Tag Archives: Political Philosophy

I Revolt Because We Are: Marxism and the Case for a More Radical Ubuntu in the Face of Environmental Disaster

It is an open secret, a blaring announcement stretched to a whisper on the slowly-turning wheels of time: our world is edging towards environmental disaster. In a quest to prevent us from leaving an uninhabitable wasteland of a world behind, the communitarian African philosophy of Ubuntu has been proposed as an alternative ecological framework that ought to guide environmental policy. While these attempts to reframe the ecological debate are well-intentioned, in practice, the traditional Ubuntu ethic is insufficient (and even inconsistent) in a world where the dominant ideology is that of global capitalism. Nonetheless, the ethic, equipped with its radical egalitarian tenets, can inform an action plan that effectively tackles the crisis. This cannot be done without rethinking shallow interpretations of harmony and discord which lend themselves to a platitudinous status quo. In order to address the problem of environmental sustainability, a Revolutionary Ubuntu, reinforced by its Marxist elements, must be forged.

The case for Ubuntu is made by Dr. Edwin Etieyibo, a prominent voice on African philosophy (and my lecturer on the subject), in his paper The Ethical Dimension of Ubuntu and its Relationship to Environmental Sustainability. Etieyibo argues that Ubuntu, in its nature as a communitarian school of thought, equips us with an alternative approach that allows for sustainable use of the earth’s resources. This, he says, is in contrast to individualistic capitalist models which commoditise the global ecosystem and serve to exacerbate ecological disasters like global warming and climate change. These sentiments are by no means misguided. However, if Ubuntu is to become a credible alternative, it is necessary to locate it within the current socio-political, and global economic, context. While some tenets of Ubuntu, upon which Etieyibo places emphasis, are indeed necessary to achieve environmental sustainability, they are not sufficient. The classical Ubuntu ethic, for as long as it stubbornly clings to its distaste for confrontation, is incapable of indicting the perpetrators of ecological degradation. For the current, worsening state of the ecosphere was not an inevitable one – it did not simply happen. The degradation of nature is not a feature of nature. The scientific evidence is unambiguous, and damning. The current ecological disaster was caused. An opponent has been dancing around the ring unchallenged, winning round after round by default. If the proponents of the Ubuntu ethic wish to change this, we cannot continue to aimlessly shadowbox.

What sort of muscle, then, do we have to work with? The Ubuntu ethic is defined as an attitude which prioritises the ‘greater good’, through what Etyiebo calls ‘caring and sharing’. Within the Ubuntu ethic, the promotion of harmony, and reduction of discord, is paramount. Classically, mediation and conciliation are seen as superior to conflict and confrontation. This is crucial (and indeed, classical Ubuntu’s crucial caveat).

If we are to allow ourselves a little more analytic indulgence: ‘Caring’ is similar to the principle of autonomy in Kant’s categorical imperative and is defined as a form of solidarity, which encourages individuals to make the ends of others their own, to adopt one another’s struggles. In summary, I shall define it as a rallying cry: I struggle because you are struggling; I revolt because we are. ‘Sharing’ concerns an attitude towards resources – to share is to recognise that one’s resources may be needed more by others and to redistribute them in accordance with that need. If the definition of ‘caring’ is extended to include adopting the ends of the common good as one’s own (after all, within Ubuntu, I am because we are), then this tenet of the Ubuntu ethic is best summed up by the popular communist dictum, first used by Louis Blanc and later popularised by Marx – “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.”

Ubuntu’s explicit reverence for community is in stark contrast to the dominant ideology in the ‘developed’ world, which is one of neoliberal capitalism – built on the idea that if individuals pursue their selfish interests, it will result in economic growth which will better the lives of all. Adam Smith argued, in his work of the same name, that social and economic inequality is necessary to increase the  Wealth of Nations. It is within this dispensation that our current ecological disaster locates itself. It is in opposition to this dispensation that our proposed solution must be defined.

The opponent is in his corner, the ring has been readied – now, finally, let’s step onto the canvas.

Lovably-obscene Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues that problems of environmental sustainability are problems of the ‘commons’, where individuals and corporations are attempting to privatise the “foundation of our being”. This tendency has placed undue strain on the earth’s limited resources. Its endemic myopia is poisoning the planet. The commons, which, in tandem with the community, is foundational within Ubuntu, is being gravely neglected. Indeed, the capitalist order is not simply unhelpful in achieving the goal of environmental sustainability; in its free market manifestation, it directly opposes it.

