Hamilton, Lawrence Alexander (2017). 'Amilcar Cabral and Amartya Sen: Freedom, Capability and Resistance' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


Amilcar Cabral and Amartya Sen: Freedom, Capability and Resistance

Lawrence Hamilton

NRF/British Academy Research Chair in Political Theory,

University of Cambridge and the University of the Witwatersrand


In Análise de alguns Tipos de Resistência (Lisbon: Seara Nova 1974), Amilcar Cabral mounts a defense of four kinds of resistance necessary to overcome colonial domination. All rest on a conception of human capability, or as he puts it, the need for all humans ‘to develop his or her body and spirit, in order to be a man or a woman at the height of his or her actual ability’. Only a few years later Amartya Sen moved from transforming social choice theory to revolutionizing our understanding of development and freedom, via his now famous ‘capabilities approach’, best summarized in Commodities and Capabilities (Amsterdam: North-Holland 1985), The Quality of Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1993) and Development as Freedom (New York: Anchor books 2000). Sen’s capability approach is made up of two inter-related ideas: functionings and capabilities. The capability of a person comprises the various combinations of functionings that reflect the person’s freedom to lead one type of life or another; that is, it reflects the person’s ability (that includes an assessment of her living conditions) to choose from possible lives. This paper will compare Sen’s view of capability, and how it enables a much richer view of how to assess standards of living and individual and political agency and freedom, with the one that underpins Cabral’s views on resistance. Both will be shown to be examples of freedom as effective power. This, though, is where the similarity ends. The second part of the paper will identify why, despite very similar views on human capability, their views then diverge radically, especially how to best confront and overcome injustice. In short, Cabral provides a telling example of how partial resistance is necessary to overcome injustice (in his case colonial rule). By contrast, in The Idea of Justice (London: Penguin 2009), Sen makes what he calls ‘open impartiality’, ‘plural reasons’ and deliberation guided by ‘public reason’ central to his account of justice. In contrast to Rawls, for example, this doesn’t depend on asking people to affirm what they would have chosen in principle, but what they have chosen, and why they have chosen it: the centrally important role of existing ‘plural reasons’. In drawing on the reasons actual people give for their views Sen has to shoulder the burden that there is in fact an overlapping consensus in support of the principles of justice that we want to sustain in these cases. Even his own examples – tackling slavery and the subjugation of women – are not very encouraging, especially if viewed from a global perspective: slavery, for example, has been practiced all over the world for millenia. In sum, Sen draws a great deal on Indian and other accounts of justice when making his theoretical points about justice, but when he discusses concrete cases we see that something other than impartial, “external” reason is doing the heavy-lifting: objection to practices that are obvious instances of forms of domination. This is an important criticism of Sen’s account of justice. It also explains the very different political views defended by Cabral and Sen. For Cabral, for example, instances of domination can only be overcome by partiality. In other words, freedom as capability (or effective power) is the result not of impartiality of deliberation based on public reason, but on partial resistance to domination. By both leaning on and tacking between Cabral and Sen, the paper defends an account of freedom conceived in terms of empowerment, resistance, control and representation. More specifically people must have the power (i) to overcome obstacles in their everyday lives, (ii) to resist social convention, (iii) to choose their representatives, (iii) and, through their representatives, influence the wider social and economic environment. In other words, freedom obtains if existing forms of resistance and representation minimize domination and enhance political judgement amongst representatives and represented.


Keywords: Cabral, Sen, Freedom, Capability, Resistance

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