Houston, United States of America – There is sometimes a moment one can pinpoint as demarcating a tectonic shift in one’s being, a cracking open of something deep within, sucking one’s mental and emotional resources of their vitality. The Death of Living as animated expression.
Just the week before November 8, I had been living, specifically traipsing all over my new home, Houston – having just moved from Iowa City, where I had spent the past three years, and before that Johannesburg, and four years before that the home of my birth, Bulawayo – hopping from Metro bus to Metro bus like the two-month old resident that I am. Standing on the side of the road, glistening in the exuberant Houston sun, my bracelets jangling, my Africa necklace – speaking of home, the repose of lazy Bulawayo streets on a Sunday morning, the frenetic beat of Jo’burg on a Saturday evening – dangling around my neck. Allowing myself the freedom to explore, to be, to risk losing my way. Squinting at Google Maps. Rejoicing in precious discoveries – a taste of the South in Mama B’s Shrimp N’ Grits at BB’s on Montrose and Weistheimer. Savouring the breathtaking beauty of the Julia Ideson Building in downtown Houston, with its magnificent Reading Room, striking hallways and generous windows (lots of light!).
Traipsing. Discovering. Living. Being.
Something shifted on the night of November 8, letting in a fear and anger that has made it difficult to ‘see.’ And I attempt to use THAT word as little as possible here, because words, when deployed recklessly as they have been over the past several months, can and do Trump our attempts to accord ourselves humanity, dignity. No, I don’t want to use that word, it has been on my mind since November 8, it desires to make itself the single story, to swallow us and regurgitate us as inferior versions of ourselves, minions serving as apprentices to a Trumpian universe – the very worst of dystopia. Words carry meaning, connotations, context; words are never innocent, we know that. What does it mean, this ‘T’ word, what meanings and connotations has it accorded itself?
- Calling for a ban on all Muslims (remember Adolf Hitler’s call to first ostracise and then exterminate all Jews?)
- Claiming – against data that suggests that there is no evidence that immigrants commit more crimes than native-born Americans – that Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals
- 2016 word for Mysogyny:Bragging that one as a (famous white) male can ‘grab them by the pussy’
- Debasing Black Lives Matter and reducing it to a terrorist movement (rhetoric reminiscent of the Reagan Era when Civil Rights and the affirmative action movement were seen in a similar light, and support was given to apartheid South Africa, meanwhile demonising the anti-apartheid movement as ‘terrorists’)
- Smearing ‘Make America White Again’ swastikas on buildings
- Placing a black baby doll with rope around its neck in an elevator on a college campus
- Declaring that Black Lives Don’t Matter
- Shouting slogans such as ‘Cotton Picker, You’re a Nigger, Heil Hitler’
- Free and public expression of sentiments such as the following: ‘I can’t wait until Trump asks us to rape your people and send you back over the biggest damn wall we’re going to build’
- Free and public expression of sentiments such as the following: ‘How scared are u, u black bitch? I should kill u right now!’
I am overcome by a profound grief. I mourn for my personal illusion of America and what was possible in it, the death of the very best of my America that had so far cultivated in me a culture of free speech and thought as advancing humanity. A space that allows one the freedom to see, if one so wishes, in a world that does not want to be seen, only looked at. It takes a long time to see. Seeing is a difficult thing, always in flux because it’s reciprocal, a dialectical activity always in conversation with the world. The view is never static. And everything matters with seeing – angle, distance, depth, breadth, obstruction, mood… The mood of fear instigates a shrinking away from the lens and a surface view of others.
To stare at an image of yourself and come face to face with a face that you cannot recognise as your own, a caricature as seen by others, is the most dehumanising experience. It is a form of erasure
Viet Thanh Nguyen expresses the ethics and responsibility of seeing in his book, Nothing Ever Dies, where he talks eloquently about the value of Remembering One’s Own, as well as the value of Remembering Others:
‘If the ethics of remembering one’s own operates in every society, the ethics of remembering others is the refinement of remembering one’s own, at work only in those societies that see themselves as more open, inclusive, and tolerant…An ethics of recognition involves a change in how we see the other, and in how we see ourselves as well, especially in relation to the other…To avoid simplifying the other, the ethics of recognition demands that we remember our humanity and inhumanity, and the humanity and inhumanity of others as well. As for what this ethics of recognition asks us to forget – it is the idea that anyone or any nation or any people has a unique claim to humanity, to suffering, to pain, to being the exceptional victim.’ (2016: 77-97)
TO BE DEHUMANISED AND TO DEHUMANISE IN RETURN
I feel trapped in the imagery of November 8, in the experience of having been dehumanised and having a strong impulse, out of the hurt to, in turn, dehumanise. To see the world around me in terms of a totalising whiteness, and reflected in this my blackness. The white young man with a ragged beard at my regular Starbucks who is cleaning my table as I type this; does he look at me now, post-November 8, reeking of my Africanness with my wooden bangles and Africa necklace, and see a Trumpian immigrant? Is this who he is, a ‘white man’? Is this who I am, a ‘black immigrant’?
The Black Skin and White Masks of Fanon –that dynamic, oft-misunderstood, abused, anguished, beautiful mind –are calling out to me. What, in the end, did he say?