In her relatively-recent book, This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein puts forward the argument that problems of climate change are “more grounded in capitalism than they are in carbon.” For example, Klein cites the apparent conundrum surrounding fossil fuels and  argues that, if we simply disregard the free market gospel, by reigning in corporations, rebuilding local economies and bolstering working class representation, we can wean ourselves off unsustainable fossil fuels. In prioritising growth, and making the implicit assumption that growth can continue indefinitely, global capitalism is to blame for much of our impending ecological disaster. The problem is structural and hence, according to Klein, requires us to radically rethink the current economic system. This is where the departure from the classical Ubuntu ethic occurs, since what is necessary to apply it in a meaningful way is a confrontation with the cold gears of the global capitalist machine.

To believe that an approach grounded in Ubuntu will be adopted by the ruling classes voluntarily is to capitulate to excessive idealism. Changes in the dynamic between individuals will have no impact upon environmental sustainability if the dynamic between power and people remains unchanged. Interpersonal caring and sharing means little if a small group of individuals are allowed to act against the common interest, while the wealth of nations is not shared among the people of those nations. The adoption of the ethic of caring and sharing should not be supererogatory for the bourgeoisie, the class which owns and controls the means of production. Allowing the ideals of Ubuntu to guide environmental policy will require the creation of a dispensation where the ‘commons’ is prioritised. In order for a culture of the ‘public good’ to be created, structures which concentrate resources in the hands of a few individuals need to be dismantled.

Those allied with the current capitalist order will question whether it is truly necessary to radically reform, or dismantle it in order to achieve environmental sustainability. The response lies in the nature of the free market they defend. In a climate where success is gauged principally in terms of profit and economic growth, while no serious consideration is given to solidarity and the protection of the commons, there is no good market reason to promote environmental sustainability. Moreover, Marx and Engels, in The Communist Manifesto, argued against private property by pointing out that it has already been done away with for the vast majority of the population. For as long as the bourgeoisie, which is unaccountable to the community, is capable of destroying the commons through its use of the means of production, the global ecosystem is at the mercy of a minority. The current order needs to be radically restructured because it is unacceptable that the fate of the commons is dependent upon the whims of the bourgeoisie.

Real world problems require us to confront the structures and systems of the real world. To fail in this project is to fall prey to fallacies of detached abstraction and excessive idealism. What is argued for here is neither a new Maoist or Leninist Party, nor a repeat of the horrors of Stalinism, but rather a radical reaffirmation of the egalitarian principles which underlie both Marxism and Ubuntu. This can only work if the latter is isolated from its tendencies of non-confrontation and made to take a stand against the reckless capitalism that has been systematically degrading the environment. We cannot settle for an illusion of harmony within a system of normalised, deceptive discord.

With each passing round, our absence from the ring strengthens our opponent and weakens the ecosphere. The bell has been rung by the heavy hand of capital. For the sake of the commons, the people must reclaim the arena.




Suspension has Ended: Revolution is Returning

wits protest

The fierce urgency of now. This was the phrase, coined by Martin Luther King Jr., that I scribbled onto a piece of paper on Friday afternoon, while camped in solidarity inside an occupied Senate House. Surrounding me were scores of students – sisters, brothers, comrades, the dispossessed and their allies – sitting in the nucleus of a movement that was in its third day of a successful shut down of Wits University. A few meters before me was the student leadership, donning the shirts of parties accustomed to rivalry between themselves, negotiating with Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib. Habib had suggested he leave Senate House to convene with council and was met with thunderous objection from the crowd gathered. Eventually, the people decreed that they would not wait – council would meet that day, in Senate House, in full view of the students whose lives were impacted by their decisions. No closed doors. No secrets. Direct accountability. Habib agreed. At that moment, Dr King’s declaration echoed in my mind: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today”. We were indeed confronted with the fierce urgency of now – and it was glorious.

