Friday, 27 July 2012

'It is the morality of altruism that men have to reject': Why I find Rand's Objectivism Objectionable


"I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine"- John Galt, Atlas Shrugged

Most philosophies, even those who are particularly detrimental in their consequence, have redeeming features: nihilism (broadly the idea that life has no meaning) provides an interesting criticism of the concept of meaning and anarchism validly points out that states have overreached boundaries in many circumstances. But Rand's Objectivism, cannot be redeemed as it is founded on the premise that, to quote Rand of "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute". This sounds fine on the surface- why can't we be self-interested? But instead of justifying this belief in self-interest via the outcomes it produces or recognising its limitations, Rand's idea just attempts to cut off all that is good about human beings (charity, altruism and cooperation) and replace it with a cold, calculating society. Indeed, Rand is so devoid of feeling- the despondency of nihilists, the anger of reactionary conservatism or the somewhat na├»ve hopefulness of communitarianism- that it is difficult to tell on reading her whether she is talking about the same species of Homo sapiens that I interact with daily. 

I want to chart my objections to Rand on two levels: a slightly more esoteric look at why I think Rand's ideas are morally bankrupt and a pragmatic look at why Rand should never, ever be used as a basis for policy making.

'To say "I love you" one must first be able to say the "I."'- The Sterile Self Interest of Rand's Philosophy
In the Groundwork, Immanuel Kant conceived of humans as the ends in themselves- that is we should treat other people (and ourselves) as ends, rather than means to an end. Now Kant's philosophy obviously has problems- what about in purely economic transactions? Why is it silent about animals? But it brings up the important point that to be moral in any sense, we can't just aim for ourselves and ourselves alone. Yet Rand would have the individual only ever act for themselves- when it is clear that human society is based on cooperation and reciprocity. It is worth presenting a more detailed rebuttal of this kind of individualism before I get to why I find it to be morally reprehensible rather than just incorrect.

Rand argues that by choosing to think, humans can liberate themselves from the tyranny of being yoked to others, a logical consequence of a person's primary obligation which she thinks is one's own wellbeing. She believes that humans have a choice to think, and rational thought will necessarily lead them to Rand's philosophy. Setting aside this supreme arrogance, one of the examples she cites is that "He cannot obtain his food without knowledge of food and of the way to obtain it. He cannot dig a ditch––or build a cyclotron––without a knowledge of his aim and the means to achieve it. To remain alive, he must think" (Atlas Shrugged). Now this is odd- because her examples are all examples of what we need other people for - gaining knowledge and tools to survive in the world. All human societies, but especially the capitalist societies Ayn praises are rooted in trust and cooperation- because the market isn't a natural state- it relies on trust for its very survival. Indeed contra Margaret Thatcher, there is such a thing as society- it is based in the cooperative social relations of semi-autonomous semi-rational individuals with overlapping state, market and social institutions. Humans cannot reason just for themselves- both because we have evolved to be happier when other people are (so called other-regarding preferences) and because as I will later elaborate on, to do so would be a disaster.

But why is this immoral, rather than just factually inaccurate? I will borrow another of Kant's ideas as an 'intuition pump' (i.e. my argument will not rely on it, but it helps to illustrate a point), that of the 'categorical imperative' or basically that any moral law should be universal, without regard to circumstance. Now, if everyone applied Rand's morality or i.e. if Rand's thoughts were taken to be universal- the consequences would be monstrous! We have enough problems in our society as it is with self-regarding people (think of the consequences of crime or unrestrained uses of power). We would have no regard for the vulnerable, or disadvantaged- no social progression, only the inevitable march towards violent anarchy. This is important because Rand wants her principle to be universal, rather than say historically contingent on post-industrial capitalism. Even if it was contingent, this presents even larger problems for her philosophy, it is empirically true of modern society even more than every previous society that it can only function by cooperation- meaning the application of any of Rand's principles would not lead to more freedom, but rather societal collapse. 

