All Eyes On The Margins: The Culture Industry and Labor Relations in East Africa

By Authentically Plastic

The past decade has seen a surge of interest in East Africa’s cultural output; much of it on the heels of the Africa Rising narrative that dominated socio-economic discussion about the continent in the early 2010’s. Interest has also come from the sonic mutations that have surfaced in its underground scene. This wave of interest has resulted in new interactions between Europe’s Culture Industry and African artists. These encounters, loaded as they are with power differentials, are the site of a unique kind of violence, by institutions, and institution-backed individuals. It’s important to draw connections between the exploitative actions of individuals and the very real, yet imperceptible systematic relations that make such actions possible. Consider this text an attempt at rendering these forces visible.

Capitalism has a tendency towards over-accumulation, and this is its major weakness. As a result, the west is constantly in search of ever new places to relieve itself of excess Capital & Labor, while generating goodwill. The recent build-up of interest in East Africa’s cultural scene means it has become fertile ground for western cultural institutions and companies who mimic this relief by mobilizing new artistic potentials and charity initiatives. This funding industrial complex is essential for capitalism, it provides valid relief channels for Western over-accumulation. This release of surplus at the margins delays the crisis tendencies of capitalism in the center. Cultural production gives global capital the human face it needs to continue to extend its reach, unencumbered and unquestioned.

Music & art have the tendency towards bringing together the most different people, the most disparate interests. This is essential to creating interesting happenings and hybrid forms that go beyond the simple aim of producing more spectacle & entertainment for the west. However, in this collision of worlds and its excess of possibility, African artists have to confront global capitalist interests, often disguised as charity, social entrepreneurship, or as an artistic practice. It is interesting to see how these engagements play out in the fields of art & music, where the fluidity of the artistic process and its resistance to measurement facilitates a field that is ripe for exploitation and abuse while remaining largely invisible. Conceptual contribution to musical/artistic projects, in general, is difficult to quantify, this is problematized further by the inability of many African artists to transpose their conceptual ideas into concrete, institutional language. This inability is inessential, as it is the result of the disparity in access to education between the global north & south. This, however, has no bearing on the infinite value of the conceptual, technical & social knowledge of African artists. Here we have a scenario in which the person who has mastery over language becomes a medium of capital.

The dominant systems of creative knowledge ownership in the west are heavily dependent on this ability to describe one’s work subtly & succinctly in a colonial language; to make oneself available to institutional capture. As a result, African artists are frequently at risk of having their conceptual output appropriated or their creative labor outright stolen. The fact that our governments have done nothing to support artistic production, let alone indigenous cultural institutions, places the African artist/cultural worker in an ostensibly groundless position. This creates problems for the encounters between Europe & Africa that are played out in the cultural scene. This groundlessness of the margins makes institutional capture difficult, but make the cultural field ripe to harvest from. It gives the African artist an aura of that “authenticity”, that rawness, which many western institutions/individuals are more than happy to appropriate at all costs, or even worse, at no cost. People in the Global South are perpetually fucked by western capital.

There’s a sense in which Kampala has become the kind of place through which a myriad of cultures and sounds pass. Here, a multitude of worlds & tendencies effortlessly reside next to each other, criss-crossing, overlapping, but never congealing into a unified whole. The more one leaves this city, the more one is struck by its freedom of movement which is hard to encounter elsewhere. Glaring ‘falsity and realness’ in the same breath, the most banal and the most singular. The assault of radically different styles intersecting, interpenetrating, cutting each other up. The persistent feeling of being a partial object. Multiple presents encroaching upon each other. All the decisive as well as accidental breaks in experience. Field of difference. City without style. It is true, Kampala has something about it resembling what I imagine to be the Smooth Space [1] of Blackness; with its sympathy for different time regimes, varied styles of embodiment, its multiplicity of rhythms & speeds. It is an especially complex and contradictory field of relations, in which this corporeal mobility is everywhere accompanied by the most unbearable stasis & entrenchment.

