Thereʼs no denying the images are dreadful: a naked child hanging from his motherʼs empty breast, large eyes under attack from ﬂies, screams of pain and hunger. We have seen a lot of them since the end of July when the Western media woke up to the hunger crisis in Niger. It made a change from the British mediaʼs tireless tirade against the Zimbabwe regime and their obsession with the neatly moustached man some call the African Hitler, President Robert Mugabe. Exaggerated attention on Mugabe was swapped for images of a famine in West Africa. So how did Niger manage to ﬁnd its way onto the radar of the Western media this summer? And what does the coverage tell us about the Westʼs interest in Africa?
According to the BBC, it was a mixture of expert instinct and investigative work. The corporationʼs inhouse magazine, Ariel, tells how a lone television editor, searching for material to illustrate a television feature on Live 8, chanced upon footage of emaciated children at a feeding centre in Niger. Spotting a story, he asked a correspondent in Africa – albeit at the other end of the continent – to investigate. The United Nations food agency, the World Food Programme (WFP), conﬁrmed that some people in Niger were indeed going hungry, adding that an initial ʻcall for helpʼ had been made eight months before, in November 2004. The WFP spokesman, himself a former BBC reporter, said: ʻIf the media had gone to Niger then they would have seen people struggling but surviving. Itʼs only when itʼs too late for many children that the images force donor nations to take notice.ʼ What he didnʼt say was that it is also only when it is too late for many children that their skeletal bodies are judged ﬁlmworthy by Western television crews.
A self-congratulatory and heroic tone is not uncommon among British and Western journalists, particularly when they are covering hunger and conﬂict in Africa. They like us to know that they have helped save people, an achievement that no doubt gives a greater deﬁnition to their work as investigators, reporters and missionaries. Nevertheless, the work they do is often superﬁcial and clichéd. Niger has once again proved that life in Africa is nasty, brutish and short.
Time and again, it is the European – journalist or aid worker – who is required to step in and quite literally save the day. Rarely do these same journalists discuss the silence that characterizes their work just as much as the noise. Niger featured on the BBC Ten OʼClock News twelve times in a 12-month period up to midAugust this year. That might sound promising: once a month on the domestic news is good going for an English-speaking African country, let alone a former French colony in the middle of the Sahara. However, eleven of those stories were about the recent hunger crisis and were run in the space of about seven weeks from the 18 July. The twelfth focused on another African cliché, slavery, and was broadcast in early February, three months after the WFP had ﬁrst warned of a hunger crisis brewing in Niger.
During the past four or ﬁve years, the British mediaʼs limited appetite for Africa has transformed into a bulimic desire for rolling reports on Zimbabwe. The former colonial powerʼs sense of trauma resulting from the loss of Rhodesia has at last been allowed to express itself freely. The monstrous dictator Mr Mugabe has eclipsed coups, civil wars, US-sponsored terror initiatives and even severely malnourished children across Africa in the news. In November 2004, at the time of the WFP warning on Niger, Zimbabwe featured twice on the Ten OʼClock News. On both occasions, the English cricket tour to the land of Satan was the subject matter. From August 2004 to August 2005 Zimbabwe featured thirteen times on the Ten OʼClock News and ten times on the BBCʼs Newsnight, a programme that featured Niger only once in the same period. A cursory glance at the British press reveals a similar pattern. A search on the Daily Telegraphʼs output brings up sixty-one hits on Zimbabwe but only three on Niger, in the same period, all of which were after 21 July – just after the BBC began broadcasting its pictures. Similarly, the Guardian brings up eightytwo hits on Zimbabwe and fourteen on Niger, all also after 21 July. Of course, itʼs not simply a numbers game; itʼs also about content. British media outlets have been desperately predicting famine in Zimbabwe since as far back as 2002. The BBCʼs Fergal Keane
Hunger in Niger and Zimbabwewrote in January 2003 that a catastrophe was coming, under the headline ʻFamine Plagues Zimbabweʼ. There is no doubting that the former breadbasket of Southern Africa is in a bad way, but the famine of which our media have been warning with such enthusiasm is yet to come. The need to prove that Mr Mugabe cannot survive without the white man prevails. Nevertheless, even the more conservative newspapers know that their anger about white farmers losing land cannot dominate headlines for ever and leaves them open to accusations of racism. Hence the abnormal concern for poor black Africans.