Further, if morality is 'having a good will' or doing what is 'right', the ability to fully determine that for ourselves despite the consequences for others- seems both contradictory and downright criminal (why can we just disregard all others?- Rand is not particularly clear on this point). Now, I would not claim that everyone should follow Comte's maxim that we should all live for others, but any practical morality must include both other- and self-regarding components, otherwise in my view we may as well give up on humanity. 

But the lack of moral value aside, what briefly are the pragmatic outcomes of Rand?

"Wealth is the product of man's capacity to think"- The Practical Consequences of Randian Thinking
I want to briefly illustrate now three ways Objectivism is a real-life disaster: what would happen if some people took on Rand's worldview, what would happen if everyone did and some actual examples of Objectivists as policy-makers.

In Anthem, Rand acknowledges that the earlier is more likely as "The truth is not for all men, but only for those who seek it" (Rand also acknowledges that in various places not all people will 'think' enough to embrace her ideas). This would likely lead to Objectivists trying to manipulate others as to increase their own happiness- as without proper regard for others or society at large, many of our innate moral precepts cease to have real meaning. On a policy level, Objectivists would agitate for the abolition of 'coercive' government structures- such important social mechanisms as any kind of welfare, public goods: indeed most things that governments do. While it is their right to do so- these policies would lead to the kind of outcomes detailed in the next paragraph.

If for some horrible reason we all became Objectivists, something similar to what I discussed earlier would happen- the state would retreat into such minimalism that it could not function (Rand wants the slow abolition of all taxes) and society itself would never be able to fill the gap that the state previously had. Especially when all members of society now treat themselves as the only end to any means. But what has this looked like before?

Two prominent disciples of Rand are Paul Ryan (although he's released contradictory statements to try and hide this) and Alan Greenspan. Ryan's budget, drawing on Rand's principle of pulling back any coercion of individuals, would fundamentally wreck the balance of income distribution in the United States and would ruin the already struggling United States healthcare system. Greenspan, the former US Federal Reserve chief cited Rand as one of his primary influences in his stewardship of the US economy towards the oblivion of 2007 by pursuing ruthlessly pro-business and anti-regulation policies.

Conclusion- Where to from here?
I should note at this point that I don't find Objectivists themselves immoral- many of them are quite lovely people, partly because I've never actually met anyone who acted as Rand would have them do in real life (even if it affects their political views). But I do think that Rand's thinking is a dangerous virus that can infect the impressionable and ruin political debate with its dogmatic insistence on the primacy of individual self-interest. We should all inoculate ourselves against such thinking.

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Dan Gibbons is a third year Bachelor of Commerce (Economics) student at the University of Melbourne. He has a forthcoming publication in Intergraph: A Journal of Dialogic Anthropology (about memory and nationalism) and is currently submitting papers on the rise of modern consumerism, the role of criminology theory in literary criticism and the institutional theory of nationalism. Dan is a keen debater and public speaker.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Almost Human: On Great Apes, Selfhood and Rights


The Great Apes are always seen as humanlike- probably why films like The Planet of the Apes resonate so much- after all could we really relate to a 'Planet of the Elephants' even if we know elephants are intelligent? And when we see apes in pain or being mistreated this tends to again tear at our heart strings more than most animals, save in Western cultures perhaps dogs or cats. While we aren't directly descended from chimpanzees (contra Darwin's initial musings on human evolution), we are very closely related- so this does indeed make sense. But is there a scientific basis to this feeling that we aren't too different from apes?

In particular, after a recent Australs debate (to the effect of that this house would grant the great apes more rights than other animals), I was prompted to think about some of the scientific underpinnings of that debate- do apes have selfhood? Should we grant rights on this basis? Do apes have unique cognitive capabilities? This very complex series of questions is far too much for a blog post of this length to entirely deal with- so for those particularly interested I recommend The Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal, or indeed any of de Waal's masterful works. I will briefly outline two claims: apes have many humanlike capacities and do have selfhood (or something very closely equivalent) and that attendant to this we should grant animal rights on a spectrum (because they should exist for purposes that aren't just for human benefit).


"Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil's pawn": What separates apes from man?
A good summary answer would be: effectively, a lot of apes' capacities are simply gradations of fully mentally able human capacities. 