This departure from the lethargic politics of bureaucracy and delay was invigorating. Inside the dimly lit, vast chamber of Senate House, we were a revolutionary collective. Although student leaders (crucially, female leaders who were pushed out of the spotlight too often) spearheaded the movement, they were aware of their role as a proxy for the people. They stood on the shoulders of the students, and weren’t allowed to forget that without popular support, they could not stand up to the powers that be. Every decision, down to the organisation of food, was ratified by popular consensus. The spirit of democracy danced among us. A healthy suspicion of authority sat in our ranks. Hierarchy slowly dissolved in the acid of persistent mockery, directed towards power structures and their petty manifestations. Inside our contingent collective, the vice-chancellor wasn’t afforded his title. Civility remained, but decorum was discarded. We refused to engage in the fruitless spectacle of ceremonial flattery and political theatre. In contrast to the town hall meetings hosted by political representatives, where citizens queue for the opportunity to ask a question of an aggrandised figurehead, the engagement with Habib did not give him much leeway to engage in tactics of diversion and duplicity. Although he was not being held against his will, he was under pressure to engage with students possessed by an uncompromising political will. The ordinary, impotent mode of discourse had been turned on its head.

The Senate House I sat in was radically different from the one I’ve walked into countless times before. Of course, it was materially indiscernible – the same brown and blue university banners hanging from beams spanning the high ceilings, the same concrete pillars climbing to the skies, the same set of converging stairs rising like a peculiar altar from the polished floor and descending into a crypt below. However, the first time I walked into that foyer of the executive, the fumes that clung to the walls of my nostrils were those of polish from the gleaming floors. On Friday evening, it was the choking stench of pepper spray. The space had changed.

It was not just the halls of Senate House that had transformed. During the three day peaceful occupation of the university, it was all too apparent that business as usual had ceased. Some areas of campus were left almost eerily deserted; others were filled with the vibrant energy of rhythmic protest. Seeing the university in this radically different light is, if I may be so bold, a variation of Camus’s Absurd, spawning a peculiarly pleasant kind of Sartrean Nausea. The buildings on campus ordinarily wear the garment of the Institution. The occupation disrobed it. It divorced the space from the veneer of authority and the presumptions of power which usually pervade it. It illuminated our agency to radically redefine it. The realisation of radical freedom may be existentially unsettling, but it is politically liberating. Looking upon an institution that has departed starkly from its usual character, an aura of anarchism meets the eye: the university is not inherently imbued with any indomitable hierarchy, nor is the society which surrounds it structured in a manner that is unchangeable. Its people have no concrete, pre-ordained telos. We are the agents who define the essence that existence precedes. This movement is the product of a generation’s realisation of its own power. And, when we stand together, worker and student hand-in-hand, powerful we are indeed.

Later on Friday evening, while the pepper spray dissipated in the packed halls of Senate House, key members of the council convened. Feverish negotiation followed, stretching deep into the night.  As the sun was only just beginning to peer out from beyond the horizon the next morning, an interim agreement was signed: the decision to raise fees will be suspended, no students or workers who participated in the protests will face punitive measures and crucially, the university will not be at liberty to revert to its original position if negotiations break down. In a vindication of protest tactics, the students had emerged with a clear path towards victory. Those perched atop their privilege, who spent much of last week trying to justify their inaction or opposition by cynically criticising the occupation, were forced to face the concrete results those tactics had produced. In our hands, we held a declaration of our own power – a testament to the strength of our political will.

The Student Awakening is spreading. As sparks from the fire raging at Wits find kindling at UCT, Rhodes University, and the others that will most certainly follow, it’s clear that our generation is shedding its image as the one born outside of Apartheid and inside of Apathy. As we move forward today to hear from council, we are mindful of the fact that our struggle will not end here. The decision to raise fees was not taken in a vacuum, but rather in a climate of marginalisation, commercialisation and dispossession that has excluded the poor for too long. It was the flashpoint, the prelude to a paradigm shift that must occur. Reasons to resist have not evaporated: from the exploitation of outsourced workers, to wealth inequality that is staggeringly high; from dwindling government subsidies, to the fact that even without increases, fees remain too high for too many. Struggle, therefore, should not cease. No longer can we allow our universities to perpetuate a status quo they ought to challenge. If we conserve this momentum, we can become the custodians of a force Victor Hugo deemed indomitable: an idea whose time has come. South Africa’s students have awoken, and we’re ending the suspension of its revolution.