Sodomy in Zambia

James Mwape (in mask)  and Philip Mubiana (head covered in a brown coat) led away in chains after a court hearing, May 2013: Photo by Lusaka Times

James Mwape (in mask) and Philip Mubiana (head covered in a brown coat) led away in chains after a court hearing, May 2013: Photo by the Lusaka Times

On July 3, a court in Kapiri Mposhi, in Zambia, acquitted Philip Mubiana and James Mwape. They had been held in jail for almost fourteen months, charged with homosexual sex under Zambia’s sodomy law, which carries a sentence of up to fourteen years. (NOTE: see comments) The presiding judge didn’t comment on the justice of the law itself; he only found that there was no substantive evidence against the accused, who were arrested on hearsay and suspicion, reportedly turned in by family members.  According to the blog 76 Crimes, which has followed the case from the start, Zambian LGBT and human rights activist Juliet Mphande said: ““We have fought long and hard and this victory does not belong to us but to all Zambia’s sexual diverse and gender variant children.”

The triumph for the two is mixed; with their faces and names published all over Zambian media, their lives in the country are wrecked. Still, the court’s decision reflects the strength and persistence of Zambian LGBT campaigners. It brings back memories for me, vivid and piercing. I first visited Zambia sixteen years ago, in 1998, when the country was in the midst of a huge collective frenzy about the dangers of “homosexuality.” With every public figure from university professors to the President himself taking turns deploring the incursion of perversion, it seemed unlikely that there would ever be a Zambian LGBT movement, much less a court victory to celebrate. What happened back then holds lessons not just for Zambia, but for other movements today. Some indulgence in my own memories of sodomy in Zambia may thus be justified.

Back then, I worked for IGLHRC, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. The turmoil in Zambia in 1998 had one identifiable origin. On July 13, a young man named Francis Yabe Chisambisha, who is one of the bravest people I’ve ever known, decided he’d had enough of self-concealment, and he wanted to come out. It says something about anomie in Zambia’s shifting society that for him, this meant coming out not to friends or to family, but to the biggest audience imaginable. He walked into the largest national newspaper’s offices in Lusaka, told them he was gay, and asked if they’d like to interview him. They did. Next day, The Post published his photo on its first page with two-inch headlines: “I’m 25, gay, with 33 sex partners …” Inside the three-page article, Chisambisha explained why he wanted to speak:

“Firstly, what I want is to tell society that this gay thing has been there even before our generation.  I want society to be aware that it is happening in Zambia and there are people who want to be respected for their choice.  It’s just that in our African culture, it’s believed to be taboo and hence people do it in hiding … But the fact that I am doing it, shows that this practice is there and will continue to be there as long as man is there.”

And then a massive moral panic started, the most mammoth I’ve ever seen. As I wrote later,

The response was instant.  The day after Chisambisha’s confession, the Post was already receiving hand-delivered indignant letters.  “There is totally nothing good in being gay that one should feel that it is an achievement to come out in the open,” one read. The rest of the press scrambled to rival the scoop; when, weeks later, a headline screamed “Another gay surfaces,” it seemed like relief for desperate reporters.

Homosexuality had never been openly discussed in Zambia; now the country talked about nothing else. Daily headlines and nightly news stories boomed and threatened and condemned the danger. At the end of November I went to Zambia on behalf of IGLHRC to witness first-hand what was going on.

I reached Zambia on the third day of my first trip ever to Africa. You have to plumb my inexperience to grasp how we did human rights work back then. I’d landed in Johannesburg and spent a night in a doss-house run by awful white people. The next day I flew to Harare. There, I had one lovely evening with Keith Goddard and Romeo Tshuma and other members of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), drinking beer around a glowing braai in their garden, under the jacaranda leaves and the unfamiliar stars. Early the next morning Keith came to my cheap hostel, rousted me from hungover dreams, drove me to the far edge of the city, and left me by the road to wait for the bus to Lusaka.

How I thought I would look in Lusaka

How I thought I would look in Lusaka

It started as a demure urban bus, prim passengers carrying suitcases. Approaching the Zambezi, it became more and more one of those rural nightmares, the luggage giving way to chicken coops, then to chickens that scrabbled neurotically up and down the aisle. Near midnight, nearing Lusaka, the obsidian windows showed buildings billowing up, distended, surreal; with each dis- and embarkation, as if in a Cinderella story, the chickens turned back to suitcases again. I scrambled up to the driver and asked if he could leave me near a taxi stand. “Do you know where you’re going?” he demanded. I said I didn’t have a hotel. He looked at me in utter astonishment. I had an acute sense of the absurdity of my whiteness, a pale incarnation of presumption. In the end he parked the bus on a clogged street in the center, got out with me, took me to a churning café, and handed me over personally to a taxi driver. “Guard him,” he told him dramatically, “like an egg.” The inns were all full. It took two hours to find a motel on the margins of Lusaka, where spiders the size of espresso saucers kept watch like sour theater critics on the wall above my bed.

How I actually looked (Figure of Clergyman, by Thomas Ona Odulate, active 1900-1950, Nigeria, in The the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

How I actually looked (Figure of Clergyman, by Thomas Ona Odulate, active 1900-1950, Nigeria, in  the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

The next day I started trying to decipher things. Speaking to Francis, it was clear they’d gone very, very wrong. After Chisambisha came out, a local human rights Big Man had taken him under his wing. I’ll call him Mr. Mubanga; he led an NGO, the Zambia Independent Monitoring Team (ZIMT). They’d made their name doing election monitoring, so their interest in gay rights was, if welcome, slightly weird.

