Banana Republics

Western leftists are arguing among themselves about whether there will be bananas under socialism. In Africa, however, bananas do not necessarily represent the vagaries of capitalism.

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash

It seems the left’s brief obsession with bananas has run its course. For those of you who were spared from the onslaught of think pieces, memes, and charged exchanges (formerly known as Twitter threads), let me catch you up. Recently, Malcolm Harris, the communist historian, shared a series of tweets in which he criticized “pro-growth lefties” for expecting that their patterns of consumption would remain the same under global socialism. To illustrate the point, Harris asked how certain socialists, who act concerned about capitalism and its tendency to ecological crisis, can simultaneously expect that a world founded on socialist workers’ democracy would sustain Americans’ banana habit. The argument was that after seizing ownership of agricultural giants like Chiquita Corp, the working class in banana-exporting regions would opt against growing a massive surplus of bananas for Western consumers. This, he suggested, is partially because of the high ecological cost of growing massive monocrop banana plantations—soil exhaustion, toxic waste from fertilizer, and so on—but also because people would want to redirect their production toward meeting their own needs. Americans, Harris argued, “can no longer expect the world to produce and harvest 10 billion pounds of bananas per year for [them] alone.”

While critiques of excessive consumption are an old tradition on the Western left, Harris’s provocation seemed to strike a sore nerve. The reactions of the “pro-growth lefties” were as quick as they were revealing: they argued that Harris’s banana-baiting was unserious, distracting, and, worse—bad politics (how, they protested, will we get anyone onboard for socialism if we can’t promise them bananas?). Those sympathetic to degrowth, or the idea that the current rate of production must be consciously scaled down, retorted that it would be impossible for the whole world to consume at the level of the American working class without intensifying the ongoing climate catastrophe. Other socialists quick to identify with workers in the Global South jumped in to criticize the “bourgeois moralism” of Westerners who imagine that their primary obligation to the rest of us is simply to make different lifestyle choices, rather than stand in solidarity with Southern workers’ demands for a transformation in the relations of capitalist production. As Eric Levitz put it, bananas briefly crystallized the “tension between privileging the interests of the global working class and catering to the existing aspirations of American workers.” When I first came across the banana discourse, I was drawn in by this web of ambivalent attachments—to global worker solidarity, sustainability, and capitalist desires. But as the hysteria begins to fade, I’m left with a different set of questions, ones that I now recognize as the byproducts of my belonging to a Banana Republic of a different sort: Uganda.

When Ugandans speak of our Banana Republic, it’s not with the same indignation that Pablo Neruda famously did. That’s not to say we don’t understand what life is like under the “dictatorship of flies,” but the term doesn’t bring to mind the histories of plantation slavery, monopoly capitalism, and US-backed coups with which it is associated in the Americas. Uganda is a very different kind of Banana Republic because, while Uganda is one of the world’s largest producers of bananas, they account for a relatively insignificant portion of Ugandan exports. Indeed, for most of Uganda’s history, bananas escaped serious commodification and facilitated the conscription of Ugandans into the production of cash crops like coffee, tea, and cotton. In Uganda, then, bananas do not represent the vagaries of capitalism. Today, one could even say they are the closest thing we have to ecosocialism.

On average, Ugandans eat more than half a kilo of bananas a day, consuming more of the fruit than anyone else. The vast majority of Uganda’s banana consumption is made up of the East African Highland Banana, a group of varietals found primarily in Uganda and neighboring countries (plantains and dessert bananas are also eaten). While Ugandans cultivate a number of varietals of this banana, they are typically grouped into two broad categories, matooke and mbidde, though the intricate Ugandan banana taxonomy also includes other varieties, like musakalanakabululunakitembe, and nfuuka (in Luganda, this latter variety is literally named “I change” because of its tendency to change morphology). Mbidde is distinguished by a single genetic mutation that enables it to synthesize tannins, giving it a bitter flavor that is ideal for brewing. Its juice is fermented to produce mubisi banana beer, which was once so ubiquitous that it came in several varying degrees of potency: the weakest was served to children and the stronger brews were reserved for adults. To this day, you can find Ugandans (mostly men) in small, village bars gathered around a big calabash, bucket, or jerrycan full of mubisi, each sipping through their own comically large straw.