‘Before embarking on a positive voice, freedom needs to make an effort at disalienation…It is through self-consciousness and renunciation, through a permanent tension of his freedom, that man can create the ideal conditions of existence for a human world. Superiority? Inferiority? Why not simply try to touch the other, feel the other, discover each other?’ (1967: 205- 206)
A Friday walk in the early evening, three days after November 8, along Shepherd Avenue, turns into a stumble. Everything is a blur; Trader Joe’s to my right – housed, amusingly, in what used to be a cinema – and Little Pappas Seafood Kitchen to my left. Overhead, near the corner of Shepherd and Alabama, like some omen in a dystopian novel, the crows have gathered on the electricity wires, smudges of black against a cobalt-grey sky. There is whiteness all around me, everywhere whiteness, whiteness everywhere; I cannot breathe, blackness, whiteness, breathe, breathe, try to breathe…When I glimpse the two homeless men (white) who are always sitting by the bus-stop at the corner of Shepherd and Richmond and who sometimes greet me and whom I sometimes greet, I quickly cross the street.
Can we talk about the foundational ideas of Western civilisation and address its seeming inability to recognise other cultures except as a negation of itself? It becomes difficult, in an authoritarian atmosphere, to ask these kinds of questions freely
Are we now forever caught in a binary of blackness and whiteness? To stare at an image of yourself and come face to face with a face that you cannot recognise as your own, a caricature as seen by others, is the most dehumanising experience. It is a form of erasure. It is like an emptying of the insides, of the essential parts of you; it is a muting, a mutilation, a death of the real you and a rebirth of someone you do not recognise but may be shocked to find, through constant answering to this false image, yourself becoming.
This is what colonialism is. This is what imperialism is. This is what fear turns us into.
One of the attributes of the America I have experienced and that threatens to get lost – and there are many attributes of this place, some very beautiful, some very ugly, for the USA is both a country and an empire, doing the ugly things that countries and, on a more devastating scale, empires do – is the upholding of the thing I hold most dear: The freedom to think. To explore, free of limitations, in the sense of independent thinking and thoughtful expression, the potential of our world; the work of creative invention and intellectual innovation. It is different to grapple with the questions of how the recent surge in civic participation and ethical responsibility currently being propagated by Americans following Trump’s election can be extended in the American imagination from just a protection of all persecuted Americans to all humans persecuted by American imperialism. It becomes difficult not to read articles that speak so humanely about the plight of white rural America, highlighting this plight, which is a real thing, without noting, again, the kind of language that is deployed, that flattens and gives a one-dimensional view, with a kind of disingenuousness that fails to address how often racist and conservative in its view of non-white peoples much of white rural America is (I, as a black person, have been warned repeatedly not to try to venture to the rural parts of white America on my own, as it may be dangerous because of my skin colour), and how these two issues – the economic plight of white rural America and the concurrent ideas around race, especially given how racist, violent and inflammatory the pre-November election campaign language has been – ought not to be separated. They have a real tie to history. They both require grave attention. Which is to say, doesn’t this one-dimensional view facilitate pathos and not empathy, in the same kind of manner, but for different purposes, that the political rhetoric deployed during the election campaign flattened Muslims, Mexicans, minorities, people of colour, women and LGBTQs? It is this sort of erasure of language and its possibilities that I mourn, whose divisive currency now leads to a clamouring of voices as we all seek to inhabit the ‘group’ designated to us by narrow political rhetoric and compete, ‘free-market’ style, to highlight our respective plights as most deserving of attention over the plights of others. I become tempted to add a very long list of grievances that this space, that functions both as country and empire, ought to address with the same level of moral fervour: What about the plight of the Native Americans in the reserves? What about the Iraqi civilians trapped in the nightmare instigated by the US invasion of Iraq? The Syrian civilians (I hesitate to call them refugees as this immediately attaches the kind of narrow imaginary that others, flattens and divides). What about the black and brown peoples of the world who are the casualties, in their countries, of the ‘soft imperialism’ enforced by the US and Western Europe often in cahoots with local governments and elites – IMF and trade policies that hurt local industries and protect multinational corporations from bearing environmental responsibility? Is it possible, in this atmosphere, to ask, with the aim of the kind of critique that expands rather than constricts, how American culture can be made less insular so as to learn more about the rest of the world it must share with everybody else? Can we talk about the foundational ideas of Western civilisation and address its seeming inability to recognise other cultures except as a negation of itself? It becomes difficult, in an authoritarian atmosphere, to ask these kinds of questions freely, even ‘innocently’, and to cultivate the kind of creative and intellectual exploration that leads to innovative imaginaries of how we may inhabit our world. This is the kind of slower, yet equally crucial work of the creative enterprise, the work of slow-cooking the soul until it’s nice and tender, making sure not to turn up the heat too high lest that soul-stew burns.
An essay about a book due for a class turns into a post-Trump rant (directed at the book but so obviously not about the book). ‘White people’. ‘Whiteness’. ‘Privilege’. ‘White Supremacy’. I cannot breathe. I cannot ‘see’. Something feels bruised within. I can feel the fatigue creeping in. The creative and intellectual work I think I have been doing and participating in all this time – it suddenly feels inconsequential. Powerlessness. Grief.