Yet Mubanga (who insisted he was heterosexual) quickly positioned himself — so I later wrote — as “the country’s main spokesperson on the issue of sexual orientation.” He showed courage; at a forum about homosexuality before infuriated college students, he “narrowly escaped lynching,” a newspaper said. But he was also dangerously, deliberately provocative. Almost immediately after Chisambisha’s coming-out, he told the press – completely falsely — that “We have been visited by Netherlands and US-based gay organizations who have expressed desire to sponsor the protection of gay rights in Zambia and lobby for the removal of statutes that are against those with a variant sexual orientation from the Penal Code.” He fed reporters bluster, declaring one day that Zambia had 10,000 homosexuals, another day that there were half a million. He announced plans to form an LGBT organization, LEGATRA, under ZIMT’s auspices.  He talked as well about establishing a branch of IGLHRC in Zambia, or a version of ILGA. All his language seemed calibrated to confirm that gays were both a huge threat and a foreign influence. And the more outrage crescendoed, the more he made the case for money. Whenever I sat with him, he spoke not of Francis’ situation or LEGATRA’s status, but of grants and aid. How much did IGLHRC have, and where did it get it?  His assistant took me to a party at the Finnish Embassy. I chewed reindeer meat – the only time I’ve ever eaten it was under bougainvillea trees in Lusaka – while he buttonholed diplomats and demanded how much they would give to help the endangered gays of Zambia. Mubanga’s rapacity was personal.  He’d cadge money from me every afternoon, saying he needed it for gas to drive to Libala or Kabulonga to meet some endangered gay man. I stopped giving it when a woman who worked for him hissed to me, “You know he’s using the money to go visit his mistress.” But these were peccadilloes next to the harm he did to lives he was defending.

Forced to choose sides, the rest of civil society uniformly condemned Chisambisha and “homosexuality.” A dean at the University of Zambia intoned that “Every society has minimum standards of acceptable behavior and those for homosexuality championing those filthy practices should not be condoned at all.” Another election-monitoring NGO called it “a matter of urgency that the campaign for the rights of homosexuals and lesbians be nipped in the bud.” The President of Focus for Democracy (FOD) told Francis Chisambisha in a public panel, “You chaps are sick. You need help. You need what I call sex therapy…. I wouldn’t want any of my children to be spoiled just because of you chaps.” Leaders of mainline churches lined up to voice indignation, but evangelicals found the most fodder. One newspaper reprinted materials from Exodus International, providing it one of its first firm footholds in African public discourse. When, in September, the Norwegian Embassy gave ZIMT a grant, partly for its work with the still-imaginary LEGATRA, the issue became political and diplomatic, and “homosexuality” wound up still more isolated. The Minister of Health and the Vice-President blasted the move, and in October, in a speech on Zambia’s thirty-fourth Independence Day, the President himself said: “Homosexuality is the deepest level of depravity. It is unbiblical and abnormal.  How do you expect my government to accept [it]?” The Times of Zambia warned:

We have reason to suspect that many of those behind the alliance formed by gays and lesbians in Zambia are money-mongers who are more interested in donor funds which … the West has promised them.

Zambia's President Chiluba: in the big chair

Zambia’s President Chiluba: in the big chair

In fact this was more or less true of Mubanga, though not of the “gays and lesbians in Zambia,” who had no say in what was said on their behalf. Neville Hoad, a South African scholar, has written that Mubanga

needed threats of state oppression and expressions of national homophobia to mobilize an international gay and lesbian constituency and, more problematically, to obtain funding for its attempts to use homophobia to produce a local constituency. “More than 20 gay and lesbian Zambians” joined LEGATRA. Where were the five hundred thousand, or even the ten thousand? While these numbers were clearly fabricated, they were important in establishing a movement that transnational activists could step in and claim to support. Yet given the short-lived nature of the debate and the actual numerical support LEGATRA could muster, it is far more likely that the movement has been an effect of transnational organizing rather than a grassroots movement.

Hoad is broadly right. However, there was no real “movement”  at all– it was a fabrication — and neither was there much “transnational support” for ZIMT, beyond the one Norwegian grant. That too was mostly smoke and mirrors Mubanga tossed up.

In Hoad’s intepretation, the months of outrage helped cement a particular version of a “homosexual” (or “LGBT”) identity in Zambia. In a flagrantly Foucauldian way, even enemies collaborated:

The state needs to produce its population as always already heterosexualized in reaction to the traumas of globalization. The transnationally fueled local organizations need to produce a population always already homosexualized and in need of protection from the defensively homophobic state. What both camps collude in foreclosing is the diversity of desires, practices, and possible identities and communities

This is true to the extent that “homosexuality,” a word almost never heard before in Zambia, became a catch-all for those desires and practices post-scandal. Yet it was itself a word in flux. In all the brouhaha, nobody treated “homosexuality” as if it had a pinned-down meaning. They didn’t use it for specific kinds of “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” the terminology in the colonial-era law. It ballooned away, unmoored to any dictionary, meaning whatever the speaker thought was bad: Western values, Western money, atheism, misplaced development priorities, youth led wild. This is of course exactly the environment in which a case like the recent one can flourish, without evidence or prospect of proof. An identity was developing, but it was elastic in the hands of its enemies.

Only rarely did I talk to people (other those who actually called themselves “homosexual”) who used the word more stringently. These conversations weren’t encouraging. ZIMT had a project on the rights of traditional chiefs. One of the chiefs was in the office one day, an old man in a dark blue suit, frowning in the involuntary way the well-educated often do among idiots, unhappily shuffling papers. I sat across the table from him; he asked what I was doing in Zambia, and when I explained, he nodded. “It’s nonsense to say those people didn’t exist,” he said. “Of course, we always had those people.” He thought a bit. “The punishment was, we used to throw them on a fire and burn them alive.” It turned out he didn’t know of this actually being inflicted. It was a theoretical punishment, like plucking out the offending eye: the rhetoric had its own dissuasive value. I didn’t ask – I wish I had – how old he thought these rigors were, or whether he thought them inflected by Christian custom, or a lot of other questions. Relative to all the weirdness whirling outside the room, he seemed almost a voice of pragmatic calm.

