The Highest Stage of Capitalism- Case Study: Congo

Those who have been following me know that I don’t do “trigger warnings” or “content warnings”. But an exception must be made here.

The first person accounts transcribed in the first section are extremely violent and disturbing. But it is important to make these nightmares-inducing horrors known, because they rarely make even the back pages of Western news media, and in order to put into stark relief the concrete reasons for, and absolute urgency of, anti-imperialist struggle.

Be warned. (But this article does end on a positive note.)

Congo rain forests

Reality

A few years ago a dinner party at my home in Berlin was attended by someone who had been working as a camera man for the UN. He had arrived just a few hours earlier, after being stationed in various parts of East and Central Africa for the previous 8 years: mainly Uganda, Rwanda, and for the most recent 4 years, the Congo.

3 hours before he got on the plane, a church near where he was staying, where 400 children and some 100 adult refugees were hiding, was discovered by rival faction soldiers, and all 500+ were hacked to pieces with machetes, then thrown into the river.

This was a normal and regular occurrence, just another day in that part of the country, he said.

Congolese child soldiers

Child soldiers are typically aged 7 to 17, and act in groups of 6 to a dozen, with the oldest usually being the leader. The job of the youngest soldiers is to sever, collect, and carry the dismembered hands and feet of dead enemies in baskets. They return to base at night, and show the body parts to commanders as proof of how many they were able to kill, of how well they did that day, hoping to get more food, more drugs, and maybe even a promotion.

The drug of choice for these young soldiers is heroin, sometimes cocaine, cut with gunpowder as an extender, diluted with water. The common method of intake is to soak a piece of cotton with the mixture, and insert it into a slit cut into a cheek on the face, sealed by a bandage — this way the drug slowly and steadily enters the bloodstream, lasting all day, as they carry out their duties.

The camera man was regularly tasked with the documentation of aftermaths of battles, scenes such as fields with hundreds of bodies rotting in the sun. He told of encounters with child soldiers, having the muzzle of a machine gun shoved into his face, and the cold, empty, emotion-less eyes of a 10 year old staring into his own.

One of the common ways to instil pure terror in enemies is through sexual violence. Not only the usual gang rape of both women and men, but doing it with knives, and shooting the genitals with guns. The victims are so humiliated that they usually do not seek medical attention, not that hospitals are readily available in many regions, and die excruciating deaths. Some have managed to somehow survive for years, a fate perhaps not better than death, having to urinate and defecate through wounds which do not properly heal due to daily abrasion and infections.

“Talk about ‘how the other half lives’”, he said.

Congolese refugees

By the most conservative estimate, in what is known as the “Second Congo War” alone, between 1998 and 2006, 5.4 million people have perished from war and war-related causes. The UN has called these conflicts the “worst humanitarian crisis since WW2”; but hardly anyone outside seems to care; and the world looks away.

Many more tens of millions of refugees have been moving from camp to camp, often several times a year, for the past decades. The lucky ones have a single cooking pot that they carry with them on top of the head. At each camp, they are given a piece of plastic and some wood/branches, with which they build a small tent/shelter, after clearing the ground of rocks.

“Upon learning of these realities, those first world citizens who happen to find out about the situation, often ask: ‘what can i do to help’?”, the camera-man continued, “The only possible answer is: ‘Not Much’”, “The various kinds of cosmetic assistance Europeans and USAmericans volunteer for can not amount to anything close to being significant in the face of this kind of massive and extensive suffering. The sad reality is that those who deeply want to help, people with hearts of gold who are devoted to relief, who volunteer in the hospitals and food programs, almost always, before too long, see their own lives fall apart.”

10,000 African lives = 100 Middle Eastern lives = 1 European/US life in capitalist global news media.

This is a well known equation. But to explain the total lack of coverage of conflicts in the Congo in Western media with only racism would be superficial: imperialists have an active interest in focusing popular discourse on race, in order to hide the inner workings of imperialism.

Congolese soldiers

Today and for the past 30 years or so, following many wars in the Central Africa region lead by state actors, the objective for the many decentralised independent warlords and the armies they command is to dominate pieces of land rich with natural resources. Gaining control of territory, setting up mines, and selling them to Western corporations can mean millions in profits — every cell phone in the world uses raw materials from those regions, and most diamonds in the world come from there.

