarianization, and lose their ability to negotiate high wages and maintain a professional and upwardly-mobile status.  Radical leftists should take stock of this emerging trend in the recomposition of capital and class, and begin right away to try to influence and organize leftist and progressive engineers, scientists, programmers, etc.  One important task is to investigate what kinds of ideology are being produced by new forms of tech education (presumably, some kind of libertarian and professional mindset), and how to intervene against it.

A bittersweet independence day

Yesterday was Indian Independence Day, marking a thoroughly complicated event that combined the culmination of a successful and protracted anti-colonial struggle with an explosion of reactionary ethno-religious violence that killed and displaced millions via Partition, and the continuation of a regime dominated by colonial-era domestic elites.

The best example of the latter point is perhaps the Telangana Rebellion, an armed insurgency by communist peasant groups against the Nizam of Hyderabad and local landlords, that started in 1946 and continued unabated through the exit of the British Empire in 1947, up until 1951, when the newly decolonized Indian Army finally quelled the unrest and saved the landlords from being completely expropriated.  It is thus unsurprising that the current communist insurgency in India has deep roots in Telangana.

On a related note, its highly irritating how consistently Western narratives on the Indian Independence Movement erase its militant and revolutionary dimensions, and instead put forward a highly superficial conception of a completely non-violent struggle.  Not that the non-violent media spectacles organized by Gandhi didn’t play an important role; but it is complete nonsense to ignore the role played by militant organizations like Anushilan Samiti, the Ghadar Party, the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, and the Indian National Army, or the increasingly violent uprisings that destabilized the British Raj like the aforementioned Telangana Rebellion, as well as the 1942 Quit India Movement and the 1946 Royal Indian Navy Mutiny.  I’ve written about the Quit India Movement here, and argued how it was this violent insurrection that proved to be the major factor in the collapse and retreat of the British Empire from the Indian subcontinent by 1947.

If we’re to be true to the progressive spirit of anti-colonial/anti-imperialist struggle, then let’s make sure that we save this history from liberal white-washing–as well as ensure that the unfinished tasks of the struggle do not remain as such.

Sunday Interesting Links

  • Interview with Adolph Reed on Bernie Sanders and socialist politics in the US
  • Article on new data on Trump supporters, and their relatively good economic standing
  • Article on the increasing impacts of climate change on the Middle East
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