When I came back in 2000, I encountered a purely modern understanding of homosexuality, untempered by any pragmatism. I met with the head of the Criminal Investigations Division of the national police – more or less, the FBI.  He was a carefully-spoken man disfigured by teeth that went wildly widdershins, as if somebody had inserted a small model of Stonehenge in his mouth. He launched on the usual stuff about how “homosexual” sex didn’t exist in his country. I asked why he thought these practices, absent in Zambia, seemed so common in the West. He mulled this. “In countries where life is full of plenty of stress and nervous agitation,” he said, “it is to be expected that people should engage in many mentally deviant activities, such as ‘gay and lesbian’ ones. Therefore it is no surprise that they should capture young men and engage in unnatural acts upon their bodies, and kill them, and preserve their body parts, and eat them …”

IGLHRC logo, 1998: Enervated by Western modernity, those continents are eating each other alive

IGLHRC logo, 1998: Enervated by Western modernity, those continents are eating each other alive

I realized that the most powerful policeman in Zambia had derived his own definition of “homosexuality” entirely from reading about Jeffrey Dahmer. I also realized that my IGLHRC card, lying belly-down on his desk, said “Gay and Lesbian” prominently on its face. I felt an overwhelming impulse to retrieve it before he looked at it. All I remember of the rest of the meeting are a series of furtive snatching attempts, my hand twitching like a hedgehog. I don’t recall whether I got the card back. Probably not.

If I wanted, I could tell the whole story as if written by V. S. Naipaul, or his brilliant and reprehensible brother Shiva: those tales of poor Southern people driven crazy, by the paucity of inner culture that Naipaul superciliously deplored. But there was no paucity. Nor was the craziness crazy. Under the panic were perfectly sane, consistent logics. One was a narrative most Africans know all too well: economics.

The key question in Zambia: Cover of a study by  Chewe Chabatama

The key question in Zambia: Cover of a study by Chewe Chabatama

Civil society, pace Hegel, is not a natural aspect of humankind. It happens when both citizens and donors want it. Before the 1990s, the big money men – the IMF and the World Bank – saw no need for civil society. It meant unpleasant aggregations of people who stood in the way of dams. However, as the lenders began bringing their favored neoliberal nostrums, called structural adjustment, to Africa, they saw the wisdom of paying for a new social stratum. Structural adjustment meant forcibly stripping the state of its old functions: health, education, welfare. It would be convenient for an NGO sector to arise and take over some of these tasks (the ones that couldn’t be purely done for profit). The official line of the international lenders was that these organizations would be less “corrupt,” more “transparent” than governments. Bilateral donors, mainly Northern governments, followed the lenders’ lead. They all waved a wand, and lo! there was civil society. Development NGOs, service NGOs, even human rights NGOs sprouted across Africa like mushrooms after rain.

Meanwhile, structural adjustment plans, downsizing the government ruthlessly, disrupted the traditional, secure career path of educated youth – formerly straight into the arms of the state, the civil service. These kids were forced to build a new, entrepreneurial middle class; and the ones who didn’t like private enterprise went into nonprofits. On a long Lusaka taxi ride, a young gay professional offered to write the contact info of “all his NGOs” for me, since he didn’t carry business cards. There were three. I only remember the last: He was President of the Zambian Youth Anti-Smoker’s League. As he scrawled this in the back seat, he was puffing his fifth Marlboro.

Let them eat, um, something: Cartoon on structural adjustment programs

Let them eat, um, something: Cartoon on structural adjustment programs

The problem was, predictably, that the sudden growth outstripped the available funds. People founded NGOs on hope, then found the grants didn’t come through. By the late 1990s resources were drying up, and all civil society withered in the drought. To a thoroughly entrepreneurial mind like Mr. Mubanga’s, discovering the LGBT issue was like finding an untapped aquifer. There were organizations doing gay rights in the West; this meant there had to be resources. From a certain perspective this was funny, since the available funding for LGBT rights then was a mere fraction of the (inadequate) figure now. Still, my salary that year (about $35,000), which barely kept me afloat in New York, could power a small NGO in Lusaka. You might not give a shit about gays, but if you cared about feeding your employees, building an IGLHRC in Zambia made a certain sense.

A side-effect was that this opportunism fed other, malign popular fantasies about homosexual acts.  One of these was a belief I also heard in Zimbabwe: no sensible African man would do that kind of thing except for money. (I’ve encountered this explanation in many countries, but it seems especially potent in places where white settlers outlasted settler colonialism, and where the structural – and sexual – power that had been political now took economic form.) If that were true, then gays in the great Abroad must have a lot of cash to corrupt people. Stories about how individuals could be debauched turned into myths about how societies were.  “Homosexuality” looked less and less like sex, and more like a conspiratorial nexus between foreign money and foreign morals; it acquired something of the character that Jewish or Masonic conspiracies had in other, more European mythologies.  These fears comprise an excellent way of yodelling up resistance, as any number of fascist movements know. A clear line stretches from the rhetoric in Zambia to what has happened in Uganda.

Tony and Marge Abram, of Abundant Life Ministries (L, need I say) in Zambia in 2005: http://www.abundantlifecrusades.com/. Their story, linking prayer and white supremacy, is typical: "In 1966, when Marge and I drove through what was once Southern Rhodesia and elephant country in our old Volkswagen beetle, to the most beautiful falls in the world, we could look across the falls and see Zambia.  I told Marge then, that one-day we would preach there and God would give us many souls."

Tony and Marge Abram, of Abundant Life Ministries (L) in Zambia in 2005: http://www.abundantlifecrusades.com/. Their story, linking prayer and white supremacy, is typical: “In 1966, when Marge and I drove through what was once Southern Rhodesia and elephant country in our old Volkswagen beetle, to the most beautiful falls in the world, we could look across the falls and see Zambia. I told Marge then, that one-day we would preach there and God would give us many souls.”

But as the donor spigots tightened, politicians and activists and ordinary folk turned to another source of money and expectation, infinitely greater than anything poor foreign queers could offer: the vast largesse of religion.