There is nowhere to hide.
THE SLIPPERINESS OF IDEAS
Friday evening, November 11. At the Menil Gallery for a talk by the celebrated poet Terrance Hayes on the relationships between the written line and the drawn line. There is a precision to the stark, white walls of the gallery, a delicious coolness to the air-conditioned room. This hushed, civilised bourgeois atmosphere feels, in the context of the rest of the week, surreal. Hayes’s tawny skin, his graceful movements, his collected comportment, are in themselves an artistic installation thrown against the crisp white background of the Menil. Listening to him speak about the slipperiness of language, and the slipperiness of ideas as things that inhabit tangible, visible shapes, I can’t help but think of the ideas stuffed to near-bursting in the suffocating shapes we are each being encouraged to inhabit by the polarising language of political rhetoric. Anger is a surface response, a superficial response because it covers something else. It is necessary for the artist to be a shape-shifter, so as to inhabit different consciousnesses. Vulnerability can be a sort of power. Openness can be a sort of power. Vulnerability leaves one open to surprise.
Listening to Hayes’s talk, I can’t help but think of the people on the continent, back in South Africa and especially Zimbabwe. Have we, I wonder, been so abused and so beat down politically by many of our own leaders, that we have lost the capacity for outrage or any sort of meaningful emotion, the kind of response that can stir up something other than apathetic cynicism?
Listening to Hayes’s talk, I can’t help but think of the people on the continent, back in South Africa and especially Zimbabwe, and the kinds of political environments we inhabit. Have we, I wonder, been so abused and so beat down politically by many of our own leaders, and also this tumultuous history of struggle, that we have lost the capacity for outrage or any sort of meaningful emotion, the kind of response that can stir up something other than apathetic cynicism? What is this loss of the impetus to dare to imagine a radically different tomorrow? The death of the hope that we can get there? How, in an age where we have been encouraged to live only for ourselves and validate only those things in the world that impact us and our ‘group’ directly, can we expand the nodes of connection across a horizontal axis – that is to say, across spaces and nations – and not just a vertical one – the nationalist rhetoric we are hearing now everywhere, centred around our respective flags? What is it that Arundhati Roy said about flags? ‘Flags are bits of coloured cloth that governments use, first to shrink wrap people’s brains, and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.’
THE WORLD OUTSIDE, THE WORLD WITHIN
Seated at the Menil, listening to Hayes’s magnificent talk, and the invitation to the cheese and wine after, I imagine the effects of a timely disturbance just outside, the kind of frenetic commotion I feel inside; white and black bodies, slamming against the front glass wall of the gallery, faces squished against the pane; a thud, a jolt, our inner bourgeois tranquility ruffled, if only momentarily, as the world outside struggles to collide with the world within.
The Morality Debate and the Spirit of Capitalism
Public discourse on morality and individual virtue has long been emphasised. But as JORG WIEGRATZ argues, they only tell part of the story of human beings and human society. Indeed, capitalism and its current variant neoliberalism is a moral order that defines the standards of interaction within a neoliberal society.
“It is not from the benevolence (kindness) of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” – Adam Smith: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations
There is a common position in public debates in many contemporary societies – be it in Uganda, Kenya, Germany, the UK or the US – that we live in an age of moral decline and moral crisis. Typically, this is a more or less direct commentary on the global system that shapes all of these societies: capitalism. Well-known public commentators and analysts in these countries, such as Will Hutton in the case of Britain, will declare that current capitalism is morally bankrupt. Hutton writes: “’Modern capitalism’ has arrived at a moral dead end, interested largely in feathering the nests of its leaders while imposing enormous costs on the rest of society and accepting no reciprocal obligations.”
Others refer to capitalism as just plain immoral and evil; or assert that figures such as fraudulent bankers or hard core, ever-profit-maximising speculators, business owners and managers (who lay off thousands of workers, or close entire factories to move to countries with cheaper labour) have lost their moral compass. This is an argument that one comes across regularly when the latest scandals emerge around systemic, high-level, harm-producing fraud and corruption or when heartless profit-making schemes are exposed, with those paying the price for these schemes being the most vulnerable people, including patients, pensioners, children, poor communities or an unsuspecting public.
Often, the terms “greed” or “selfishness” are dropped somewhere in these analyses as well, which implies that the money-minded actors concerned are immoral greedsters. Other words one regularly finds in such texts are “shocking”, “disgusting”, “devil”, “soul-less”, “cold-hearted”, “inhumane”, “indifferent”, and the like, signalling a sort of (expressed) moral unease and outrage about the critiqued actors and practices. In society usually certain economic activities, certain ways of earning a living, of making money by some groups, get categorised as immoral by some other group. And when a society experiences the rise or becoming more publicly visible of certain – say, new, more innovative, blatant, or radical – forms of money-oriented activities or ways of thinking, you will soon find one commentator pulling the analytical card that has “immoral”, or “moral decline” written on it. Representatives of the state (and the political system more broadly), the church, or unions from time to time run this line in one form or another. Of course, when your analysis asserts that morals are at rock bottom, or have been crowded out, then the diagnosis is to inject “more morality”.