Let's start with recognising others: that capability is a lot more basic- it exists in a lot more species than can recognise themselves- for instance social insects are aware of what the other members of the colony are feeling but hardly care much for their own being. The most basic capacity of any social creature is emotional contagion- that is, the ability to perceive others' emotions and feel them yourself. This is what newborn babies in hospitals can do- cry when others cry, even if they don't know why they do this. The next stage is consolation- this is what the higher primate species (as well as dolphins, some lower primates and a few other species) can do- have direct concern for others. An example is that male chimpanzees are often comforted by direct relatives and friends after losing a fight. The final kind is targeted helping- so for example, if you hear a scream and know that you should go and rush to deal with the danger itself. This exists somewhat in non-hominid higher primates, but humans do have a more finely attuned capacity to this (though this has negative effects to- it enhances our capacity to torture as well). Humans do indeed also have a more evolved capacity for imitation- giving rise to stronger memes or 'units of cultural transmission' (analogous though not the same as genes). 

More controversial though, is the question of whether we can find selfhood in non-human animals. This is a very philosophical question (with increasing argumentation from psychologists like Susan Blackmore that the idea of a truly independent self doesn't exist at all- see her book The Meme Machine), so I will largely leave treatment just to self-recognition. One standard test of self-recognition is to put a dab (that is visible but impossible to feel) on an animal's forehead (or equivalent) and see if they try to rub it off when they see themselves in a mirror. Now, in a very young human child (say less than 2) if you try this- they can't yet recognise themselves and so they don't try and rub the dab off. But in an older child or chimpanzee they will indeed try and rub the mark off- showing that they recognise that it is indeed themselves in the mirror (this circumvents the problem of having to ask children or chimps). 

The fact that these capacities exist in non-humans isn't troubling at all- if it didn't, the traits would be evolutionarily new and thus not particularly 'deep' in our neural architecture. As de Waal notes in The Age of Empathy, if we were the only species to recognise ourselves and feel empathy- these would be particularly weak traits of ours- and this is certainly not the case.

So, humans are only separated from apes by gradations of these capacities- not the cosmic leaps that were once supposed in the philosophy of mind (and what a relief- such philosophies are so supremely arrogant about humans that they were often allied with attempts to put our little rock of a planet in the centre of the universe).


How Should We Grant Rights Then?
I would find granting rights merely on capabilities deeply problematic- I am not a professional philosopher, but it would seem to me that there is little distinction between the capabilities of the mentally impaired or young children and particular animal species, yet I would prefer the state to give more rights to the humans (and certainly never withdraw rights wherever they can be given on the basis of incapacity alone). But a capability consideration in how we view rights seems to make intuitive sense- fish after all feel pain in a less brutal way than a chimpanzee does, and I would feel much less guilty about the pain of a fish.

I would therefore propose that animal rights exist on a spectrum (which is already partly recognised in law, but I think should be changed to reflect human purposes less). Obviously there are other reasons to give animal rights- torturing animals reflects badly on humans and also society wants to minimise the amount of pain in the world. But to the extent that rights to animals are 'inherent' (which I would argue they partly are), I would say they need to be reframed in the context of the capacities of that animal. And possibly not even how 'human' they are- but merely in the contexts of empathy and selfhood (for example if animals had other ways of expressing either of those ideas, it would still make sense to grant them rights).

In particular, such rights might included being treated differently in experimental trials or having particular guarantees on the kinds of environments in which Great Apes are kept.

Conclusion
Any ethical conversation, particularly about animals, is always very divisive. But this post has attempted to explain a few of the surface scientific and philosophical issues about the Great Apes and their rights. In particular, it has claimed that they have a kind of selfhood, and so should be afforded more rights on a spectrum. After all, if Great Apes are so like us- it should be unbearable to see them suffer.
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Dan Gibbons is a third year Bachelor of Commerce (Economics) student at the University of Melbourne. He has a forthcoming publication in Intergraph: A Journal of Dialogic Anthropology (about memory and nationalism) and is currently submitting papers on the rise of modern consumerism, the role of criminology theory in literary criticism and the institutional theory of nationalism. Dan is a keen debater and public speaker.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

''Sing if you're glad to be gay. Sing if you're happy that way": Modern Sexual Identity and an Interrogation of the 'It's biological!' argument



N.B. This article primarily concerns sexuality, so in most cases I mean ‘gay’ in the sense of alternate sexuality (e.g. LGBQQ etc). While the I and T in LGBTIQQ are very important, they fundamentally rest on different issues.