In 1996, Frederick Chiluba, Zambia’s first democratic President, changed the constitution to define his homeland as a “Christian nation.” Chiluba was a trade-union leader who’d unseated the longtime dictator Kenneth Kaunda partly on a wave of rage against structural adjustment. He turned around to enforce structural adjustment (and make himself very rich) in office; militant Christianity undoubtedly helped him feel there was moral backbone behind his copious betrayals, but it also gave the people he betrayed a bit of hope, however gossamer. And it lent him support, some ideological, some financial. Western preachers descended on Zambia like locusts, in a preview of what would befall Uganda a little later. They bought up friendly politicians’ services and souls. Before apartheid’s fall, most of these ecclesiastics’ energies had been confined to the congenial white-ruled countries to the South. Now their “Rhodesian” passport stamps were no barrier to infesting democratic Africa, and they needed a regional base.

Tony Abram (R, need I say) with worshippers in Zambia, 2005

Tony Abram (R, need I say) with worshippers in Zambia, 2005

In Zambia, religion became an export good. By the mid-1990s, the country was sending missionaries to the rest of southern Africa. Whenever I flew out of Lusaka to Harare or Joburg, the plane was full of earnest, suited young Zambian men studying Bibles.  Returning  in 2000, I found one of the three TV channels had been handed to Christian programming. These were mostly US and Canadian televangelists I’d never heard of; one of them sat in a gold chair and talked nonstop about getting rich, and I learned volumes about the prosperity gospel. It would be easy to suppose these principally ensnared the poor and desperate. In fact, I think, their main appeal was to the new entrepreneurial middle class – the businessmen and activists whom structural adjustment had made, now worried for their status and their future. The preachers told them they were right to be rich (richer than their parents, anyway). The added message that homosexuals were after their prosperity was wired to set their anxieties violently in motion. And Mr. Mubanga knew just how to push those buttons too.

European Couple Walking the Dog, by Thomas Ona Odulate (active 1900-1950, Nigeria), Fowler Museum at UCLA.

European Couple Walking the Dog, by Thomas Ona Odulate (active 1900-1950, Nigeria), Fowler Museum at UCLA.

The 1998 panic over homosexuality was dreadful: not just a practice run for what later happened in Uganda, but a disaster in its own right. It destroyed lives. Estranged from his family, jobless, facing death threats, Francis Yabe Chisambisha left the country; he spent a decade trapped in the dystopian asylum process in South Africa, hiding in Hillbrow in poverty and limbo. When I came back to Zambia in mid-2000, almost every lesbian or gay Zambian I’d met eighteen months before had also fled, or gone deep underground. Nascent communities were devastated, some people arrested, a few imprisoned. LEGATRA, which had never really existed, was conclusively banned, and Mubanga eventually lost interest. In 2000, ZIMT collapsed, amid charges he’d embezzled money.

You can’t blame Mubanga exclusively for what happened, but he and the enormous forces of repression, apparently at violent odds, were actually joined in a bizarre tango-like tandem. They used him to whip up public anger; he used them to wheedle for international support. Trapped between were not just Francis Chisambisha and the few who joined LEGATRA, but all those who had “gay” sex or “gay” desires in Zambia, dissident and gender-dissonant bodies, folks who mainly just wanted to find ways to live their lives, but got caught up in a conflict they never planned.

Zambian seal: One nation, not applicable in cases of difference

Zambian seal: One nation, not applicable in case of difference

Inexperienced as I was when I climbed down from the bus in Lusaka, I figured out fast enough that this lopsided confrontation wasn’t going to help anybody’s human rights. IGLHRC, at least, did what it could to defuse the situation; I stayed out of the media mayhem, struggled quixotically to temper Mubanga’s financial dreams, provided what little moral support I could to Chisambisha and those around him, and tried to warn the “international gay and lesbian constituency” against ladling help that wouldn’t help Zambian LGBT people. The scandal eventually died down. The long-term damage was that it left no space for Zambians to organize around sexuality or gender identity or expression, for many years. In the ruins of communities, there was little room to discuss what identities were relevant or what freedom might mean. (You’ll notice that Francis Chisambisha insisted in 1998 that being “gay” was a “choice.” The space for that kind of heresy also shut down.)  In 2008, Friends of Rainka, an LGBT-identified organization, was founded in Zambia, and others have arisen since. That’s a ten-year gap, a lost decade. Those activists combine bravery and strategy with building a real constituency. They’ve campaigned courageously against clerical hatred, media incitement,  state repression. They’ve defended the persecuted and jailed, even as some (like the HIV activist and human rights defender Paul Kasonkomona) were jailed themselves.

Friends of Rainka member speaks out about the human rights of LGBT people while calling into a program on Radio Phoenix, April 12, 2013. Posted by http://76crimes.com/tag/zambia/

Still, if 1998’s fiasco were happening in some other country today, I’m afraid things would be much worse. Plenty of international groups and activists wouldn’t even ask whether a figure like Mubanga actually could speak for a social movement at home. They too would join the tango, needing his deceptions as he needed their press releases. There would be petitions, blog posts, boycotts, Twitter campaigns, and lots of fundraising. Nobody would care much whether they succeeded; isn’t raising awareness the point?  It’s LGBT people in the country in question who would lose, and probably on a larger scale.

I have another group of memories of Zambia which I think matter here, though I confess I am not sure how. They are all about death. Dying was everywhere in the country. New undertakers’ shops seemed to stand on every street corner, crisp plywood coffins stacked outside the threshold, the only growth industry. Wherever you travelled beyond the capital, funeral processions stretched down the road in the long light of evening, with women keening in the back of open trucks. A friend late for a morning meeting explained that her neighbor had died during the night. People spoke about death casually; it was more predictable than the weather. Someone had a fever one day; the next they were gone.

HIV/AIDS indicators in Zambia, 2001-2005, from http://www.youthalivezambia.org/?page_id=174

HIV/AIDS indicators in Zambia, 2001-2005, from http://www.youthalivezambia.org/?page_id=174. DHS = Demographic and Health Surveys.