Matooke, on the other hand, is harvested underripe, while still bright green and starchy, and it is most frequently pounded into a starchy puree, then steamed in banana leaves and served alongside a sauce or soup. In this mushy form, it is Uganda’s national dish, and I will now alienate all my Ugandan (and Tanzanian) readers by confessing that I’ve never really enjoyed it. Its flavor is vegetal and bland—I don’t know why no one ever thinks to season it, like Dominican mofongo—and even when paired with the most delicious stew, it always underwhelms. I have always preferred katogo, a preparation of matooke cut into pieces and braised in a rich sauce, typically served for breakfast. The most delicious matooke I’ve ever eaten was prepared somewhat similarly, at Masala y Maiz, a Mexican-Indian-East African-fusion restaurant in Mexico City. The chefs, Norma and Saqib, chopped the matooke into small pieces and simmered it in a rich Thai curry-inspired coconut broth with clams. The small bits of matooke soaked up the broth and made their way into the nooks of the clam shells, and the combination of the briny clams and the sweet matooke made me rethink my long-standing indifference to my national dish. At the end of the meal, I had to be restrained from picking up the bowl and gulping down the delicious broth, thickened slightly by the starch of the matooke. Ugandans, please take note.

I am certain that my complaints about matooke being bland will be met with the response that it isn’t meant to be flavorful itself but, rather, serve as a vessel for a rich, salty sauce like binyebwa, or groundnut sauce. Like the fufus and non-fufu swallows of West Africa, matooke serves primarily as a base starch, a calorie-rich carrier of sauce that provides little by way of texture but reliably fills bellies. And at this last job, matooke certainly excels. Indeed, matooke is in many ways Uganda’s greatest weapon against hunger, in large part because it is mostly produced and consumed without ever entering market exchange.

For many of Uganda’s farmers, bananas are nature’s greatest gift. They are the backbone of the lusuku, or home garden. I remember spending days roaming around my grandmother’s garden, where bananas grew in ferocious abundance alongside beans, pumpkin, calabash, peas, and spinach, forming the kinds of deep ecological entanglements that nourish the earth. Their leaves formed a light canopy over the vegetables that required shade and, when they were cut or fell to the ground, would decompose into a nutrient-rich layer of soil. The lusuku is the very opposite of the monocrop plantations used to produce commercial bananas, which suck the soil dry and require toxic fertilizers and pesticides to maintain. Because Ugandan banana varietals cannot sexually reproduce, they are passed between families, neighbors, and friends, and one finds, on average, between 23 to 26 varieties of banana in each village. This type of agriculture sustains the diversity of Uganda’s bananas, each prized for its individual qualities, and protects farmers against diseases and pests that target specific varieties. In this way, the lusuku embodies many of the principles of agroecology—recycling, biodiversity, soil health, and ecological synergy.

Crucially, bananas also grow perennially and with little maintenance, unlike cereals that grow according to seasons and take time to harvest and process. For this reason, bananas were central to Uganda’s so-called “cash crop revolution.” When colonial taxation made cash a necessity for Ugandans, banana cultivation left farmers with time for the labor-intensive process of growing coffee and cotton. Transitioning to cash crop production was more costly for those whose diet mainly consisted of millet, sorghum, and other grains more suited to the arid savannahs found in the North. In this way, bananas have served as a “hidden abode” of commodity production in Uganda, making it possible for more people to enter the cash economy despite the persistence of low wages and agricultural commodity prices. Even in cities like Kampala, people often source bananas from a lusuku on their family farm, cushioning them from the predation of the urban labor market. Lorries and boda bodas ferrying an impossible load of bananas from the city’s outskirts are an omnipresent sight in Kampala. Even those urbanites who must pay for them rely on their abundance and low cost. When each year the superabundance of matooke begins to wane and its market price nearly doubles, many families in Kampala are forced to adopt relatively expensive substitutes like posho (maize pap) or imported rice. Sometimes, this means eating only once a day.

If Ugandans have a social safety net, it is woven from banana fibers, and if there is a clear path to socialism, it will be lined with banana leaves. The lusuku model, premised on intercropping and smallholder farming, could be the basis for national agrarian reform that improves the lives of Uganda’s agricultural workers without accelerating the destruction of the natural environment. Uganda faces increasing difficulty feeding itself because of climate extremes and land degradation, and this affects farmers more significantly than anyone else. Moreover, since the 1990s, the ruling National Resistance Movement regime sold off and dismantled most of the coffee, tea, and cotton growers cooperatives, leaving smallholder farmers in the hands of the predatory middlemen which cooperatives had been established to protect them against. Unable to collectively bargain and exposed to dramatic fluctuations in the market prices for cash crops, many people left rural areas to search for employment in cities. This has been a driving force behind the massive inequality between rural and urban workers.

Ugandans now produce more food than they consume, even exporting to other countries in the region, yet 41% of people are undernourished, and agricultural production has decreased over the last 20 years. For the most part, the strategy pursued by Uganda’s government has been to encourage the development of ecologically disastrous intensive agriculture for export, privileging foreign investors rather than developing the infrastructure that would benefit peasants. Indeed, while more than 70% of Ugandans are employed in agriculture, the sector only receives around 4% of public investment, and projects aimed at helping smallholder farmers have had very little success, even by their own standards. Many of the government’s investments in agriculture very clearly advantage larger landowners, to the detriment of the poorest farmers. For example, most of the government’s investment in labor-saving technologies has been spent on tractors, which are great for large plots but largely unaffordable or unsuitable for the average farmer, whose plot is usually between 1-3 acres large.