Let me then present some examples of this conventional type of reasoning in public debates from the African continent, more specifically South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Nigeria: “Is it that the moral fibre of our society is irrevocably broken…?”; “[Political leaders have] largely lost their moral compass”; “Our freedom of expression had started eroding our moral fabric”; “Poor parenting and moral decay in society are to blame for runaway corruption”; “[There is now] capitalism without a soul … capitalism has lost its moral shine”; “Nigeria is gradually moving into the future with greater number of its youths turning into drugs addicts and becoming morally bankrupt”; “Only immoral leaders would put politics ahead of Nigeria’s fiscal future”; “The loss of moral values threatens our common existence”; “Government will introduce an examinable subject in schools to teach students and pupils ethics in order to rebuild the country’s degenerating moral values and make the citizens appreciate honesty.”; “Rampant criminal activities… have been blamed on lapse in moral values.” And so on and so forth. Our world is full of such statements from public officials, church leaders, artists, scholars and other professional analysts.
Notably, the youth, or groups such as “drug users”, are regularly depicted as having lost their morals. So are categories of people who just go after money, who are just in it for the money, as they say. This debate is, for instance, existent in discussions about young women dating rich and powerful old men or looking for private sponsors/sugar daddies (“transactional sex”; or about the sex-for-university-marks or sex-for-a-job phenomena, be it in Kenya, Uganda, or Nigeria.
This debate came to the fore in Kenya recently when two women, Sharon Otieno and Monica Kimani, were killed mid last year, allegedly because of having sexual affairs with older men. Al Jazeera later ran an extensive special programme headlined: “Why are Africa’s ‘sugar’ relationships in the spotlight?”, and sub-headlined: “Murder in Kenya fuels conversation about partnerships where money and gifts are traded for sex and companionship.” And, the BBC published a long investigative piece about the phenomenon of sugar-baby-daddy/sponsor/blesser, titled “Sex and the Sugar Daddy’” around the same time. Did at least one of the commentators (in traditional or social media) run the moral decline/immorality argument in this particular case too to discuss the behaviour of the women, and the issue of money and sexual relationships?
Lots of observers and analysts seem to agree then that there is a spreading of immorality – especially in the world of business – and a sort of moral regression across modern society, and that this is the issue that needs sorting. In other words, morals are a good thing (and we need as much of them as possible), and something is attacking these morals, making them diminish. Picture a kind of downward spiral, an eroding kind of trend, a society (or particular groups such as “the youth”, or “bankers”) losing their moral values – something gets thinner by the day, something is in decline. The enemy here is immorality, not morality, or say, a specific type of morality. How easy and clear for an analysis – which one can run year in, year out – without even much need for empirical data to support the claims.
Lots of observers and analysts seem to agree that there is a spreading of immorality – especially in the world of business – and a sort of moral regression across modern society, and that this is the issue that needs sorting. In other words, morals are a good thing (and we need as much of them as possible), and something is attacking these morals, making them diminish.
But is this line of argument perhaps not as useful as it seems, as both diagnosis and prescription? Notably, whatever country you look at, very few commentators or scholars, let alone politicians, ever offer an analysis of capitalism and capitalist society as a moral order itself, as a moral system and moral economy with a moral grammar and all sorts of moral-economic milieus and cultures – across economic sectors, professions, locations. And, very few analysts would argue that what so many observers describe and interpret as a case of moral decline, crisis and bankruptcy, is actually a case or phenomenon of moral change in society, and what observers diagnose as a problem of immorality (or absence of morality) is actually a problem of morality, i.e. a problem of particular socially dominant and powerful moral cultures, moral milieus and moral economies in a capitalist society, of the type of moral views, justifications and priorities, of the type of moral actors that this particular social order – and capitalist polity and political economy – tends to bring about.
That said, to get a different analysis and debate concerning morals in today’s society, to move beyond the moral decline thesis and other conventional takes on the matter, three analytical insights or analytical starting points are crucial: capitalism is a moral order; the so-called bad/immoral actors are moral actors too; what is happening in front of our eyes can be treated analytically as cases of moral change, not moral decline or moral bankruptcy.
Capitalism is a moral order
One of the reasons for the popularity of the moral-decline/immorality argument is a particular understanding of morals that is apparently widespread in public discourse. According to this line of reasoning, morals are about being pro-social i.e. being good to other human beings; supporting others to flourish; being altruistic, caring, helpful, honest, selfless; foregoing one’s self-interest; not acting on the basis of self-interest; and so on. If one starts with such a notion of morals, then, of course, one might think that fraudsters or the super-rich are immoral or that our world is in moral decline – look at all the fraud, corruption, deception, violence, inequality, egotism, and narcissism in human affairs. And if you look through these analytical lenses at the history of humanity – i.e. at the actual practices of human beings and the explicit or implicit logics underpinning them – then you might indeed declare a large chunk of what humans do, of human history, as simply “immoral”, i.e. as immoral practice of immoral actors, as immoral decisions, immoral rulers, immoral government, immoral societies and so on.