HIV/AIDS prevalence among adults in Zambia had reached somewhere between 12 and 20 percent by 1998. There were more than a quarter of a million children orphaned by AIDS, most living on the streets. (A lesbian I knew, thrown out by her family, had moved to a tin shack in a mud flat on the edges of Lusaka, where she worked with orphan street children.) Among the factors contributing to the catastrophe, global capitalism’s exigencies played a role. As late as 2005, out of a million or more Zambians living with HIV/AIDS, less than 45.000 had access to anti-retroviral therapies, largely due to pricing and Western corporations’ patents. (By 2013, the numbers of the fortunate with a chance to survive had at last expanded to nearly half a million.) Structural adjustment had also done its bit to ravage people’s bodies. As soon as it began to destroy the country’s health care systems in the 1980s, the rate of tuberculosis infection began to rise. From 100 per 100,000 in 1984, it more than quadrupled in the next twenty years.

Top graph: From "The Impact of Tuberculosis on Zambia and the Zambian Nursing Workforce," at www.nursingworld.org. Bottom graph: UNAIDS.

Top graph: From “The Impact of Tuberculosis on Zambia and the Zambian Nursing Workforce,” at http://www.nursingworld.org. Bottom graph: UNAIDS.

One memory stands out. In 2000 a Zambian lawyer friend and I rode in a microbus to Kabwe, north of Lusaka, to get the court files in a case of a man convicted under the sodomy laws the year before. After we found the record of his five-year sentence (“accuseds behavior is alien to the African Custom.  … We are living in an HIV AIDS area and this behaviour couldn’t be condoned by this court”) we went to a prison farm not far away, Mukobeko Prison, to try to see him. Past the gates and barbed wire, in the visiting room, we spoke to the victim, still stunned and inarticulate. Afterwards, the commandant, a genial man inordinately proud of his efforts to sustain the institution on a desperately inadequate budget, showed us around parts of the penitentiary. (Twelve years later, the Vice-President of Zambia would call conditions in Mukobeko “hell on earth.”) We came to a shedlike cell where some forty men were sprawled. All lay on the mud-and-concrete floor except for one man, who’d been given a filthy foam-rubber mat. I went up to him. He was obviously dying. Possibly he had TB, probably AIDS; his eyesockets were rimed, his breathing labored. He could have been anywhere between thirty and sixty. I took his hand. I asked him some questions about medicines. He said something else to me; it wasn’t about drugs. I have no memory of what he said. I only remember that he stared deep into my eyes. In a long life of seeing various forms of suffering, I have infrequently been so close to someone so imminently about to die. I do not remember his face, I only remember his eyes. I held his hand. We had to leave, and we left him there, and I do not know his name.

We die alone; the “we” vanishes with the breath. I suppose if I remember that so vividly, and if I think the memory is relevant here, it’s because it brought home to me how deeply death is loneliness, the limit-point of the “we,” beyond help, insusceptible to documentation. Our activism is a struggle against being alone. Two years earlier Francis Chisambisha said to me, explaining why he came out:  “I was alone and I wanted not to be, and I wanted to help others not to be. I found out that being alone was legal. Wanting not to be alone was criminal. Wanting to help others was the worst crime of all.” This fails, like most things. There is loneliness, and that too is a memory of Zambia.

Family members show support for James Mwape and Philip Mubiana through the bars of a lockup, May 2013: Photo from 76crimes.org.

Family members show support for James Mwape and Philip Mubiana through the bars of a police lockup in Kapiri Mposhi, May 2013: Photo from 76crimes.com

 

Where did the debt come from? Understanding the austerity disaster

The new capitalism: What's Mayan is yours

Oh, sweet Jesus, this is going to be one hell of a year.

Maybe you’re one of those people who’ve stopped reading the paper because it’s too depressing. Is that why you’re so quiet? Maybe you eschew any headline that holds the word “Crisis,” or “Euro,” or (God forbid!) both together, because those augur something incomprehensible, and no knowledge is good news. Maybe you’re counting your dwindling cents and thinking things can’t get worse. Well, it would be hard for things to get worse, but the reality of our economies at this moment is that they’re drawn toward disaster like a gawker passing a massive car crash — and while he puts on the brakes to look, the cars behind him pile up too, till the wreckage stretches down the freeway for miles. Reading the business pages used to be like listening to the traffic reports, telling you what roads to avoid in the morning. Now it’s like tuning in to the Emergency Broadcast System’s slow, terrible whine, and realizing you should have figured out where the nearest fallout shelter was years ago.

But hiding won’t help. I can promise you the only way through the year ahead is to be radical: I mean, to be unflinching in looking at the tangled roots of this mess, to try against all our instincts to see things as they are.  There is a reasonable chance we will have to rebuild the world in our lifetimes. If that happens, we had better be armed with knowledge about how the one we have went wrong.

So let me share the little bit I know these days. You surely saw Friday that Standard & Poor’s went after Europe with a machete.  The ratings agency downgraded the credit of nine countries in the Eurozone.  Austria and France lost their triple-A status. Malta, Slovakia and Slovenia also came down one notch.   Italy, Spain, Portugal and Cyprus lost two; the last two countries now join Greece as issuers of junk bonds. It’s a comprehensive declaration of disbelief in Europe’s ability to save itself.

Into the abyss

This happened the same day that talks broke down between Greece and the commercial banks it owes money.  You remember that last year, the European Union promised to write off 100 billion euros of Greek debt if bondholders –that is, the banks — would agree to take a 50 percent loss on their Greek lendings. This is Angela Merkel’s idea, a way of forcing the banks that made the dumb loans, not just European taxpayers (read: not just Germans, since they’re the only ones in Europe with any money) to take a hit. The dumb banks are not happy. Their representative said, ““Discussions with Greece and the official sector are paused for reflection on the benefits of a voluntary approach.” The New York Times explains that this might (might!)

be a not-so-subtle message that if Europe pushed too hard on this point, then the creditors could no longer accept the agreement as a voluntary one. That is crucial, because an involuntary debt revamping would be seen by creditors as a default — a step Greece and Europe are trying hard to avoid.

If Greece defaults, it could set off the activation of credit default swaps — a type of financial insurance. [Basically, the banks have bought insurance against the possibility that debtor countries default.] If the issuers of that insurance have to start paying up, many analysts fear the same sort of falling dominoes of i.o.u.’s that cascaded through the financial industry after the subprime mortgage market collapsed in the United States in 2007 and 2008.