Double standards have also been evident in the Niger coverage. When the British media ﬁnally awoke to the story, they depicted the hunger crisis as one of biblical proportions – Africa in disaster once again – unable to convey the complexities of the situation. This was exempliﬁed in the British mediaʼs response to the refusal of Nigerʼs president, Mamadou Tandja, to agree with various Western ʻexpertsʼ – mainly foreign journalists ﬂying into his country for a ﬁrst and probably last brief trip – about the existence of a famine in his country. ʻThere is no famine in Nigerʼ, he said. ʻThe people who are saying there is a famine either have a political interest or an economic interest in saying there is a famine.ʼ He accused the Western media and certain aid agencies of making ʻpropagandaʼ. In response, he was viliﬁed by the Western press, despite the fact that his statement was accurate. As the WFP put it: ʻWe have not spoken about famine but about pockets of severe malnutrition.ʼ Yet the British media continue to make wild claims. The Daily Telegraph has insisted on headlines like ʻA nation starving to deathʼ (28 July). The Guardian has repeatedly talked of ʻNigerʼs famineʼ and even reported that ʻthousands of severely malnourished children are dying every dayʼ (23 July). The BBC also conﬁrmed ʻthe famineʼ, despite exploring the deﬁnition of the word on its website and conﬁrming that Mr Tandja is ʻtechnically rightʼ: there is no actual famine in Niger (http://news. bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/ africa/4139174.stm).
In fact, there is no internationally accepted deﬁnition of famine. The WFP, however, has come up with a guide which is an amalgamation of several leading famine theorists. It is worth quoting in full:
Famine is a situation of extreme food scarcity in terms of availability or access, resulting in widespread deaths. Such death can occur due to starvation or starvation-related diseases. Normally anything over 2 deaths per 10,000 of the population per day constitutes an emergency situation. The precise rate at which excess mortality becomes a famine has not been determined. Famine is precipitated by substantial gaps between what a country is able to produce and what its population needs, which are not ﬁlled either by affordable commercial imports or by aid. Such gaps can be caused by nature or man.
At the moment, no one seems able to conﬁrm exactly how many people are dying in Niger each day. However, at the end of August, one well-placed aid worker said that the Guardian claim of thousands of children dying on a daily basis ʻhad to be an exaggerationʼ:
I visited the Médecins Sans Frontières clinic in Maradi in early July and they had just had one of their worst days when seven kids died. The average is about two. It is of course impossible to know how many kids are dying out in the villages in the bush, but the general impression from those who have been out and about is that MSF and others have done a good job at treating the worst cases.
To put this into perspective, there are a couple of other statistics from the United Nations Ofﬁce for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs that are worth noting. First, in an average year, almost one in six children die each year before their ﬁrst birthday in Niger. Second, 262 out of every 1,000 children do not make it past the age of ﬁve. This is everyday life in Niger and yet few news managers think it worthwhile investing in a Niger correspondent on a permanent basis, let alone a West Africa reporter or a regular visitor to the country.
It may seem churlish to bicker about the semantics and statistics when people are dying of hunger, and Mr Tandja has his own self-serving political reasons to fear a famine. Hunger can be the crucial catalyst to a successful coup and was in Niger in 1974 as Mr Tandja knows: he played a crucial role and was rewarded with the post of interior minister. However, the self-satisﬁed tone that slips so easily from the imperial tongues of Western journalists requires, at the very least, some reﬂection. The journalists accuse the Nigerien president of denying the obvious and of failing to care for his people without any sign of shame for their own very limited coverage of the crisis – an extremely belated and impulsive response to some shocking pictures of starving African children. Instead of busying themselves with the British cricket teamʼs moral stance on Zimbabwe in order to whip up patriotic fervour, they could have used some of their resources last November to respond to the WFP warning about Niger.