Kampala also feels like a social field in which containment is fetishized. Containment is played out in the production of space itself; blockage for blockage’s sake, prohibition, enclosure, fixity, body discipline. The experience of schooling, hospitalization, and work in this country amounts to an arena of cruelty, in which the old traumatize the young, and men luxuriate in the labor of women & children. Punishment and violence, whether deployed by The State, or The Father, is often spectacular; it has a surplus function. This is a traumatized and traumatizing social body. The relations between institutions and men, men and the family, the family and women, women and their domestic workers, domestic workers and their own domestic workers; are endless webs of containment & extraction for a society in which there is so little capital, yet more than enough desperation to go around for everyone. Uganda is a kind of desert in which capital appears in ghostly flashes here and there; all the more seductive and corrupting in its ephemerality. A society in which you too can be a small-time capitalist, of some sort; thank god. This is a landscape loaded with strife and resentment, but also, maximum enjoyment. And yet, we have something here resembling a more humane future, with our relatively diffuse systems of land ownership, the effortless coexistence of different flows & rhythms, our communal ethics of care. A forcefield of spectacular cruelty but also abundant tenderness, care, sympathy like no other. The neo-colonial subject gazes upon this contradictory melange, and it inspires in her/him nothing more than an impulse to striate; to impose regularity & cadence on this stuttering social body.

It is against this backdrop of apparent abjection that we get new and dangerous subject-positions, such as the expat manager, who despite not having developed any of the self-discipline one would assume is necessary to run an institution, nevertheless seeks to impose this discipline & restraint on his/her African colleagues/workers, while maintaining maximum enjoyment for themselves. These striating forces also find their personification in the Social Entrepreneur, who while invoking “The Community” as the main reason for their endeavors, nevertheless continues to pay more to western workers than to locals. In music and art, this finds its expression in the western artist, who in their collaborations with local artists, insists on the superior value of his/her artistic labor, backed up by the institutional & financial might of the west. The cultural field is one in which this value-judgment between the conceptual contributions of the African and western artist is repeatedly made. The possibility for institutional violence lies in this charged moment.

“Managers need to be less like Henry Ford, and more like Sigmund Freud!”, The Economist Magazine decrees with prophetic gusto. In this age of unparalleled mobility, we have arrived at a point in which new forms of psychic enslavement are needed to produce perfectly conformist individuals. Here we have management as a psychological sport, marketing as the soul of the corporation [2]. The new soft-power techniques of Europe rely on this orientation of social control. Cultural Institutions are often the face of this new “soft” approach at the margins. In Gilles Deleuze’s seminal essay, Post-Script on the Societies of Control [2], he makes a distinction between Disciplinary Societies & Control Societies to talk about how western power now plays in the latter domain. The new Control Societies of the west have ushered in an era of “capitalism with a human face”. In this regime, both the disciplinary hand of the boss, and the contained space of labor extraction, are nowhere in sight. There’s a sense in which post-modern bosses don’t even like to be called “boss”, they prefer “coordinator”, “facilitator”, or some other fuzzy term [3]. Power relations increasingly have a veneer of playfulness and humanity, are ostensibly indeterminate, and all the more efficient, unquestionable, and inescapable for this. In the beating heart of Global Capital, oppression seizes to be just spectacular or machinic, it becomes molecular; it gains a new penetrative power. This means power structures do not need to use fear or containment anymore, they instead criss-cross our psyches, bodily rhythms and desires by acting through technology, perpetual surveillance, the steady onrush of images, the imposition of infinite debt, and the pervasiveness of policies & algorithms that try to over-code our experiences with microscopic precision.