In 1976 when Tom Robinson sang 'Glad to be Gay', it was an intentionally provocative song about police brutality, anti-gay violence and the need for solidarity amongst gay men against broader social oppression. The gay community at the time was largely focused (as they had to be) on the legalisation of sodomy and stopping particular forms of anti-gay violence. As such, one of the arguments put forward for gay rights at the time was that being gay is/was 'found in nature' or 'genetic', a sort of born-with predisposition to homosexuality (or bisexuality etc.). This argument is trotted out time and again, generally not by activists formally but often enough in informal conversation that I decided to write out my strong objections to it.

I for one think this argument was at best useful for a particular purpose at a particular time and at worst is actively harmful to the cause. I am 'Glad to be Gay' for precisely the reason Tom Robinson puts forward implicitly- no matter what anyone else thinks, it is an important part of who I am, not some genetic disease. I want to discuss two controversies that to me demonstrate the absurdity of what I will call the 'biological determinism argument' (for sexuality and associated rights): the search for the 'gay gene' and an absurd controversy over penguins.

Personally, I'd like homosexual (also bisexual, pansexual etc) love and people of all sexualities broadly to be respected not because of any biological reason but because it is the decent human thing to do. I would like to note that it is almost definitely true that sexuality has a biological component (although along a spectrum and with role for social influences). I just don't think this is a good or relevant argument to the continued debate over social and legal rights.

'Sing if you're glad to be gay': The Curious Case of the Search for the Gay Gene
I should first note, scientists can search for what they like, I am not suggesting that any research into the genetic determinants of sexuality should be stopped (actually such papers are very interesting). What concerns me is the obsession in some quarters with stating that there is a ‘genetic predisposition to homosexuality’- yes, this is true but an unhelpful political argument.

The first reason for this is such research is easily used by opponents of gay rights against gay people- for instance when a National Organisation of Marriage (an American group opposed to gay marriage) board member said that “our scientific efforts in regard to homosexuality should be to identify genetic and uterine causes... so that the incidence of this dysfunction can be minimized”. This is particularly a problem when gay rights activists use language that predicates the idea of tolerance on acceptance of this biological argument. Now, this is not to argue that sexuality is so fluid that through some sort of conversion therapy that people would be able to change it. There is significant evidence that sexuality is partly genetically determined and that to an extent it is largely unchanged over a person’s adult life. Regardless, we should allow people to sexually identify how they like- whether that be gay or queer or pansexual or bisexual – because the meaning of the Sexual Revolution broadly was meant to be more freedom not consignment to a Foucault-style cage.

Secondly, this argument isn’t very persuasive prima facie and can even lead to divisions within the queer community. Saying that something is biological destiny isn’t a particularly good argument for legalising the behaviours, relationship and family structures etc. that are associated with that biological predisposition. Take for example, most of the paraphilias (the ‘atypical and extreme’ sexualities e.g. non-human objects or children) – there is some (though conflicting) evidence that such sexuality has a biological component and we should never, ever legalise the behaviour associated with such mindsets. This is particularly true because adults can rationally consent to homosexual acts. To do so would be to commit the naturalistic fallacy- that is to confuse what is biologically with what ought to be morally.

In a similar vein, the reason that homosexuality and bisexuality are socially valid and should be allowed legally is that there is no harm to anyone involved. Even if it were true that people chose to be gay (which I am not suggesting is true), it should still be true that we allowed people to sleep with their own gender and form relationships with their own gender if they wished because that love/those sexual acts are fundamentally not harmful and those acts/relationships bring utility to people. Further, the line of argument has even been turned at times on bisexual people to claim that they ‘just aren’t gay yet’ or are ‘self-hating’, which is to confuse sexuality (and romantic feelings) with an awful, narrow binary between heterosexuality and homosexuality.