It is easy to present Africa as a continent of pathetic victims and mad, monstrous leaders. It is not just journalists who promote this simpliﬁcation, but also unkempt pop stars, well-meaning charities, diplomats, consultants and academics. Anyone who challenges the stereotype or pleads for a consideration of history is accused of political correctness, at best. So, it seems, for the time being we are stuck with threadbare accounts of dying children and Zimbabweʼs lunatic leader. Other critical and telling developments will continue to count for less: for instance, the acceptance by the international community of the new Mauritanian leader who came to power in a coup in August, despite reports that he is wanted for torture charges in France; the persecution of northerners in Ivory Coast; the sales of Nigeriaʼs so-called Nollywood ﬁlms in Niger alongside the hunger; allegations that the United States is sponsoring attacks around the Sahara to suggest that al-Qaeda terrorists are operating in the area. All of this will be ignored.
Marx comes ﬁrst again, and losesSo, Marx has come ﬁrst again. Marx has been voted ʻThe Greatest Ever Philosopherʼ for a BBC Radio 4 show In Our Time, following an online poll taken over ﬁve weeks. The show, one of the most respected intellectual shows on radio, offered the public an open vote on the ten greatest philosophers. Marx polled 28 per cent, easily outstripping second-placed David Hume with 13 per cent, followed by Wittgenstein (7 per cent) and Nietzsche (6.5 per cent). This has excited a lot of people on the Left, with commentators being trawled out to bear witness to Marxʼs relevance, his insights into globalization, and why philosophy should take Marx seriously. An air of jubilation presides: what better proof of his importance than Marx winning a BBC poll for the greatest philosopher?
It is worth recalling that Marx had previously won a major BBC poll, when he came ﬁrst in the ʻgreatest thinker of the millenniumʼ poll at the end of 1999, beating Einstein, Darwin, Newton as well as the philosophers beaten in 2005.
So, the audience of the intellectual channel of the state broadcasting system of the Iron Heelʼs junior partner has voted for the writer most associated with the vision of human existence beyond class society – twice, within the space of a few years. What makes this such a strange result is that anyone who knows Marxʼs work is aware of his view that philosophy suffers from a serious practical-political limit, rooted in the philosopherʼs aim to interpret the world in various ways, when of course the point is to change it. The most famous non-philosopher, a political antiphilosopher, is being peddled as the greatest philosopher of all. The more you think about this the odder it becomes.
Even allowing for the voters not being a random sample of the UKʼs population, can it really be that anything remotely like this number of its citizens are communists? Since the answer to this is – sadly – ʻnoʼ, some other explanation must be sought. So, what was Marx winning about? Rather than jubilation, we might better see this in terms of the Cunning of Unreason. At every possible turn, Marxʼs political project was ignored, marginalized or misrepresented.
This was evident from the discussion on In Our Time after Marxʼs ʻvictoryʼ. Gareth Stedman Jones, Francis Wheen and A.C. Grayling appeared to discuss the great philosopherʼs work, in entirely unpolitical terms. Thus, to explain why Marx spent years thinking through the idea of alienation, it was commented that Marx was born a Jew, but that his father had to convert to Lutheran Christianity in order to get a job, so Marx was a minority within a minority and consequently alienated, estranged, from childhood onwards. Alienation was apparently important to Marx because he suffered from identity problems: this was pseudoidentity politics masquerading as philosophy, which was masking any actual politics.The Cunning of this exercise in Unreason twisted everything it took from Marx into its opposite. Dialectics was presented in the standard cartoonish way, as thesis–antithesis–synthesis. It would be difﬁcult to parody a situation where a notion which appears in a writer only by way of ridiculing it (in The Poverty of Philosophy on Proudhon) is then attributed to him in a discussion on why he was voted the greatest philosopher. At one point Margaret Thatcher was pronounced the greatest Marxist of the twentieth century – on the grounds that she stressed the economic relations between individuals as the determining force of society. For the most part, however, Marx was twisted into just a more prescient Keynes, someone who predicted globalization, and so on and on. The critical distance on class society which was the central focus of Marxʼs project was screened out. Marxʼs central concern – that wage-labour is a species of the genus of forced labour, in the same category as slavery and serfdom, and that this is a distortion of the human – was never approached. Instead, we were swamped in a deluge of trivia:Bragg to Wheen His education was inﬂuenced by Baron von Westphalen … can you tell us about this? Wheen Well yes he was a liberal and an Enlightenment ﬁgure, and Marxʼs sister said he was never happier than when having Homer read to him. The Baronʼs daughter then became Mrs Marx.