What can you say? To quote Rick Perry: oops?

All this follows a month when Europe seemed to be looking up a little. Italian bond sales were doing reasonably well. (If you asked me a year ago whether I’d ever care about Italian bond sales, I would have said basta! assurdo!)  In November,when Berlusconi resigned, the interest rate on Italy’s bonds climbed to almost 7.5%, a point that means the markets expect default: “even higher yields aren’t enough to attract buyers. That kind of panic is self-fueling, and once it starts it can destroy its target within days.”  Yet Italy clawed its way back, thanks to reassuring infusions of money from the European Central Bank. Friday its three-year bonds were selling  at an average rate of 4.83 %, not great but the lowest, most manageable rate they’d seen in four months. The Standard & Poor’s blow, however, means the markets still don’t trust Italy as far as they can throw it. Try throwing Italy. It’s heavy.

Greek gross domestic product (GDP) collapsing: Atlas died, consumption shrugged

Here’s the problem. The markets insisted on austerity plans so that governments could repay their debts. But now the markets see that the austerity plans are keeping the economies — Greece, Italy, Spain, and many others — from growing, perhaps for more than a decade to come. And without economic growth, there’s little long-term prospect for repaying debt. Hence the markets are losing confidence in the governments anyway, pushing them toward increasingly likely default.

Take the Greek case. The Washington Post notes that after two years of austerity,

increasingly, critics of the quick-cuts theory are pointing to the worsening recession [in the country] as evidence that the medicine is killing the patient, with the nation’s sharp, sustained decline leading some economists to suggest that the country has entered a more serious depression.

“Suggest”? Stathis Kouvelakis lays out the details:

Workers and the retired alike have lost around a third of their incomes. Wage arrears in the private sector have now reached three months on average, while public-sector pensions—around €500 to €700 a month—are in many cases not being paid at all. Public services are in a state of collapse: schools are without textbooks, bringing teaching to a virtual halt, while hospital patients are being told to buy their own medication from pharmacies. The suicide rate, traditionally one of the lowest in Europe, has increased by 40 per cent in just one year, and the health of the population is deteriorating dramatically.

And here’s the kicker, killer, whatever:

The actual unemployment rate is said to be around 25 per cent (the official rate is 18.5 per cent), with the figure twice as high among 15-to-24-year-olds, while GDP [gross domestic product] has declined by at least 12 per cent since the start of the crisis, a proportional drop comparable to the effect of the 1930s Depression.

Greece has suffered, he says, “one of the most drastic drops in living standards that postwar Europe has seen.” It’s akin to what happened in the former Soviet Union in the 1990s — and we know how well that turned out.  Putin, here we come! It’s even more like the effects of structural adjustment on Latin American economies in the ’80s, and on Africa in the ’90s. “The Mediterranean economies are being sentenced to years of rot and hyper-unemployment,” Mike Davis writes. The policies the industrial West inflicted on the developing world for thirty years are coming home to roost.

From the bankers’ perspective, though, the problem is that you can squeeze such a collapsed economy until the pips squeak, and you can’t get repayments out of it. Hence the crisis that last week’s events represent.

Meanwhile, in order to enforce austerity, governments are becoming less democratic — since their people don’t want the plans their leaders are compelled to pursue.  The unelected “expert” governments installed in Greece and Italy augur things to come.  In the London Review of Books, David Runciman channels Carl Schmitt and the theorists of “emergency.” Democracy has a “crucial advantage,” he says, because it can undo itself: it’s

more politically flexible than the alternatives. That is, in a crisis democracies can experiment with autocracy but autocracies can’t experiment with democracy, not even in small doses. They daren’t, for fear of losing control.

But the present experiment in technocratic rule may not be enough to get things done. We may need a full-fledged turn to dictatorship, as spread across Europe in the late ’20s and ’30s:

[The] turn to technocracy looks like a diversion. It served its purpose in allowing the Greeks and Italians to ditch busted governments without holding elections. But if the technocrats are meant to sort out the mess, instead of simply providing a bit of breathing space before elected politicians get another crack at it, then they will need some autocratic powers. They will have to be able to force their nasty medicine down the throats of kicking and screaming populations.  … The hard truth is that democracies do not save themselves by flirting with technocracy. They have to flirt with something nastier.

Democracies have survived worse crises than the present one because their previous experiments with non-democratic methods have always been time-limited. In war, for instance, democratic governments have often had to resort to emergency powers, but when the war is over, those powers get given back. That won’t work this time. The present crisis is not a war, and it’s not going to be easy to tell when it is over.

In short: the endless War on Terror has not so much ended as it’s been forgotten. The War on the Poor is bidding to succeed it.

We are in Stage II of the massive crisis that began in 2007. In Stage I, the world’s banks threatened to collapse under the weight of unpaid debts owed to them.   Governments everywhere bailed them out — which meant assuming their debts. But now, as Michael Lewis writes,

The financial crisis of 2008 was suspended only because investors believed that governments could borrow whatever they needed to rescue their banks. What happened when the governments themselves ceased to be credible?

Where did all this debt come from?

There are as many answers as economists. Strikingly, though two recent books — the late Chris Harman’s Zombie Capitalism and David McNally’s Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance — both turn back to one of Marx’s core but most controversial ideas.

It’s called, in that peculiar Marxian manner of legislating, the Law of the Falling Rate of Profit. The gist is this: Capitalists want to increase the amount of productivity they can extract from labor every hour. They can Taylorize — make work time more efficient; they can cut wages; but after those means are exhausted, the best route is to invest in new labor-saving technologies. The first businessmen to introduce these machines and tools will get a short-term boost: they can produce more cheaply than their competitors, but sell at comparable prices. That means their profits will rise.