But how did penguins become involved, you ask?

‘And Tango Makes Three’: How Two “Gay” Penguins became an Absurd Political Issue

Roy and Silo were two male Chinstrap Penguins at the Central Park Zoo, who in 1998 formed an all-male couple and were eventually given an egg to hatch together by zookeepers after they attempted to hatch a rock. Now, like all penguins they are pretty adorable- but they became mired in political controversy for two reasons: 1) there was a farcical debate between the Christian Right and the liberal Left about whether this situation was ‘moral’ and 2) a (very good) children’s book was made about the pair called And Tango Makes Three.

In the first instance, controversy erupted over whether the pair constituted evidence that homosexuality is found in nature. Now, calling penguins gay is queer in the very old sense of the term as odd, while animals may have homosexual sex (although there is no record of Roy & Silo doing this), this doesn’t make them any more gay than an otherwise heterosexual human male who has sex with a man once. Because animals don’t define themselves they by definition cannot be ‘gay’, merely they might form pairings of the same gender or have sexual relations with members of their own gender. It would be truly bizarre if homosexual behaviour had evolved in penguins and humans for the same reasons- it would more likely be a case of convergent evolution, where the same trait is acquired by different lineages (for example bats and pterosaurs both evolved wings for flying).

But this was nothing compared to the reactions when the couple split up and Silo found a female partner called Scrappy. Focus on the Family declared “for those who have pointed to Roy and Silo as models for us all, these developments must be disappointing. Some gay activists might actually be angry”. Luckily, the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce responded that the “actions of two penguins is not a good way of answering the question of whether sexual orientation is a choice or a birthright”—but to me this demonstrates the danger of this argument.


And then in 2005, Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson authored And Tango Makes Three, a children’s book based on the two birds (their chick was named Tango), which was intended to explain same-sex parenting to kids. The point here wasn’t that sexuality was found in nature, as both some pro- and anti-gay groups supposed, it was just a fun way to explain same-sex parenting to kids!

So, as this particular controversy demonstrates any nature-based arguments surrounding homosexuality are quite silly.

Conclusion
I believe that arguments for gay rights should solely focus on the necessity and utility of freedom for LGBTIQQ people rather than commit a naturalistic fallacy of discussing whether being queer is ‘natural’. Because I’m glad to be gay, whether I was genetically made this way or not. 
--
Dan Gibbons is a third year Bachelor of Commerce (Economics) student at the University of Melbourne. He has a forthcoming publication in Intergraph: A Journal of Dialogic Anthropology (about memory and nationalism) and is currently submitting papers on the rise of modern consumerism, the role of criminology theory in literary criticism and the institutional theory of nationalism. Dan is a keen debater and public speaker.

Monday, 2 July 2012

China's 'Bread and Butter Question' and the New Scramble for Africa

This is an edited text of a paper submitted to 'Contribute' Magazine, the publication of UQ's United Nations Student Association

In January this year, an interesting guest attended the opening ceremony of the new African Union headquarters building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Jia Qinglin, the fourth ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China. Amazingly, the entire US$200 million construction project (everything from raw materials to interior furnishings) was bankrolled by the Chinese government. This is a profound exemplification of the Sino-African union in the changing economic and political landscape of the twenty first century.

The isolationist foreign policy of the Middle Kingdom is no more. Indeed, since the economic reforms and Open Door Policy of Deng Xiaoping (1978), China has been at the forefront of the global economy and international trade. Since 1999, the ‘Go out Policy’ has become the primary framework defining China’s investment in, and exploitation of, expanding regional and international markets. As the example of the Chinese donation of the new African Union headquarters suggests, Africa has been the major focus of China in recent years. China needs the continent’s natural resources to augment its (already) unprecedented industrial growth. Channelled through its state-owned enterprises (and defined by a large migratory flows of Chinese nationals), Chinese capital has often crowded out any local or regional economic actors. Although the ‘Go out Policy’ has been at the fore of Chinese economic activities in Africa, the so-called peaceful rise (marked by soft power, non-interference and responsible world leadership) also characterises the Sino-African relationship. At the opening ceremony of the new African Union headquarters, China reaffirmed this commitment: Jia Qinglin remarked, “China will firmly support African countries in their efforts to uphold sovereignty and independence and to resolve African issues on their own.”