It was Marx as a cultural icon, rather than Marx as a communist, that people were voting for. And for this to work the cultural icon has to be as far removed from the communist thinker as possible.
The Marx at stake was a ʻMarxʼ who has become falsely associated with some of the major traditions and assumptions on the Left, which Marx himself actually argued against. To have Marx as oneʼs ʻfancied philosopherʼ is to make a statement of the same kind as ʻI am a caring person who is against globalization, who believes in equality, and who believes that, while we cannot do away with capitalism, some things should be protected from the awful forces of the market.ʼ Smith and Weber – symptomatic absences in any list of important social theorists – do not have this iconicity.
The vote for Marx was thus another way of ʻbrandingʼ the self, a leftish self which can only associate with Marx once an alternative Marx has taken over – a Marx falsely associated with things that many on the left value but which are in fact not part of Marxism at all. Several commentators suggested that Marx had produced some excellent soundbites: ʻreligion is the opium of the peopleʼ, ʻfrom each according to his abilities, to each according to their needsʼ and, yes, ʻthe philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point however is to change itʼ. But we were never told why Marx thought these things or, more importantly, how they ﬁgured in his critique of capital. The idea that religion is the opium of the people was never connected to his understanding of the ʻsoulless conditionsʼ of the market in human labour. Similarly, the image of communism that lay behind the principle ʻfrom each according to his abilities, to each according to his needsʼ was lost. A survey in 1994 revealed that half of the US citizens consulted thought that ʻfrom each according to his abilities, to each according to their needsʼ was part of the US Constitution.
Francis Wheenʼs main defence of Marx was that his insights are now accepted by leading theorists of the American business class as showing the nature of capitalism. What is remarkable about this defence is that it systematically misses out the idea that the wage-labour/capital relation is essentially exploitative. This is an echo of the way in which the labour movement has assimilated Marxist insights more generally. Many of the leading ﬁgures in British labourism have cited The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists as one of their leading inﬂuences. This book is remarkable because of the central place in it of ʻThe Great Money Trickʼ – a brilliant dramatization of the nature of wage-labour. Yet its demonstration of the exploitation at the core of capitalism is actually utterly opposed to the politics of labourism. The book achieved its status through the screening out of this core, in favour of its contingent descriptions of working-class life (the very thing which Stedman Jones has spent his career writing about). The ʻMarxʼ who won this poll was a ﬁgure who was likewise cleansed of his revolutionary, anti-capitalist ideas.
In this sense, Marx did not win this poll at all. It was won by ʻMarxʼ. It was a shadow Marx, a spectral Marx, who was voted the Greatest Philosopher of All Time. The Marx who won this poll was an alternate being, a spectral being which exists in the ideological world, a ﬁgure in the phantasmagoria constructed by those who beneﬁt most from having others buy this particular icon. ʻMarxʼ won, and so Marx – and Marxism – lost. Far from celebrating this as a victory, then, and enjoying the furious protestations of the conservative press, we should actually see it as a defeat. There must always be the shamshow of opposition, of a criticism that never takes to arms.