Human history then in many (not all) aspects looks like a story of moral decline, moral crisis, moral bankruptcy, going on for centuries. Humans inflicting misery and suffering on others, destroying families, villages, cities and countries; using, exploiting and humiliating each other – and destroying the environment and extinguishing species – because of this decline or absence of morals. In other words, all these practices – and respective repercussions for the well-being of others affected by them – exist because of other factors than (i.e. everything but) our morals. They exist not because of the presence of (particular) morals, i.e. not because of the dominance of specific morals over others in society. If you are a morality analyst that adopts this conventional angle – morals are about being pro-social – you can ignore that big chunk of our human history, because all this immoral or amoral stuff has nothing to do with our morals, and our moral order and moral culture more broadly, and the political, economic, social and psychological factors and conditions that bring these about. To study human morals, it is sufficient then to focus on fair trade, altruism, charity, solidarity, and the like, i.e. the pro-social practices; that is where the music plays.
However, you might take a different, more open, flexible understanding of morals that allows you to, analytically speaking, see morals and moral culture de facto everywhere where humans relate and interact with each other and thus matters of their well-being – and related matters of (in)justice, (un-)fairness, (in-)decency, (in-)authenticity etc. – come into play, are affected, are at stake, or are negotiated. This take would allow researching, seeing, discussing and critiquing the moral underpinning of the entire spectrum of social practices from good” to “bad”. It would see (as some movies and TV series do) the prime sites of fraud, corruption, boardroom sell-outs, violence, humiliation, oppression, and exploitation as moral sites as well, as sites where moral codes, views and priorities operate too just as in the boardroom of the altruists (though arguably different sort of morals). How is that possible, you wonder, to find morals where they are supposedly absent, where people operate who have lost, as we heard, their moral compasses? It really depends on the definition and take on morals one applies.
But note: when I talk of moral order I don’t necessarily mean a “good” (just, humane, fair, socially progressive) order. Instead, moral order or moral culture here refers, amongst others, to an order that has a wide range of existent – dominant and non-dominant, complementing, conflicting and competing – moral norms, interpretations, views, beliefs, claims, demands, tensions, contradictions, discourses, imaginations, and so on regarding matters of good/bad, right/wrong, acceptable/unacceptable, legitimate/illegitimate, and so on in social relations and practices, including in the economy. And, in this sense, capitalism, and its different variants from colonial to neoliberal capitalism, is (and has always been) a moral order, culture, system too; with a wide range of moral milieus and moral economies, with a wide mix of notions of right/wrong, good/bad, acceptable/unacceptable, praiseworthy/blameworthy, with various patterns and distributions of benefit and harm, of flourishing and suffering.
Morals don’t necessarily mean or imply pro-social practice (i.e. a practice that fosters the flourishing of others, is honest etc.). As human history and research shows, there are operational, actually-existing, on-the-ground morals in particular social settings that prescribe or advance that it is acceptable, right, good, and necessary to defraud (or intimidate, threaten, evict, exploit, enslave, etc.) and thus harm another human being or social group, for particular reasons. Professionals who work or have worked in fraud-invested companies or organisations at times say – once they face a judge, investigator, or reporter, or blow the whistle – that fraud was the culture in the place, i.e. that it is/was the tacit or explicit moral culture in the organisation or team to deceive, cook the books, take short cuts, short-change vulnerable customers, and so on so as to meet revenue and profit targets, beat competitors, get bonuses, and keep the job (and thus make family/region/nation proud, send the kids to good schools, save for the future and old age, look after extended family, etc.).
Morals don’t necessarily mean or imply pro-social practice (i.e. a practice that fosters the flourishing of others, is honest etc.). As human history and research shows, there are operational, actually-existing, on-the-ground morals in particular social settings that prescribe or advance that it is acceptable, right, good, and necessary to defraud (or intimidate, threaten, evict, exploit, enslave, etc.) and thus harm another human being or social group, for particular reasons.
That said, let’s look at this alternative definition or take on morals in more detail then: Morals, including morals on the ground, as expressed in actual practice, can be understood as being in many ways about how we treat one another (for instance in the economy) and how we deal with matters of (in)justice, (un)fairnesss, (dis)honesty/authenticity, solidarity, etc. in this context. Morals are about what is regarded as acceptable or unacceptable, as right/wrong, good/bad, proper/improper, legitimate/illegitimate, or praiseworthy/blameworthy. As you can perhaps sense already, in society, in a local market place, in a factory or in an office there are all sorts of views about what constitutes acceptable practice, what or who is moral and immoral, and so on. And you can bet that the ruling classes (the powerful, the dominant, the oppressors and exploiters) in any place have a somewhat different view regarding what is right, good, proper and acceptable than the subaltern classes (the oppressed, exploited, humiliated, beaten-up people). In other words, what different social actors regard as proper or acceptable depends on the actor’s power, position in society and economy, experiences in and perspective on life and society, and so on. All this is far more open to people’s views and interpretations – hence diverse, variable and changing – than the many voices in public debates want us to believe.