China has reignited the scramble for Africa and is seemingly reigning as the Rhodes Colossus. In recent years, it has been the largest single source of financial aid and foreign investment for Sub-Saharan Africa. Last year, trade amounted to US$120 billion, surpassing the United States and the European Union. This this comes at no coincidence, given China’s newfound status as the world’s largest energy user, according to the International Energy Agency. The resource extraction has been further complimented by a large inflow of Chinese nationals into the continent (with Chinese state owned enterprises now dominating the economic landscape). Sanou Mbaye, a former senior official of the African Development Bank, states, “more Chinese have come to Africa in the past ten years than Europeans in the past 400. First came Chinese from state-owned corporations, but more and more arrive solo or stay behind after finishing contract work.” The new Chinese entrepreneurial movement has excelled with government support. Notwithstanding the continental disincentives of civil wars, institutional corruption, political instability and (recently) the GFC, China has been capitalising on the lack of Western competition. Indeed, negotiations with African governments (particularly those with records of human rights abuse) have proven remarkably straight-forward for Chinese investors. Chinese investment is afforded protective security by African governments through legitimate reciprocal trade agreements, but also through corruption. Suffice to say, these cacophonous relations show no signs of quietening down. On the diplomatic front, China has more embassies and diplomatic postings in Africa than the United States and European Union combined. In 2000, the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was established and its 2006 ministerial meeting was the largest diplomatic forum in both modern Chinese and African history.

In the wake of the United States’ waning influence and Europe’s economic woes, many consider that the Middle Kingdom is heavily engaged in neo-imperialism throughout Africa’s postcolonial states. In 2006, then UK Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, criticised China as neo-imperialist, remarking, “most of what China has been doing in Africa today is what we did in Africa 150 years ago.” In 2011, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, warned Africa of a “new colonialism”. Although not explicitly naming China, she did urge greater scrutiny of its investments in Africa. Nevertheless, the character of Sino-African relations is markedly different from that of the continent with European and American relationships. Now, it is investing in industry and infrastructure and importing resources and goods; though this largely centres upon the extraction of largely finite resources, China has also invested in telecommunications, financial services, and energy infrastructure. Sino-African relations are officially guided by the policy of ‘mutual benefits’ and bilateral economic cooperation. Drawing upon this policy’s profoundly positive developments, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi recently stated, “The future prospects of the [Sino-African] partnership have never been brighter. China’s amazing re-emergence and its commitments for a win-win partnership with Africa is one of the reasons for the beginning of the African renaissance.”

In exchange for these developments, China has received large contracts from African governments and priority with respect to to the extraction of natural resources. In 2007, China signed a US$9 billion dollar mining agreement with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, constituting 68 per cent of the latter’s annual mining revenue. In return, the Congo received hospitals, schools and 6000 kilometres of railway and road infrastructure all financed by China. Without Chinese textile corporations, unemployment in the South African town of Newcastle would be over 80%. Workers are paid approximately US$200 per month, which is greater than in China, but still less than South Africa’s minimum wage. The local unions have tried to shut these textile factories down, but a majority of the workers consider a poorly paid job to be better than none at all. 

Whilst many Africans perceive the West’s demeanour as condescending, the Chinese ostensibly manage their relationship with Africa as a serious business partnership. As Faida Mitifu, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Ambassador to the United Nations said, “There are people who still consider Africans like children who can be easily manipulated. The good thing about the [Sino-African] partnership is that it’s sincere and give and take.” On the surface it does – in fact – seem that China is improving Africa’s wellbeing through its trade, investments and financial aid.