These warlords are nothing short of heroic pioneers of neoliberalism. Having been dealt the worst imaginable hands of cards, they fearlessly “pull themselves up from bootstraps”. Eyes on the prize, driven by an unstoppable determination to succeed, unscrupulously removing all obstacles, they use every conceivable way to get ahead. Laughing while taking risks that would make the most daring Western CEOs lose their minds — their courageous ambition and entrepreneurship spirit knows no bounds. They should be telling their stories on TED to inspire European start-ups.

But virtually only Africans are ever tried for war-crimes in International Criminal Court: these warlords produced by structural injustice, monsters emerging from monstrous circumstances —circumstances designed by people in Washington, Paris, and Brussels who will never be summoned to The Hague.

Rebel General Ntaganda Bosco walks escorted by comrades at his mountain base in Kabati, 25 miles northwest of the provincial capital Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, on January 11, 2009. Ntaganda faces 13 charges of war crimes and five of crimes against humanity at the ICC

Mainstream liberal narratives usually end here.

When a few Hollywood movies (such as Blood Diamonds) or sensationalist media (such as Vice magazine) portrays some of the inhumanity which occurs in regions such as the Congo, it is always devoid of historical/political context, thus hiding the central role of imperialism.

The removal of context in the framing of such phenomenon makes them out to be “Things Which Just Happen”, seemingly without reason.

The erasure of concrete causal factors leaves viewers with no possible explanation, except the default and implicitly racist explanation: that such barbarity occurs due to backwards culture, that “tribal conflict” has always been part of Africa, the Middle East, etc., and the general inability of brown and black people in the Global South to manage their own affairs.

CONTEXT

After 100 years of brutal colonial rule, independence did not result in a brighter day for the nation, but the opposite. The fate of the Congo was sealed by what many have called “the most important assassination of the 20th century”, the 1962 murder of the first Prime Minister of the newly formed Republic.

Patrice Lumumba was a socialist whose platform centered around “Congolese riches for Congolese people”.

Just like other post-independence socialist leaders of former colonies, he wanted economic development for his country, peace, freedom, prosperity, and better lives for his people, by first removing foreign forces of domination, exploitation, and extraction.

The Republic of the Congo has been proclaimed and our beloved country’s future is now in the hands of its own people.

Brothers, let us commence together a new struggle, a sublime struggle that will lead our country to peace, prosperity and greatness.

Together we shall establish social justice and ensure for every man a fair remuneration for his labour.

We shall show the world what the black man can do when working in liberty, and we shall make the Congo the pride of Africa.

We shall see to it that the lands of our native country truly benefit its children.

–– Patrice Lumumba, Speech at the Ceremony of the Proclamation of the Congo’s Independence

Lumumba, election victory

But the private militaries of the rich mining provinces immediately broke away from the new Republic and rebelled. The national bourgeoisie, owners of industry who have been benefiting from colonial arrangements, played their reactionary role here in exactly the same way as in countless other liberation movements. These rebellions that quickly turned into an official coup were aided by Belgium, which officially ceded colonial rule, but sought to keep intact their lucrative mining operations.

Lumumba’s appeal for help to the United Nations was unanswered. His next appeal to the Soviet Union sealed his fate. For in the eyes of Washington, this was the final proof of him being a communist sympathiser; and during the height of the cold-war, the USA wanted to make absolutely certain that this country so rich and with so much potential did not go the way of Cuba.

The assassination attempt US President Eisenhower gave authorisation to failed; but soon after, Lumumba and 2 of his ministers were captured by Belgian forces with assistance from MI6, tortured, and executed, merely 6 months after having been elected to office, at age 35.

This event decided the destiny of the Congo and neighbouring countries for the next 60 years, until today.

Complex power struggles and an endless series of wars and civil wars have plagued Central Africa, unfolding and increasing along with economic decline and total infrastructural dilapidation, perpetuated by the deeply corrupt governments of Washington installed dictators. These Western puppet presidents maintained extreme under-development in a country with very few hospitals, very few schools, very few roads, while purchasing private jets and mansions in Europe, and most importantly: ensuring continued cheap access to Congolese resources by Western corporations.

Lumumba, captured by rebel forces

Lumumba’s Grave
by Langston Hughes

Lumumba was black
And he didn’t trust
The whores all powdered
With uranium dust.

Lumumba was black
And he didn’t believe
The lies thieves shook
Through their “freedom” sieve.

