Nothing to Lose

What might it mean to have “something” to lose? If this question seems silly, indulge its silliness for a moment, for I want to suggest that it might tell us something important about how we understand the relationships among ownership, attachment, and identification. If I fail to accomplish such an ambitious agenda, excuse that as well. Writing in this abbreviated medium necessitates the constant use of ellipses.

The initial question springs from what has been a constant tic, or refrain, in the media and on blogs, that the young men (and one would suppose old men, too) who “perpetrated” the grossest attacks had “nothing to lose.” They are, we presume, jobless, have no material property worth “any value,” and, supposedly, lack the sense of attachment to place or people that might halt their attacks. Having “nothing to lose,” they do not understand “what it means to lose.” Something about this formulation nags me.

It might be the idea that “something” is necessarily material, which means it has a price tag. In this logic, those without cars cannot know what it means to own a car. They do not value the labor that goes into acquiring the car, owning a car, operating a car. They cannot appreciate that petrol is expensive, waxing takes times, and changing tires is arduous. Not having experienced the material processes of owning a car, they have no basis for comparison. As such, they can stone a car with impunity. This idea we can quickly dispense with, for it is precisely because those without cars understand the value attached to a car that they choose to attack it. In fact, by attacking the car, the attackers affirm its value.

But what if “something” is less material and more emotional? In this scenario, those who attack others’ property and kill others lack a capacity for sympathy, the morality and ethics that would make them good citizens or, perhaps, simply good company. Lacking a capacity for feeling toward others, those who attack do not lose what we like to term, euphemistically, their “humanity.” They are, to use old poststructuralist cant, always already monsters, dehumanized. Lacking the capacity for attachment, those with “nothing to lose” are always already lost.

However, to assume that “those with nothing to lose” have never had “anything to lose,” be it material or emotional, has the inadvertent (though deliberate) effect of removing “them” from history and historical processes. If “those with nothing to lose” have never had “anything to lose,” then we with “everything to lose” or “something to lose” become the normative subjects of history (or the state and nation) and, this is the crucial point, need not account for or consider how those with “nothing to lose” became the ones with “nothing to lose.”

In a more simplified way: how do we restore potential and “something” to the young men with “nothing to lose” so that we can understand their condition as inextricably bound to ours, not aberrant, not opposed, but, more precisely, proximate and intimate. What have these young men lost? What do they have to lose? And how might it be important?

Here’s the more complex and, arguably, difficult question: in claiming that the young men have “nothing to lose” do we implicitly indict ourselves as the ones who “took everything,” leaving “nothing” for them to lose?

The question is difficult because it traverses the material and emotional, and refuses to grant us the innocence of victimhood or the moral shock of the middle-class. We would like to think, for instance, that unequal distribution of wealth is solely attributable to our so-called leaders. Asked about social inequity, we point quickly and readily to “those who steal.” We “ordinary” Kenyans, and I would like to put pressure on that ordinary, “struggle” to survive. Now, I do not mean to minimize the forms of economic erosion that have made ordinary, once sustainable lives occasions for struggle. But I would like to complicate the notion that our gains are independent of others’ losses.

In terms of the emotional, which is really more my forte, I am interested in how the idea of the “normal” Kenyan, the one with “something to lose,” is predicated on certain foundational ideas of what it means to have and to nurture attachments, and how those attachments, which are often taken to be natural, are actually deeply embedded in material conditions. For instance, accounts of domestic and family violence among poor (and I don’t mean working class, I mean poor) populations are often depicted as perversions of humanity. We, in our middle-class morality, wonder how “anyone could dare” to “do that” to “a child,” “a wife,” “a woman.” What remains unexamined is to what extent these forms of familial attachment are, to cite Hortense Spillers, not natural, but cultivated under specific material circumstances. To say this is not to claim any sort of deterministic relationship between class and forms of familial attachment. It is to suggest, however, that forms of familial attachment emerge within material circumstances.

Rather than claim, then, that certain young men have “nothing to lose,” we might begin to ask how we started believing that they had “nothing to lose?” In claiming they have “nothing to lose,” how do we devalue what they both “have to lose” and are in the process of losing? How, in other words, do we complicate the state-sanctioned narratives that would distinguish between the “good citizen,” the “mwananchi,” the one with “something to lose,” and the “bastard” child who lives only to destroy?

6 thoughts on “Nothing to Lose

  1. I would say these young men have nothing “more” to lose.
    They have lost dreams as I am sure they once had them, they of the “someni vijana mwisho wa kusoma mtapata kazi nzuri” generation.
    Probably they went to school up to a certain level then the loss started.

    The loss of potential, of a better life somewhere else, loss of mobility as clearly one can only go to other places especially the interesting urban areas with a purpose. Relatives and friends can only house you for so long. Watching their lives crumble before their eyes and no outlet for the frustration combined with the follies of youth.