However, a socialist transition premised on agroecological reforms could make use of the existing lusuku model to create the kind of growth that actually improves poor farmers’ lives without destroying their environment. This could begin with reestablishing cooperatives and engineering agricultural prices around social needs and goals, like guaranteeing access to food. Research from around the world has shown that while large, monocrop plantations are good at producing huge volumes of one crop, smallholder farms are more productive when evaluated on a per-unit area and are capable of securing national food sovereignty. Why, for example, should Ugandans buy rice imported from Pakistan or Vietnam when banana intercropping yields more calories per hectare than rice? Lusukus could feed the nation without relying on foreign experts, development aid, or the capital-intensive inputs now being imported to grow for export. Because lusukus are far better for the soil, they also improve the nation’s capacity to resist severe floods and drought, effects of climate change that hit poor farmers hardest. In these ways, the lusuku model could provide a sustainable path to socialist development.

Socialist agroecologists like Max Ajl have made the case that because margins tend to be higher on smallholder farms, even with the same productivity, there is a greater surplus, whether counted in terms of calories for domestic consumption or sales within the community. This creates the conditions for a larger market of non-agricultural goods, which can stimulate industrialization. In Ajl’s words, “feeding the population and providing it with the manufactures it needs alongside just reward for labor, while caretaking the environment, is also what many understand as socialism.” What this suggests is that Uganda’s banana gardens could be a way to address the problem of dependency in its various forms: reliance on foreign debt and aid, commodity prices determined by Western markets, and unequal exchange.

Without a doubt, if countries in the Global South committed to a socialism founded on agroecological principles, they would, in turn, put their productive capacities toward meeting their own needs, rather than growing surpluses. This is to say that Americans and other importers of bananas would have to figure out a way to meet their own demand for bananas. In a socialist future, necessary labor would be organized democratically and collectively by the associated producers, and unnecessary labor will be eliminated (advertising, consulting, finance, marketing, and all the bullshit jobs people currently do). Banana production could, therefore, be taken up in the “realm of freedom,” the part of the economy that would be managed by people in their free time. This isn’t implausible. The variety of banana that most people eat in the West was cultivated in a greenhouse in England. While some of Harris’s critics suggest that this would amount to an intolerable increase in toil, it could also be fun: after all, people in the West love to garden, forage, and cook in their free time and no one suggests automating these activities. Indeed, it’s hard to understand the aversion some on the Western left have toward manual labor when lots of them pay to spend hours exerting themselves in gyms, proudly running headlong to nowhere.

But, of course, the discourse was never about bananas. If, like me, you have had the experience of living in the US, you too will find it hard to understand why Americans think the bananas found on their shelves are worth fighting for at all. In order to be shipped to the US, bananas are picked underripe and arrive to consumers green, tasteless, and hard. You have to let them ripen on the counter for days until you eventually forget they’re there, only to shove them into the freezer once you realize they’ve become overripe and nearly black, promising yourself that you’ll make banana bread someday that never arrives. They are the sad cousins of the small, sweet bananas I grew up eating—sometimes three or four at a time. Most Americans I know have never even tried good bananas. So, what accounts for the fact that such a mediocre fruit has become a fetish object for Western leftists?

Psychoanalysts describe fetishism as a defense against castration anxiety, or the fear that penis-havers experience once confronted with the possibility that they could lose their penis, which they understand to be the primary locus of jouissance, or the substance of surplus enjoyment. As the story goes, the child believes his mother to possess this substance, which he identifies with the penis, and so, once confronted with the mother’s lack of a penis, the child begins to fear that he too could be castrated, cut off from the circuit of surplus pleasure. To guard against this fear, the fetishist labors to hold on to the fantasy of an exception to the rule of castration. He refuses to accept that the mother lacks a phallus, repeating to himself that classic script of disavowal: “yes, I know, but nevertheless…” The fetishist thus chooses an object that becomes a substitute penis, dethroning the penis itself as the primary locus of jouissance.

The important thing to understand about fetish objects, then, is that they help us deny that which we know deep down: that every pleasure, even the most basic, always presents us with some degree of displeasure, limitation, or negativity. The story is an allegory about how we come to accept the reality that the path from need to satisfaction to pleasure isn’t straightforward or at all guaranteed. Jouissance, the pleasure we seek to sustain through our fetish objects, is a surplus pleasure. It is the added enjoyment you derive, not from the mere satisfaction of a need, but from the process of its satisfaction. Think of eating so much you become physically sick. At the point where you begin to eat beyond the need to satisfy your hunger, stuffing yourself to discomfort, you are no longer simply enjoying the food—over-eating becomes a painful end in itself. Confronted with the knowledge that this kind of enjoyment is impossible to sustain, the fetishist both accepts this knowledge and denies it. They double down, so to speak.