Lumumba was black.
His blood was red –
And for being a man
They killed him dead.

They buried Lumumba
In an unmarked grave.
But he needs no marker –
For air is his grave,
Sun is his grave,
Moon is, stars are,
Space is his grave.

My heart’s his grave,
And it’s marked there.
Tomorrow will mark
It everywhere.

The Highest Stage of Capitalism

The word “imperialism” is often used in political discourse, but its true meaning is often obscured, mistaken, or falsified.

Imperialism is a system of political and economic control exerted by foreign powers that suppresses independent economic development in the host country, and facilitates extraction by foreign entities.

Depending on the particular situation of a host country, any or all of the following methods may be used:

  • removal of democratically elected leaders
  • toppling of disobedient governments
  • destabilisation through fomenting dissent and funding extremism
  • Invasion, proxy wars
  • Accusations of “totalitarianism”, “oppression of their own people”, or “human rights violations” (justification for previous 4)
  • installation of puppet dictators who open the country to foreign vultures
  • fomenting and managing regional conflicts
  • colonial “reparations” and taxation
  • debt bondage through predatory loans
  • “development aid” stipulating political restructuring according to foreign interests
  • “development aid” exclusively focusing on industries of extraction and foreign profits
  • “security aid” in the form of heavy and prolonged military presence in order to, contrary to what their brochures claim, maintain imperialist order

The main aspect which makes imperialism different from its predecessor, colonialism, and what makes it so perniciously difficult to discern, is its often indirectness. Imperialist violence is often not perpetrated by the imperialists, but manifests as phenomenon which arises from economic/political reality created by imperialism. When it is no longer foreign colonists subjugating, abusing, and killing Africans but Africans subjugating, abusing, and killing Africans –– the agency of foreign forces which concoct this state of affairs can be safely moved out of narrative frame.

This divorce of foreground from background, separation of reality from context, and the resultant false conclusions, in turn justifies more imperialism. Such a disastrous state of affairs of course requires further foreign interventions, under the guise of “humanitarianism”.

“Oh my God have you heard about what is happening in the Congo?? We can NOT just stand by and let these people do this to each other! We have to DO SOMETHING!!!”

The narrative violence of moving context and causation out of the frame turns common human compassion and empathy into the crocodile tears of mainstream liberalism, which is used to justify more invasions, more overthrows of anti-imperialist governments, and further imperialist domination.

All of which is of course couched in the language of “aid and partnership programs”. But reality is not deniable: many decades of US military presence in Africa has very clearly not produced any stability or peace. Does anyone actually know what Africom and the dozens of US military bases have been doing in Africa all these years?

Even more sad is when citizens of countries victimised by imperialism fall prey to the false imperialist narrative. I have heard Somalian friends sigh and say about the civil wars that have plagued their country since the 1970s: “We are just a hot blooded people…” Despite the historical reality of Somalia, like many of its surrounding countries, having been peaceful and international centers of human culture, commerce, and civilisation for millennia prior to the arrival of colonists.

illustration, imperialism

The underlying reason for poverty, misery, and chaos in the Congo during the capitalist period is a materialist one: besides coltan, there are vast reserves of cobalt, copper, diamond, tantalum, tin, and gold. Thus the likely single richest place on Earth becomes the poorest and the most victimised under colonialism and imperialism: mired in perpetual poverty, chaos, and war.

The global economy is intimately connected to the conflicts in the Congo, and this reality of pandemic, large scale, and routine misery is designed, created, and maintained by imperialist powers to keep prices low for Western corporations. And the super profits from the brutal robbery of entire continents have gone into the pockets of a very few individuals in the imperial core.

Countless independence era leaders of other former colonies who wanted to give their countries back to the people have been swiftly removed just like Lumumba was. And in their place, right wing military dictatorships have been set up, where possible, by the West to suppress socialism and true independence: Nigeria, Iran, South Korea, Haiti, Guatemala, ElSalvador, Chile, the list goes on and on. At this moment, the same thing is happening in Yemen, where US backed Saudi regime is destroying the country in order to suppress socialism and true independence. And in other places where overt invasion or explicit intervention was not possible, softer methods are used to turn things economically advantageous for the imperialists:

Not counting the imperialist projects of Europe, and besides the overt coups and all-out regime changes, the US Government’s Own Data Shows US Interfered In 81 Foreign Elections.

