KAMPALA – The Camel bar is the definition of a mzungu bar. Overly expensive, located in the overly expensive neighbourhood of Kampala. I was there with my landlady, who had insisted on taking me out. When we arrived to the pavillion, which is the best description I can give of the building, I realised quickly I was way behind. Before I knew it, I was standing around with a cold Waragi in my hand, and a slightly tipsy stranger who told me he was definitely going to get me drunk tonight. And, he was right. That night was the best damn Waragi I’ve had since I have been here. No bar serves it cold, with a piece of lime. Instead, I usually get a lukewarm glass that makes it look like I am drinking watered down ethanol. But, not tonight.
I turned around and was standing face-to-face with an elderly gentlemen. I shook his hand, and immediately after forgot his name. What I did for a living? Well… so far, not much. I had started only recently and to be honest, I only had a mediocre understanding on what exactly my organisation does. So, I mentioned the name, and immediately retorded to avoid looking clueless.
He was working for Shell. The Royal Dutch Shell. His first observation was my nationality. I was most definitely Dutch. By now, I was trying to catch up and was handed my second cold gin. I asked him what it was like to work for the Devil.
Obviously, my comment demanded some background, and I told him I am a sociologist. Those psychopathic cooperations, they are essentially our enemy. They embody a capitalist mentality that we have been -unsuccesfully- combating ever since Marx. He smiled at me.
-‘Shell is not that bad… it’s the system that’s bad. We’re just functioning in it’. He explained to me that, during his time at Shell, which had been a substantial amount of time, he had learnt one thing about the way the world works. Everything is business. The world revolves around business. Every civilisation that ever existed ran on business. The Romans, the Incas, the Egyptians, you name it. Everything is business and business is everything.
‘What about political power?’, I inquired. If money is one side of the coin, power must be the other. But, according to Mr. Shell, money buys power. Well, business does. Because business essentially provides everything. The business of business is to acquire, process, produce, and sell everything (products & services, really). So, to quote Marx, Mr. Shell argued that those who hold the means of production, hold the power. But, to update Marx, it is not only the means of production now: it is everything. He vehemently denied being a Marxist after I jokingly accused him of being one. He did not at all agree with Marx.
‘But you do!’
Isn’t that great?!
Cooperations are survivalists, not psychopathic monsters. They do what they have to do to survive in a competitive, globalised market. But, my conversation partner pointed out, we do not have a globalised market.
-‘Those terms are so misleading. Globalisation. Globalised markets. There is no such a thing as a globalised market. Look around.’
-‘Does this look like there is a globalised market?’ I assumed he was referred to the country and not so much to the pavillion, and I concurred with his point. ‘A globalised market indicates that people operate on that market, and compete on that market’. Yes, I suppose it does. ‘But we’re not really competing, not on a globalised market. We’re competing elsewhere, with companies from the First World. How is that globalised? It’s global, alright, but not globalised’.
It is very tempting to talk about globalisation as if all parts of this world are equally involved in the flattening of the earth, as Thomas Friedman once put it. We’re global, yes. Some of the people who will read this might even consider themselves global citizens, their identities ruptured from nationalism and locality. For an intellectual, Western elite, it is easy to talk about globalisation. However, a majority of the people on this planet have never, and will never, leave their own country. It’s just that a very small percentage of the world’s population is everywhere doing business. Like here, for instance. There’s an expat bar in Kampala, Uganda, and its crowed here with people who do business. And it’s really not just one place.
So, Shell is just doing what it does best under these circumstances. A realist might argue that if Shell does not profit from oil in African countries, extracting the profit and robbing the local population of their natural resources, some other corporation will do so.
‘This is just the rhetorics of morality, then’, I argue. You can claim the immoral corporate behaviour is circumstantial and induced by a system that does not give a shit, or you can argue that it is these multinationals that built that system in the first place who are to blame.
-‘No, politicians did’, he said. ‘They allowed for, and fucking designed, a system that robbed them of their power. They hardly have any influence on what actually happens in this world. Business does.’
By now, I realised Mr. Shell was particularly fond of the word business. Although he was a business man, he did not seem overly fond of the concept itself, which seemed particurarly strange to me, especially after my fifth gin.
He had a point, though. The American Congress is essentially bought and paid for by corporate America. Although American politics are certainly not a standard anywhere else, in other democracies authorities are dealing with similar problems. If a corporation is truly a multinational corporation, then no nation-state can exert any legitimate power over it. Although supranational institutions like the European Union have relatively succesfully limited the business of some multinationals within their borders (e.g. restrictions on genetically modified organisms from the U.S., or the internet provider monopoly of Microsoft), no drastic and effective steps have been undertaken to curb the limitless activities, or business that these corporations engage in. It would be economic suicide to confront them head-on, I suppose. Or, political suicide, depending on what country we find ourselves in.
However, the political infrastructure is there. Although democracy is being attacked from all sides, –including from neo-liberal capitalism-, the principles of vox populi are still in place. There are stirrings in these democracies as well as in places elsewhere. People are realising, or being made aware, of the politcal power they possess. This has arguably good (well, decent or at least interesting) as well as bad consequences. Some of them are being hopelessly abused by populist politicians. Generally speaking, being aware of your democratic vote and the power as a citizen in a democracy without being informed is arguably even more dangerous than people not realising their potential at all.
Mr. Shell agreed with me so far. Because you may know and I may know, but, (and this quote never gets old):
‘the best argument against democracy is a 5-minute talk with the average voter’ -Winston Churchill.
-‘We need a leader’, he said. He took another sip of beer. ‘We need a new Messiah. We had Jesus, then there was Mohammed. We need a Third Messiah’.
I laugh at the use of the word. He assured me he did not mean it in a religious sense. We just need a saviour. Someone to rally behind. Carefully, I point out that charismatic leadership is dangerous. Look at Africa; how many dictators started as revolutionary saviours, the people’s man? Power corrupts, and putting our faith in one person undermines the institution of democracy.
-‘That’s why I said Messiah, not leader’, Mr. Shell said, now with a dead-serious face.