One of the shortest and cleanest formulations of this aspect is one by Monika Keller: moral norms are “standards of interaction concerning others’ welfare”. In this phrasing of what morals are, the emphasis is on how we treat each other (and thus affect the lives of those involved), and what is regarded as normal or acceptable in this regard. Using this angle, the pro-social element (being altruistic, solidaristic etc.) is not a necessary part of the understanding of “morals” anymore. The morals in place could be: your welfare doesn’t matter (too much; or not as much as our welfare anyway), because of x (you are…; we are…; the situation…), hence, we (are justified to) treat you in a particular way (exploit, defraud, torture, kill etc.). Morals are thus also about what are acceptable levels of interpersonal or social harm in various settings, from the battlefields in business to those in wars. With this analytical starting point, one can now begin to search for, analyse, and understand (as well as critique) morals – and moral orders, cultures, climates and economies more broadly – that underpin – i.e. render (sufficiently) acceptable, proper, right, normal, necessary – exploitation, fraud, intimidation, humiliation, violence and trafficking in the economy, or the practice of leaving people who seek refuge/survival/a better life in Europe to drown in the Mediterranean. The analytical and political question then is: what are respective moral climates and moral codes, and what/who (re-) produces them, and why?
That said, from an analytical perspective we can now relate for instance fraud to morals, i.e. to standards of interaction concerning fellow human beings (and their lives and well-being, and related interests) in a specific time-place context. This “standard”, for at least some actors in their respective social settings, could be that under condition x, it is okay, necessary, proper, right, or good to defraud another human being, social group or class, because of z. Or, in case of corruption-infested road construction projects, the standard of those directly or indirectly advancing the deal could be something in the direction of: it’s okay to get some good money (for purpose x, y, z), at the expense of future victims of road accidents due to the resulting poor roads (because part of the money meant for building material etc. was siphoned off). And this shared notion, understanding, norm or “standard” – this action justification – is of course a social phenomenon, i.e. is socially constituted: (re)produced over time by something and someone (beyond the individual fraudster, or group of fraudsters), including global, national and local politics, political economy, religion, you name it. Remember, norms (including moral norms) are “socially constituted action justifications”.
So, the point is to recognise that whatever the social practice in the economy, there is some sort of moral grammar – a notion of how to treat others, what is regarded as acceptable/unacceptable – underpinning it. And these views, understandings and justifications – how to treat others in economic sites ranging from agricultural fields to markets, factories, bank branches, domestic homes and so on – do not fall from the sky but are a product of society, including its history, class and power structure, and its mode of production, as well as, for instance, the global political economy that impacts this society.
We have now arrived at an analytical point where we can shift gear: instead of mainly thinking about whose morals are right and wrong (from whatever political, philosophical standpoint), or what is moral/immoral, other questions to grapple with emerge: what are these specific morals in specific settings that bring about a certain social practice (that conventional analysis declares as immoral, inhumane etc.) and where do these morals come from, what/who (re)produces them, what has it to do with politics and capitalism, and so on. And: how do morals change over time, and why?
With this sort of take on morals, one can now understand better, and claim scientifically, that a particular set of morals (whether as an analyst one likes them or not) are actually present in the cases that much of public debate and commentators declare as immoral, amoral, or inhumane: from the cases of fraud, greed, exploitation, humiliation and intimidation in our high-stakes economies (where people relate and interact in order to make a living, survive, keep the job, ensure the bonus, escape poverty, get wealthy, strike riches etc.) to a capitalist economy, culture and society as a whole.
Of course, philosophers of war have for long run the line of argument that under specific conditions, for particular reasons (to protect/advance one’s country, king, god, etc.), it is good, necessary, legitimate, proper, or just to kill another human being, to kill (or imprison, torture etc.) others by the hundreds or thousands i.e. to harm others, to lower their welfare levels, to limit their flourishing. If war was one context and site where some scholars could construct an argument about the morals of harming others (aka, Just War) – which was of course not just a desk-based argument but somewhat reflected aspects of the historical situation on the ground where this war-is-moral was one of the existent morals at the time (arguably advanced, then as now, especially by rulers, and profiteers of war) – then the morals-of-harming-others analysis can be extended to other social sites, contexts and actor groups i.e. beyond war, soldiers, generals (or nowadays drone operators), enemies in the battlefield and so on.
Then there is an open analytical pathway, i.e. hope that the scholarly oddity – that we hardly study, let alone gather qualitative data on the morals that underpin the entire spectrum of human action (from so-called “good” to “bad” actions), across history – could be addressed, and perhaps amended over time. The oddity that there is so little theory and data on the moral underpinnings of a lot of social practices that humans in the millions and billions have very consistently, for a very long time, shown and opted for in their engagement with each other when matters of livelihood, poverty, survival, wealth, power, prestige, status, privilege, career and so on are on the line: these humans have deceived, exploited, intimidated, bought-off, bullied, defrauded, killed (with ever more effective weaponry), as well as conquered, colonised, enslaved, burned-the-place, and eradicated alternative, resisting, non-compliant cultures. Given the size, significance and importance of the phenomena of concern, it is odd that the (e.g. qualitative) data set about these aspects of the macro and micro moral climates, worlds and milieus of earning a living, of profit-making, of striking riches, of accumulation, of outcompeting others, you name it, is so astonishingly small.