The spaces of disciplinary power in East Africa, such as the home or the factory rely on a containment function that is localisable, and ultimately escapable. However, in Control Societies, these coercive relations gain a spectral quality. They come to permeate everyday life & individuals themselves. This new conceptualization of western power as a kind of modulation can help us understand western subjectivity, how it creates individuals who are striated, and who proceed to striate the bodies & spaces through which they pass. There’s a sense in which East Africans often valorize the west as more humane. However, this presupposition is gradually diminished upon the discovery that subjugation does not disappear in these new relations, it simply becomes more supple and diffuse. Cruelty becomes automated. The relations of infinite debt that European governments use to keep Africa in a state of servitude are just as easily deployed by western institutions and individuals alike, often to secure infinite labor for themselves. Through infinite indebtedness, Africans internalize their own oppression, their servitude is taken as a given. In fact, there’s a sense in which African workers are always indebted in advance by virtue of their pre-supposed abjection in the face of the gleaming western gaze, with its promise of opportunity. There is a psychic dimension required to maintain this internalization on the part of the African worker, it comes across through targeted micro-aggressions, and through minimal monetary compensation in comparison to western employees. This imperceptible form of subjugation is no less extractive, and it is one in which the western artist, or cultural worker can participate. In the relations between the western manager and the African worker, you perpetually see an effortless transmutation between the False Ease of automated control into the cold, hard, disciplinarian of ‘unruly African bodies’. The conflicted, and dislocated expat boss perpetually jumps between these two positions, and in this, we are confronted with a uniquely schizoid form of operational terror.

Keeping things fluid (as one does in Africa) ensures cultural workers & artists are never decently paid, if at all. Like capitalists say, what cannot be measured does not have value. As a result, the creative field maintains the veneer of humanity that comes with facilitating artistic production, while at the same time generating abusive scenarios that make a factory floor look like a more humane alternative. This is a field in which the levity & fluidity of the local context is deployed on as-needed basis, such as avoiding or delaying payment, while rigid disciplinary tactics are doubly deployed in the extraction of labor. It is striking to me, how very often, perhaps from a lack of opportunities in the center or from a thirst for adventure, even people you would least expect can become the cold warriors of global capitalist exploitation at the margins: white women, and bi-racial/black people from the west. Here we see how Global Capital is in the process of forgetting the exclusive subjective category of “White Patriarchal Male” and is now in the position of utilizing any-body-whatever as a means to extend its free flow, even to the detriment of Black workers/communities. White women have especially played a significant role in the extension of “soft power” at the margins. Luxuriating in the unpaid labor of black bodies is not at odds with white feminism.

It’s important to talk about the way in which institutions that control resources in the west turn people into colonizers. We are at a moment in time where it does not particularly matter what the gender or race of such an individual is. Here we see the danger of assimilationist politics; by assimilating into these institutions, the most unlikely people then become the exploiters because of their structural positioning. The potential of the cultural scene in East Africa provides the raw material for Europeans to come profit & make money, but that happens within Europe too, people with access to wealth exploit working-class neighborhoods & scenes. The gentrification process in cities around the world shows us how art is very often the entry-point for capital, capital’s human face. In light of all this, we should consider what solidarity with disempowered working-class artists can look like across borders.

To really commit to the concept of Black Universalism, we have to push it to its most extreme conclusion and accept the notion of Blackness as this abstract zero-point through which any-expression-whatever can pass: goodness, suffering, joy, generosity, psychopathy, and yes, pure fucking evil. This means that black/bi-racial people with western privilege can also facilitate the systematic subordination and exploitation of African artists. In some of these encounters, one is forced to confront the fact that a decolonial praxis can also be a purely narcissistic endeavor disguised as “healing”. In the cultural field, one who has mastery over language becomes the medium for Capital. A search for one’s roots can be very easily abandoned when faced with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become a small-time capitalist of some sort–thank god. The funding industry enables a field in which institutionally literate individuals are happy to brand themselves anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, while making brutal neocolonial impositions on local artists. To be out here on the margins is to accept that Black western artists/cultural workers also have the possibility of unleashing institutional trauma on working-class African bodies. Black people with class privilege also have the possibility of extracting & appropriating the conceptual genius of African artists. A Cosmic Betrayal, really.

There’s a sense in which the privileged see it as their unquestionable right to access marginal bodies & spaces, to consume the vitality of black, queer, working-class bodies, all for the sake of finding themselves, re-energizing their egos. This brings to mind the dynamics of Beyonce’s latest visual album. In this scenario, we have a black woman with class privilege, profiting off of African culture. We see this kind of class arrogance in the example of Big Freedia, a queer trans marginalized artist, being sampled in songs, but not getting paid or credited for it. In Kampala’s Culture/Funding Industry, we see this in how easily queer bodies & narratives are appropriated and then ultimately discarded by western individuals and organizations, to make funding applications more viable, or to mask problematic labor dynamics. In these encounters between center & margin, we confront the question of who counts as a Full Subject in the western gaze; because ultimately, only a Full Subject can be credited. Is it someone with a fixed gender? Someone with access to money? A refugee or citizen? Someone who has mastered a colonial language? Someone who can write a proposal? Someone who subscribes to rigid conceptions of time? Are you a Subject, or “just a body”?