Whilst the official policy guiding Sino-African relations is of ‘mutual benefits,’ the primary rationale for Chinese involvement is out of economic necessity and hunger for resources. Consequently, whilst official government statements report on the positive friendship, there are widespread claims of human rights abuses, poor working conditions and environmental degradation leading to a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment and xenophobia on the continent. As evidenced by oil spills in Sudan and Gabon, weekly deaths in Zambia’s Chinese-controlled mines, slapdash construction in Guinea and endemic corruption in some African governments, China has inflicted substantial harm across the continent.

Amongst other continental statesmen, the Environment Minister of Zimbabwe has been an active critic of the Chinese, calling them “makorokoza”, a scornful local term for criminals. Thus, to avoid condemnation from African governments, the Chinese have engaged in bribery and coercion. Chinese managers have bribed government ministers and even taken some on ‘study tours’ to massage parlours in China. Obstructionist African midlevel officials are sacked and workers who assemble in groups are dispersed with rubber bullets. In the rare event that cases do end up in local courts, there have been reports that witnesses are intimidated and judges being paid off.

China has become just as embedded in the African continent as the minerals and oil that its state-owned companies are extracting. Whether through massive migration of Chinese nationals or the perpetual presence of state owned enterprises, China is seemingly, at least to some Western officials (such as Clinton and Straw) and local African populations, colonising the African continent. But this begs the proverbial question: is this really neo-imperialism and, akin to the Scramble for Africa of the late 19th and early 20th centuries? On balance, the answer is ‘no’; there is a lack of cogency between the plethora of Chinese corporations and the heterogeneity of Chinese private entrepreneurs. China is simply being a rational economic powerhouse and seizing the opportunity to exploit the resources and markets in Africa to fuel its own economy.

This points to an even more important question – is a Chinese monopoly on Africa’s natural, economic and political capital good for the world economy? Obviously a monopoly in any market is detrimental, but is China alone to blame for crowding out other regional and international actors? Arguably Western nations are equally if not more to blame – Europeans and Americans exploited the natural resources of the continent through imperialism and are responsible for the some of the most intense ethnic violence in history. Many Africans have felt that the West has abandoned their plight. Indeed since the 1980s, with increased civil wars and ethnic violence, and with the global financial crisis since 2008, there has been an apparent lack of political and corporate willingness in the West to invest in infrastructure and industry on the Africa continent.

Although China’s monopoly on African markets and industries may be regarded as a form of economic imperialism, it fundamentally differs from the character of historical European colonialism in Africa. The driving forces of European colonialism were administrative, political and cultural. European nations attempted to maintain cultural hegemony over African colonies, importing customs from food to sports and entrenching political and legal institutions. The British implanted the common law system and cricket in Kenya; the French implanted language and pastries in the Ivory Coast. Not bound by such administrative or cultural hegemony, the underlying motivations for Sino-African relations are marked by a deep paranoia over energy security by the Chinese government.

China has decidedly operated like a private corporation in a Western nation – prioritising profit and only caring about social responsibility and public administration when it serves a purpose. It has rationally sought to exploit African resources for its factories that are fuelling the global economy and making the cheap products that we in the West consume. Surging foreign direct investment from China has substantially affected Africa’s economic prospects and continental infrastructure networks. Indeed, according to Johnnie Carson, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, “China is a very aggressive and pernicious economic competitor with no morals. China is not in Africa for altruistic reasons. China is in Africa for China primarily.” During the nineteenth century, the British Empire was widely regarded as a mercantile powerhouse ‘upon which the sun would never set’. Today, it is perhaps more appropriate to reason that ‘the sun never sets on Chinese investment’. Notwithstanding speculation as to the future character of its political hegemony in Africa, Beijing’s insatiable appetite for natural resources will define the growing presence of Chinese investment throughout the African continent.

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Tasman Bain is a second year Bachelor of Arts (Anthropology) and Bachelor of Social Science (International Development) Student at the University of Queensland. He is interested evolutionary anthropology, public economics and philosophy of science and enjoys endurance running, reading Douglas Adams, and playing the glockenspiel.