In the words of Slavoj Žižek, the problem is not that places afflicted with the “resource curse” need to be opened up to Western “democracy” and the “free market”. The problem is precisely that this is the way these places fit into the neo-liberal capitalist world order — as powerless victims.

The primary reason for 20th Century Western prosperity, for increasing wealth in Europe and the USA, for the standards of living having dramatically risen in the developed world, is not the rationality and efficiency of capitalism, but the rationality and efficiency of imperialism (which positioned them to monopolise petroleum). Capitalism does not “create” wealth, it brutally removes wealth from one place to another, from one class to another, from the majority to a few.

And what made possible the pernicious illusion of peace and stability in the Western World (which Westerners mistaken for The World) since WW2, as nauseatingly championed by unconscionable liars such as Steven Pinker, is the improvement of average living standards in the imperialist countries, having been made rich by imperialism. The exploitative and oppressive violence of imperialism can be totally ignored and discounted, when it is removed from the imperial core to the periphery, exported to far away shores.

On some level, it is simply very difficult, or entirely impossible, for people born with indoor-plumbing and electricity, for people on the beneficial end of imperialism, to understand imperialism, what it is, what it does, its effects, and the lived experience of those on the other end.

Congolese refugees singing

Some Soukous came on my itunes play list, and the camera man told of the smiles instantly lighting up Congolese faces when they hear music, as they immediately get up to dance. For millions, music is literally the only good thing they know, the only good thing in their lives.

The Congo is of course not only rich in natural resources, but also home to extremely numerous, diverse, and culturally rich ethnicities which have produced the most advanced music, sophisticated design, innovative art, profound philosophies, vast medicinal knowledge, and amazing political, social, spiritual traditions.

The deeper reason for Africa’s subjugation was of course that African cultures, at the time of colonisation, just like all indigenous cultures fallen prey to colonialism, have always tended to focus their energies on soft sciences and humanistic technologies, instead of the production of steel and weaponry, the mastery of empire and war.

The only way to solve structural problem is with structural solutions. The only way to end materially motivated crimes is by changing material reality. The only way to defeat imperialism is by developing the independent strength of victim countries. The only way to strengthen former colonies under the boot of imperialism is by investing in their economies, by building infrastructure, by forming an initial economic base on (usually) manufacturing, by growing regional, and later international, trade. This is a central aim of the Belt and Road Initiative from the Communist Party of China. Since Chinese engagement on the continent, manufacturing has risen by 10%, and some 200+million have been lifted out of poverty.

When the global playing field becomes more even, the possibility of domination decreases.

Africa is Rising

Today imperialism is in retreat, and imperialist hegemony, the “Full Spectrum Dominance” of the USA, is under threat, due to internal contradictions as well as the rise of anti-imperialist powers such as China, Russia, etc. The recent attempts to launch coups in Venezuela and Iran have been unsuccessful. The attempts to destabilise China by funding terrorism and separatism in XinJiang and HongKong have also been fruitless. The imperialist empire can no longer easily do anything it pleases, like it has been able to since the fall of the USSR, destroying a series of countries one after another, from Afghanistan to Libya.

Thus the imperialists have been intentionally creating confusion about imperialism, and are accusing anti-imperialists of imperialism.

It is pure imperialist distortion to call the anti-imperialist nations’, in this case Russia’s, control of surrounding territories, which would be used by the USA to launch attacks against them, imperialism. It is pure imperialist obfuscation to equate things like investment, infrastructure building, trade, or the “export of financial capital”, with imperialism.

During these years in which centuries are happening, it is crucial that we clearly see and fully understand imperialism, its illusions, and its lies.

In this dynamic period of global transition, when the old imperialist world order is crumbling, when socialism is rising, when a multi-polar world is beginning to emerge, we especially need to think in a more dynamic way, combining geopolitical with class/materialist analysis.

Today exists both the possibility of great disaster, in the form of a last imperialist war and others produced by the contradictions of capitalism, as well as great promise of a more peaceful, just, cooperative, and sustainable future. Like the Congo, the Earth itself is a victim of imperialism; and while we need no other reasons, ecology is another urgent call for the end of profit driven destruction.

Lets all work together against imperialism and its attendant mainstream liberalism, for a better tomorrow.

Children’s book illustration

Radical Politics, Radical Design, Radical Rhythm, Radical Optimism. goodsforthepeople.com