European & American liberal politics has perpetuated a new kind of moralism in which representation and identity are all that matter, at the expense of material relations. In fact, Black Liberals often present the Black Experience as something universal as if experientially we all live with the same vulnerability to the police and poverty. [4] And so we have widespread denial of these nuances in a myriad of fields, even in the underground. We are presented with self-described collaborators who are awash with ideology, but who give no thought whatsoever to the material relations between them and those whose conceptual, technical & social labor they rely on. These people are often just content to aestheticize marginal identity without politicizing it. Postmodernism has been harmful to minority politics, in that it has given us the western liberal, who is satisfied with a simple romanticization & performance of marginality to the extent that they have no real interest in those at the margins claiming any real power. To be marginal is to supposedly be more “authentic”, and you can embody the aesthetics, gestures & language of the margin while having no intention of moving marginal interests to the center.

Very often, a critique of institutional capitalism is enabled by a critical distance from capitalism. To afford this critical distance is a privilege. Taking risks, being able to move freely through physical & mental space, is a privilege. A degree of care is necessary in thinking a critique of capitalism at the margins. Living in East Africa means accepting that a lot of the big problems everyday people face could be very easily solved by the presence of capitalists. It also means accepting that for many here, engaging with capitalism is largely an avenue to reducing suffering for themselves and their communities. And here, everyone is aspirational. The utmost delicateness is necessary for such a context. How do artists survive outside the neo-feudalism of western institutions in Africa? Would doing something else for monetary survival help maintain the autonomy of artistic production, or at least, reduce the risk of institutional trauma? Perhaps one could start by accepting that we are all complicit with capital. The challenge then is: working from and with that complicity, using Strategic Duplicity. That doesn’t mean being deceptive, it means working in two registers at once. One has to develop a parasitic relationship with the capitalist economy, while nurturing an alien logic that moves in very different directions. We have to find ways of occupying this Neoliberal present, while setting off sparks of futurity that pre-figure a post-capitalist world to come. [5]

A crucial part of the Black Experience is figuring out how to retain, even multiply, the valency of the black subject; in spite of all the cruelty, injustice, and theft we experience from dominant forces. The Black subject runs the risk of closing itself off, getting bogged down in a grand operation of protectionism that can only serve to diminish its combining power. One might say that the purpose of such an inquiry, such a mapping of the encounters between western power and the black subject, should be to mark the dangers & risks so that we can proceed further in the direction of experimentation and collision. Black Indeterminacy is the sacred thing that needs to be protected and accelerated at all costs. And yet, along with this, it is also important to assert the black subject right to close itself off as well; to become-imperceptible, in those spaces where black subjects can affirm and re-energize themselves, outside the gaze of the powerful. Clandestinity and deceleration are very much a necessity in, not only navigating oppressive relations but in realizing new unknown potentials. It’s worth thinking about all the ways in which the underground can continue to be this dimension in which radically different worlds intersect, or collide, to generate new signals, new affects. This is as true for East Africa, as it is for all those marginal spaces in the West, all those cosmic Fourth Worlds that persist within the beating heart of Capital.

Authentically Plastic is an Artist, DJ/Producer living in Kampala where they run an experimental club night/collective called ANTI-MASS.

[1] Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. p. 371.
[2] G. Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October, vol. 59, pp. 3–7, 1992.
[3] S. Žižek, States of Crisis and Post-Capitalist Scenarios. p. 115.
[4] J. James, The Architects of Abolitionism. Brown University.
[5] B. Massumi and E. Manning, “A Cryptoeconomy of Affect,” The New Inquiry.

Dweller is an independently-funded platform via merchandise and individual contributions, this allows us to pay pay all our contributors including ourselves. If you’d wish to make a contribution you can via paypal