Anyway, once one can hold this analytical point (regarding such a take on morals), one can engage with more unconventional analyses in order to learn something about the entire spectrum of moral orders and morals of human beings. For example, some scientists have explored moral systems and moral subjectivities related to “bad stuff” and “bad actors” outside the economy: cases here range from the mentioned soldiers and generals in war, to mass murders, terrorists, neighbours-as-killers in heightened social conflicts (in Rwanda, for example), Nazis and Nazi Germany, and so on. And some scholars have looked at the “moral worlds” of state institutions too, including police, courts, prison, social services, and mental health facilities, i.e. what some would regard as “bad” actors and practices. But this literature – especially the former that explores morals that prescribe significantly (and routinely) harming others – is generally not used in the scholarship, let alone in our public debates, about the moral order and dynamics in a capitalist economy and society.
Morality and power
Many positions in our public debates about morals in contemporary society are, in my view, so sterile, so stuck, so analytically flat, because they do not allow us to talk about, and thus understand, the social constitution, including the politics, of these sorts of morals: the morals of the small and large “wrong-doers”, such as the fraudulent (and/or “greedy”) bankers, insurers, industrialists, traders, speculators, tycoons, doctors, lawyers, or politicians, and the moral climate in the organisations and sectors they work and operate in. The debates, as outlined earlier, mostly say: immorality (or, out-of-hand greed, self-interest etc.) is the issue and problem at hand – and this can be cured by more morals, including an injecting of more morals into capitalist corporations and sectors. This closes off any engagement and debate with what is in my view the real issue: morals (of treating others, of making money etc., including deceiving, defrauding, taking advantage of, exploiting, and harming others) and moral order in a society shaped by capitalism.
Many positions in our public debates about morals in contemporary society are, in my view, so sterile, so stuck, so analytically flat, because they do not allow us to talk about, and thus understand, the social constitution, including the politics, of these sorts of morals: the morals of the small and large “wrong-doers”, such as the fraudulent (and/or “greedy”) bankers, insurers, industrialists, traders, doctors, lawyers, or politicians, and the moral climate in the organisations and sectors they work and operate in.
One more important point: morals – notions of what is acceptable, legitimate, normal, okay or necessary practice – are (i) political i.e. shaped by political and political-economic context, and thus matters of power and conflict, and (ii) co-constituted in a social process by a variety of social actors with different – and often competing and conflicting – moral views and priorities, and of course different and competing economic and political interests. There are always power structures and processes as well as social conflicts (regarding what is right/wrong, acceptable/unacceptable, legit/illegitimate) that underpin any dominant moral order, or specific aspects of that order. As an example: the absence of an effective minimum wage for decades now is a key characteristic of the moral order in neoliberal Uganda, backed, at the minimum, by a range of powerful actors and their moral views and priorities regarding right, good and acceptable and related political and economic interests.
Most public analysts that I read or listened to in our media over the years never really bothered to deeply analyse this collective nature of our actually existing morals in the economy. For instance, what are the societal processes and structures – and interplay of actors – that produce fraudulent bankers and fraud-invested banks? Crucially, economic activity takes place in an uneven landscape of power and resources in which social actors contest and negotiate over the boundaries of acceptable action. In other words, the moral order, the moral climate in the economy, or in specific sectors (say, maize production and trade in Kenya) is deeply shaped by politics and the political economy. What turns out to be the dominant practice, the dominant norm – i.e. the way things are done – is thus a “function” of power, or more specifically, of power structures and relations in a capitalist society. That basic insight makes the phenomenon and analysis of moral order so political; again, something most public commentators don’t recognise or make much of. So next time you are “shocked” about the practices and “immorality” of tycoons, bankers or managers, check out what their morals are and what they have to do with power.
To close the discussion of this point: according to theoretical and empirical scholarship, the current variant of capitalism, neoliberalism, is associated with or puts emphasis on morals (that endorse matters), such as self-interest, individualism (with a focus on individual choice, gain and material success), personal enjoyment and achievement, self-actualisation, a focus on transactions and money, wealth accumulation, consumption, opportunism, cunning, low other-regard and empathy, low regard for the common good, and so on. Does some of this sound familiar when you look at your society, your town, your community? Of course, there is more to neoliberal moral order and neoliberal moral economy than I can outline here but these are some of the issues to start with.
Those who study and emphasise pro-social morals are not wrong, but they only tell a part of the story of the morals of human beings and human society. The economy (or polity for that matter) of your country is full of and overflowing with morals (not all “good” ones, I give you that, but morals still), with millions of actors with morals and moral compasses; even the notorious, hard core fraudster has a compass, a particularly skewed one perhaps but a compass it still is. Try to go through everyday reality and observe fellow human beings and their practices through this lens for a day or two. You might find it insightful.
False Freedom: The Hollow Pillars of Liberal Democracy
In a now commonly known assessment F. Fukuyama, after 1989 change in world systems, predicted the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. It is the ideal system the African continent is not only looking up to, but also being either encouraged, or, in some instances forced to adopt. Saying liberal democracy, today, means a certain number of things that some people call features of liberal democracy, others call its values, others its characteristics, and so on. They include the rule of law; citizens’ rule; majority rule, minorities’ rights, individual rights; regular free and fair elections; democratic representation; freedom of speech, freedom of association and pressure groups; pluralism understood as distribution of power between competing groups, i.e. mainly political parties; freedom of religion; equality as equal opportunity to develop potential and equal say in government matters. This long list would be incomplete if it does not state that all this is ensured by constitutionalism understood as the system of checks and balances between State’s arms of power drawing up the mechanism of cooperation and consultation between them on the one hand; and on the other between citizens and State institutions.