Fetishism, then, is an attempt to cope with the knowledge that there is no simple economy of pleasure in which our satisfaction corresponds directly to having our needs met. Or, to put it differently, it enables the fantasy that the pursuit of our desires is the pursuit of our needs, when, in fact, we are often seeking the pursuit itself, and we will continue to do so despite repeatedly failing to meet our actual needs. Psychoanalysts influenced by Marx teach us that the same principle—whereby the process of meeting our needs replaces the needs themselves as our primary goal—is also operative in the economy under capitalist relations. Under capitalism, production stops being about the making of things we find useful but rather about the production of surplus value, the profit appropriated by capital through the labor process. This is another way to think about what Marx calls the fetishism of commodities. Under capitalism, commodities become causes of desire in themselves; they gain qualities beyond their ability to satisfy our concrete needs. The true aim of capitalist exchange is not the distribution of the things people need but, rather, the valorization of capital. But if the pursuit of surplus enjoyment always contains some element of negativity or dissatisfaction, so too does the production of surplus value turn against itself in the form of crises: political, economic, ecological, and so on.

Read in this light, we might view the present attachment to bananas among the Western left as a kind of fetishistic disavowal of the knowledge that they cannot continue to appropriate the lion’s share of the global surplus of enjoyment and value. The traces of this disavowal are clear in the mental gymnastics offered in response to Harris’s provocation. There were meditations on the sensory pleasure of luxury objects, ecomodernist fantasies about the fully automated bananas socialism of the future, and colorful hypotheticals about the “People’s Soviets of Greater New York [offering] doctors, computer technology, or wind power to the Central American League of Revolutionary Campesinos for bananas, coffee, cacao, and avocados.” Even while acknowledging the ecological and human costs of monocrop banana cultivation, most commentaries refuse to acknowledge the possibility that Americans would simply choose to eat domestically grown apples or, perhaps, rediscover the joy of foraging wild berries. This is no accident: they can envision no good substitute for their sad bananas because the desire Westerners feel for them is not for the fruits themselves—even at their best bananas are a mid-tier tropical fruit—but for the relations of unequal exchange that enable Americans to take a disproportionate share of the world’s agricultural surplus and, with perverse glee, waste almost half of it.

To put it differently, the anxiety around bananas under socialism marks not the fear of losing bananas, but rather of losing the right to enjoy the products of capitalist exploitation from the periphery. From this perspective, the banana is the perfect fetish object, the ideal substitute phallus, and not just because it looks like a dick. The banana offers the Western worker assurance of their right in the surplus value, or alienated labor, of the racialized worker on the banana plantation. This is why, for instance, American grocery stores often sell bananas at a loss. They know that if they present people with cheap bananas, they will come in and shop because cheap bananas are part of what makes shopping in America enjoyable. When an American goes to WalMart, they do not primarily enjoy the mere access it offers them to the food they need to sustain themselves. Rather, they take pleasure in having the whole world’s labor neatly arranged for them to grab, inspect, fantasize about, and ultimately put back on the shelf because they already have some at home.

This is what the various commenters on the banana issue seem to neglect when they take it at face value that Westerners want bananas simply for what they are. One classic example of jouissance is the oral drive: psychoanalysts will point out that the real goal of breastfeeding is not satisfying hunger but the pleasure of sucking. You may reasonably object to my suggestion that, similarly, Westerners feel attached to their sad bananas for reasons that go beyond their bellies. But, then again, why are the bananas they eat bred for appearance and size rather than taste?

Despite our best attempts to convince ourselves otherwise, we all know that things don’t turn out well for those who enjoy. For banana enjoyers, the rise of Third World worker’s movements against agricultural exploitation and the increasing awareness of anthropogenic climate change has made it far more difficult to pretend that this is not the case. This is the repressed knowledge against which bananas are erected as a fetish object. For those who rushed to Twitter to rebuke Harris’s provocation, the banana discourse became a way to defend against their knowledge that Western consumers’ desire to enjoy in excess the labor of certain unseen others cannot be sustained, except, perhaps, at an immense cost to themselves.

Further Reading

A crop that changed the world

The story about peanuts, and the people who grew it at the margins of an empire in 19th century West Africa, then the most abundant source of the world’s most important oilseed.

A devil’s deal

Rwanda’s proposed refugee deal with Britain is another strike against President Paul Kagame’s claim that he is an authentic and fearless pan-Africanist who advocates for the less fortunate.