However, the ultimate source of value for Marx is labor. If investment grows more rapidly than the labor force, it is also growing faster than new value is being created. (Moreover, as investment grows faster than wages, it grows faster than the money available to workers to buy the goods and keep the economy going.) “When productivity rises, profits fall. The more ‘capital-intensive’ is a business, the less profit is made in proportion to the amount of money invested.” As businesses continue to invest, then, the profits they can make — the value they can extract, above what they’re spending on both technology and labor — will inevitably start to spiral down.

Although versions of this theory date back to Adam Smith and David Ricardo, it wasn’t popular in the 20th century. Mainstream economists hated it because it suggested that the recurrent crises of capitalism couldn’t be fixed: the system itself contained a cancerous paradox, a spore of decline. “At a certain stage,” Marx wrote, capitalism “conflicts with its own further development.” Revolutionary Marxists of all stripes disliked it because they expected the system to fall through their indispensable action, not some internal contradiction: the workers, led of course by the vanguard Party, would rebel against exploitation and install Utopia. These pages of Marx, read literally, suggested that capitalism could consume itself regardless of what the workers did.

However, the Law provides a very good description of the major cycles of capitalism since the 1920s. Each was a period distinguished by new technologies and new investment that created soaring rates of profit — which gradually declined till the system couldn’t sustain itself, and a major crisis set in.

All those commodities! Don't forget the bombs, though.

Consider the period after the Second World War, with the planet recovering from slaughter and a Great Depression. The French, much catchier than Marx, call the thirty years from roughly 1945-1974 les trente glorieuses. It was an age of almost unbroken growth across the whole industrialized world, Europe and North America alike. So-called “Fordist” production methods, chiefly the glory days of the unified factory assembly line, helped sustain it, as did growth in consumer goods like cars and helpful household machinery.  However, massive military spending by the US (and arms industries all over Europe), along with the technologies military research produced, was its mainstay.

It all crashed starting in the early ’70s. It used to be customary to blame this on the oil price shocks of the period, in 1973 (post-Yom Kippur War) and 1979 (post-Iranian revolution).   Suddenly the one critical commodity that powered economies quintupled in cost. Obviously this devastated profits, but it’s clear that profit rales were already falling precipitately since the late 1960s.

Price shock: Crude reality

The strange response of business to the crisis proved its unusual severity. Businessmen across the developed world both cut wages (and jobs) and raised prices.   Slashing prices as wages and employment decline (that is, when you fire people) is usually the logical thing to do.  When there is less money to spend in the economy, prices should go down, along with demand. The strange phenomenon of “stagflation” instead dominated the 1970s: unemployment and economic stagnation came coupled with galloping inflation, prices jumping steadily higher. This wasn’t just the result of oil prices driving production costs upward. Rather, it’s hard not to interpret it as a campaign to break the back of labor, and the rights (and wages) it had won during the trente glorieuses. Capital wanted to destroy labor’s will to resist by squeezing workers from both ends: shrinking the money they had to spend, while raising the pricetag on the things they had to buy.

What brought developed economies out of the crisis of the 70s, however, was first of all a side-effect of the 1973 oil price shock. A huge amount of money went into the hands of oil-rich states. They deposited most of it back in Western banks, which had to do something with it, and found few investment opportunities amid a recession.  However, a great many Third World states, especially in Latin America and Africa, also found their economies wrecked by the oil roller-coaster; they needed money. The banks happily, joyfully lent to them, to put that money to use! Wonderful, until the second oil shock in 1979 wrecked the Third World’s economies again — along with the so-called “Volcker shock” at the same time, when the head of the US central bank raised interest rates sky-high, causing a worldwide downturn, and making loans almost impossible to repay.

“Structural adjustment” was the result. As countries confessed inabillity to cover their debts, international institutions — the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund — stepped in to oversee structured payment plans. Invariably these involved mandated economic “reforms”: privatization (selling off factories and resources, usually to the West), drastic cutbacks in state services (so the savings could go to debt servicing), reorienting whole economies from manufacture to shipping raw materials off to the developed world.

One critic writes:

According to UNICEF, over 500,000 children under the age of five died each year in Africa and Latin America in the late 1980s as a direct result of the debt crisis and its management under the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment programs. These programs required the abolition of price supports on essential food-stuffs, steep reductions in spending on health, education, and other social services, and increases in taxes. … Extrapolating from the UNICEF data, as many as 5,000,000 children and vulnerable adults may have lost their lives in this blighted continent as a result of the debt crunch.

Destructive across two continents, structural adjustment sent windfalls of money to rejuvenate the European and North American economies. Jubilee 2000 estimates that by the 1990s, debt servicing alone was moving $300 billion per year from the South to the North. As J. W. Smith says, the debt crisis beginning in the ’80s produced “the greatest peacetime transfer of wealth from the periphery to the imperial center in history.”

Structural adjustment: The medicine that makes the malady worse

Debt-related transfers helped power the economic revival of the 1980s and 1990s in the developed world.  New modes of production also boosted profits– breaking up factories and moving whole segments of the production process to cheap-labor areas — along with new technologies, especially the computer explosion. Still, Chris Harman estimates that the rate of profit in the period never reached much more than half its stellar heights of the trente glorieuses.  There were also sporadic but sharp recessions, far more frequent than anything the postwar boom had seen — not only the 1979-82 downturn, but sequels in 1991 and 2001.   These suggest the profit rate was undergoing an irregular but inexorable decline. The second trente glorieuses was turning out pretty ingloriously.

Here is where the debt comes in.

1975 – 2005: that’s thirty years, an entire generation, of slashing wages across the developed world, while spending more and more money on new technologies.  That’s a recipe for a crisis of demand. Who, under those conditions, has money left to buy things? Of course, if you’ve cut wages at home, you can try to resolve the problem of popular spending power by finding new markets abroad.  With structural adjustment plans still leaving much of the world’s population reeling, though, new markets on many continents were limited to the small elites surfing on the flow and froth of global capital. Mass markets for anything more than cheap exports were getting hard to find. Moreover, even in the age of globalization, when money runs around giddily from point to point like hamsters in a maze, some goods can’t be exported. Housing is a prime (or sub-prime) example. You can take all the jobs in Flint, Michigan, and export them to Guam or Guadelajara; but the houses people lived in will stubbornly remain behind, where nobody has cash to buy them. They can’t be packed up or moved to some Shanghai or Kobe where folks can afford them.