  2. I like the “more.” It clarifies some of what I’m trying to grasp.

    Still, a nagging part of me asks, how do we define the “more”? Might it be that what “they” have left to lose is something that we do not value, but might be valuable in “their” economy? So, to return to persistent themes over the past few months: masculinity, respect from peers, ethnicity, even sexuality, might these more abstract notions be at stake, be “something to lose”?

  3. I will go at your very juicy post in bits and pieces.
    you write;However, to assume that “those with nothing to lose” have never had “anything to lose,” be it material or emotional, has the inadvertent (though deliberate) effect of removing “them” from history and historical processes.

    I just showed a movie to my class on Democracy in Latin America (The War on Democracy by John Pilger) where i learnt that before cesar Chaves in Venezuela, slums were marked as green spaces on local maps. The poor literally did not exist.

    To a large extent, the Kenyan story of those ‘with nothing to lose’ is similar.
    You are absolutely right in so eloquently explaining how dismissing them as having ‘nothing’ to lose not only ignores our complacency in their already loss, but closes the door to investigating exactly what it is ‘we’ have taken from ‘them’.

    Question is: what do we do with this realization?
    that is the role I see for politics. down and dirty politics.
    grassroots organizing of the various groups of those with ‘nothing to lose’.
    Many thought Raila’s ODM would be what such a politics looks like. Seeing him golf with Kibaki after getting what he wanted is only confirming my doubts about his resume as what the Kenyans with ‘nothing to lose’ need in terms of leadership.

    Unfortunately, looking across the Kenyan political horizon, i’m not seeing any leader who fits the bill other than Gathogo and Kiai.

    o.k. sorry for jazaring your comments page but this is a really good post

  4. No, please, jaza my comments page! I am greedy! And, I appreciate a real social scientist. We humanities types tend to get lost in language. It’s nice to chat with people who deal with facts.

    Part of me thinks that we still need to give Raila and ODM a chance; let’s give them a grace period of some months, maybe up to a year. We might be, and I hope will be, pleasantly surprised.

  5. Cheers Kerugo for the insightful paradox of our society.

    A shortchanged farmhand who lives in Lavington in a tin shack behind his wealthy employer’s palatial home could as well develop a false sense of success because of his address even though he earns the same income like the slum folks. In his mind he has a lot to lose. It is not always the case that as a wealthy person that one will be obsessed with material wealth. Such a person may not be obsessed by owning a car and may decide instead to ride a bike or board a bus. Its healthy in any case, and so one should not feel bad if he/she cannot afford the same. However for an anarchist poor person, the idea of success can only be in the form of materialism.

    This attitude is what makes Kenyans exhibit unnecessary flamboyance e.g. the usual nyama choma and beer drinking culture is an expression of our desire to elevate our status. A lot of people sacrifice most of their earnings in indulgences that seek to appease their egos. Also I need not talk about people who live in expensive apartments or own flashy cars but have no real net investments.
    While materialism is also rife in western countries, making the banks to tap into the lucrative debt market, it would seem that this form of living is distasteful in a country like ours where majority live on less than 2 dollars a day.

    The assertion that the poor react unreasonably because they have nothing to lose fails to recognize the real problem afflicting this segment. Isn’t their life precious? Who does not want to live another day to enjoy food, sex, laughs, etc. Someone once said that a person in a slum may be happier than the one in a mansion.

    I think the dense population breeds a lot of misinformation which leads to people to take up causes they hardly understand. But also the non verbal cues we learn when at work where even your breathing measures to some certain unwritten standards is something that cannot be possibly taught when most of these guys are unemployed in the first place. Some of these people can just look at you talk or walk and will usually picture you as some some strange being with its mouth moving up and down. Hence the usual “eeh” when you a pose a question. Talk about disullusionment. Its what we get for having the guts to act as if everything is ok.

    Ironically a person seen to be advancing is usually ostracized by his peers. Live in a rented flat in Nairobi and you see hordes of young women with a litter of kids (more bombshells in 10 years time) lining the corridors day in day out talking about the “thug” or “mrogi” in their midst who leaves early when its dark and comes back when its dark at night. Its reached a point where people are being made to feel sorry for being successful.

  6. In my humble opinion, human beings are at their very basic level driven by their interests or perceived interests.

    My gut feeling is that “masculinity, respect from peers, ethnicity, even sexuality” are interests that are at play with what went on in Kenya. However, interests to me are the means by which resources are defined. What I think would be intresting is defining what resource(s) that are behind each one of the interests you mentioned above. Now if the interests above are actually causal or merely correlated to the violence, mayhem and general madness we have witnessed would be pure speculation in my opinion.

    The failure of the political system in Kenya has been its failure to give the majority of Kenyans an interest or a perceived interest in the economic system. I stress perceived interest in that you can have folks buy into system even tough it acts against their own personal interests. I am thinking of the blue collar union workers (Reagan Democrats) that voted and supported Ronald Reagan and subsequent republican administrations. This despite the fact that Ronald Reagan and the republican administrations were opposed to and attempted to dismantle their livelihoods.


    I disagree with the general tone/notion that “we” have taken from them and idea that economics is a zero sum game basically, “I am because you are”.

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