Debt was the answer. Debt re-entered the picture like a third-act deus ex machina. If debt in the developing world had powered Northern economies’ initial revival, debt in the developed countries fueled the frenzy of spending that postponed, then precipitated, the end. If people’s spending power was shrinking, you could always give them fictitious money to spend. And housing, the paradigmatic commodity that couldn’t be moved where the real money was, was the perfect place to encourage them to spend it.

Credit ballooned. Capitalism in the last phase of the period was turbo-powered by a huge wave of fake money.   Mortgages, credit cards, auto loans, and other kinds of credit became incredibly easy to obtain. The housing bubble that resulted in the US —  housing prices driven up by demand, and an enormous number of people indebted to buy houses they couldn’t in the end afford — started to collapse first, in 2006. But the tidal wave of loans, of spending fueled by nonexistent money, had surged around the developed world. Whole countries were swept up in it. John Lanchester cites symptoms of the mania. Spain and France ran up debts that totalled ten times their annual revenues.  Meanwhile, though, “Iceland’s stock market went up ninefold; … in Ireland, a developer paid €412 million in 2006 for a city dump that is now, because of cleanup costs, valued at negative €30 million.”

Most people with a special interest in the events of the credit crunch and the Great Recession that followed it have a private benchmark for the excesses that led up to the crash … phenomena that at the time seemed normal but that in retrospect were a brightly flashing warning light. I came across mine in Iceland, talking to a waitress in a café in the summer of 2009, about eight months after the króna collapsed and the whole country effectively went bankrupt under the debts incurred by its overextended banks. I asked her what had changed about her life since the crash.

“Well,” she said, “if I’m going to spend some time with friends at the weekend we go camping in the countryside.”

“How is that different from what you did before?” I asked.

“We used to take a plane to Milan and go shopping on the via Linate.”

Since that conversation, I’ve privately graded transparently absurd pre-crunch phenomena on a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being complete financial prudence, and 10 being a Reykjavik waitress thinking it normal to be able to afford weekend shopping trips to Milan.

There’s a tendency these days to treat these people as morally weak for succumbing to temptation. Michael Lewis sees all of Greece as a study in “total moral collapse”:  “a nation of people looking for anyone to blame but themselves.”  But what were they supposed to do?  Fold their hands demurely and stay poor, while everybody else was getting rich? After all, the easy credit was being pushed on them by banks who seemed to know what they were doing.  Of course, we all know now what turned the banks into playground money pushers. They had found ways of repackaging debt into mathematically incomprehensible financial securities, and then selling it to someone else. The sale and resale of debt itself became a fantastically profitable industry, with the securities layered and combined so that nobody could tell how much of what they were buying (or selling) was solid debt, and how much was subprime stuff careening for default. The whole world economy was running on funny money. It ran for a while, and then fell apart.

And that leads us to where we are now. The banks, burdened by bad debt they’d lent or bought, by customers right and left defaulting, tottered on the verge of failure. The governments bailed them out –first the US and the UK, then other countries from Portugal to Greece to Ireland. All that bad debt the banks owned on their balance sheets suddenly became the property of you, the taxpayer, pretty much wherever you are. I’ll let Robin Blackburn summarize the story:

The Great Credit Crunch of 2007 has developed into a contraction of wider scope and great tenacity, centred in the main OECD countries. Governments acted to avert collapse, but in doing so themselves became a target. Bail-out measures adopted during the early phase of the crisis between 2007–09 saw the US, UK, and eurozone authorities increase public indebtedness by 20–40 per cent of GDP … The transfer of debt from private to public hands was carried out in the name of averting systemic failure, but in some ways it aggravated the debt problem since bank failure, however disruptive, is actually less devastating than state failure. Before long, the bond markets were demanding plans to cut these deficits by slashing public spending and shrinking social protection.

And this gets us back to my starting point. The markets wanted austerity; but austerity cannot give them economic growth, and some degree of growth is needed for governments to pay off this mountain of bank-debt-become-public debt — as well as to care for the minimal needs of populations pushed to the margins of endurance.  There is no easy way out, no simple formula for starting the business cycle up again. Capitalism is trapped in this contradiction, feeling blindly for the exit, and coming up against bland, impassive, smooth-featured walls.

What’s coming? What does the New Year hold? I can’t say — like you, I barely want to imagine it. The threat is not only to our livelihoods; it’s to democracy. Already, in Greece and Italy, the markets have shown themselves more powerful than the publics.  Governments responsible to no party, transcending the voters’ will, were set up at the beck of bondholders, who form a Higher Electorate against whom mere citizens are simply beggars.

Moreover, the post-austerity state, stripped of its capacity to provide for public welfare and of many of its other powers, has little to legitimate itself except its willingness to repress and kill. Recently the New Yorker profiled Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s tiny president presiding over an increasingly tiny state, its authority whittled away not only by the European Union (which the article, like most French people, tends to blame) but by the pressure to slim down to Thatcherite or Reaganite dimensions.  The profile tries to explain Sarkozy’s ferocious rhetoric against immigrants, criminals, Muslims, Gypsies.

“People need to understand why the President puts so much stress on the question of security,” one adviser told me. “It’s precisely because it’s something which is entirely in your hands.” When it came to crime in the streets, he said, “there is no Europe here.”

The same logic leads to governments that massacre the poor in Jamaica and Nigeria in the name of vindicating their withered existence, to the tear gas staining the air of New York and Oakland. The welfare state turns into the security state. Many have perished; more will.

Austerity, we’re told, is the answer. But austerity makes the problem worse. Is there any comfort to be found?  Livy wrote, of the last years of the Roman Republic: “They had reached that final point when the difficulties they faced were less terrible than their solutions.”  We seem, to the unjaundiced eye, to be inching there.   “Another world is possible,” they chant in the demonstrations. Possible? It’s urgent.