Those who have demanded periodically “democracy now”, in Africa and in other parts of the world, were demanding the system described above. Before them, those who have struggled to overcome the excesses of single party regimes, or even military regimes, sought to embrace liberal democracy.
The above shows how there can hardly be an exhaustive definition of liberal democracy. It is commonly accepted that it relies on classical liberalism which in turn, in simple terms, would mean an ideology concerned with man’s freedom from any impositions. It is based upon the principles of liberty and equality. In addition, classical liberalism propounds a system as central to itself: private property, free market, unhampered by government rule; the rule of law; constitutional guarantee of freedom of the media and religious freedom, as well as peace achieved through trade, both domestically and internationally. If that is what is “liberal’ in liberal democracy, what would be the “democracy” part in it? It would be the universal suffrage, a strong middle class, and an active civil society. Moreover, pluralism expressed through political parties is supposed to ensure that alternation in governing is possible since it is assumed that loyal opposition would give voters the chance to get out office individuals or a party that is not performing.
Those who have demanded periodically “democracy now”, in Africa and in other parts of the world, were demanding the system described above. Before them, those who have struggled to overcome the excesses of single party regimes, or even military regimes, sought to embrace liberal democracy. Indeed it appears to create room for the sovereignty of the people to give itself a constitution; to accommodate the representation of large populations with the widest sociological diversity; to ensure the control of government is assured by the division of power with a direct control exercised by parliament, usually a bicameral one; and be open to citizens’ participation as channels for people to organize themselves according to shared opinions and ideologies made possible by political parties. Has it worked? Some say in parts yes, and in parts it is a problem.
PROBLEM IN PRACTICAL TERMS
The problem, however, is that embracing liberal democracy on the African continent has yielded progress, yes but also has created new problems. It would be enough to look at the aftermath of the so-called “Arab Spring” in northern Africa. Moreover, the fact is and remains that the gains of multiparty politics as well as those of the recent revolutions in northern Africa in terms of achievements of social justice and peace are still questionable. Generally, in terms of what can be termed political common good understood as the different social conditions, material and non-material, that allow people as individuals and groups to develop their own potential and that of their community, small and large, liberal democracy hasn’t done much. Instead, new forms of conflicts have sprung up. At times liberal democracy policies and practices have also created social paralysis. In this aspect, one can think of some unsuccessful coalition governments that created endless bickering rather than advance people’s true development.
Generally, in terms of what can be termed political common good understood as the different social conditions, material and non-material, that allow people as individuals and groups to develop their own potential and that of their community, small and large, liberal democracy hasn’t done much.
The previous contribution to this publication alluded to the fact that liberal democracy conceptually promotes individualism which is in stark contrast with the basics of the African society based upon solidarity and hospitality. This is due to its major principles of absolute freedom and equality, which remain theoretical and impossible to translate into tangible response to people’s needs. In a bid to emulate developed societies’ life style, or rather liberal democracies’ life style for example, urban Africa is living some kind of a proxy life characterized by a growing individualism, with no other duties than seeking to maximize individual wellbeing through pronounced materialism, as well as a series of subjective rights. Why call it proxy life? On the one hand because so few have the means to actualize it. And on the other, because a much and far bigger number, on the continent, is still living very far below such standards, a fact that makes it impossible to unleash a critical mass of a middle class with decent income necessary for a stable democracy.
When it claims to be the rule of the majority, even in developed societies, including the United States of America, it often is the case that from the business world, to political institutions and municipalities, the will of the majority can find itself under a fierce control of just a few, normally a very restricted economic elite. In Western societies, the participation in political processes is similar to the law of the jungle: the survival of the fittest. The fittest here being the one with the money. Ordinary people do not see the difference their vote can make where financial power rules politics, which explains, in part, the declining number of those who actually vote. The case of recent general elections in France is an illustration of this. The same could be said of the shrinking power of organisations that used to represent ordinary people such as unions, which weakened the workers in the face of corporate power; a panorama suggesting that liberal democracy is a political system in which the free market rules. Consequently, at least in the west, the ordinary citizen looks like he is left aside. Such situation has forced even liberals like Mrs. Clinton to use, in her recent campaign, such concepts as inclusive capitalism instead; or the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders to campaign against “Wall Street”.
In Western societies, the participation in political processes is similar to the law of the jungle: the survival of the fittest. The fittest here being the one with the money.
The system is a problem if money controls politics, or if corporations control political agenda as well as the media. The resulting disenchantment is that elected political office holders do not represent the voters, they represent the interests of those who fund them. In Africa this is double jeopardy, as those who fund politicians could be, not just a small financial elite in any given country, but also foreign donors with special interests, far removed from the needs of the voters. The problem as it appears in practical terms demands that the tenets of liberal democracy be interrogated. Such an interrogation must first posit the problem in theoretical terms.
THE PROBLEM IN THEORETICAL TERMS
Asked recently about what has just started to go wrong in liberal democracies, Fukuyama said: “Well, there are several things. So one is just the fate of globalization, which actually worked very well in the aggregate. But it didn’t benefit everybody equally. You know, we’re now more than a generation away from the collapse of communism. And in a way, everybody now takes democracy for granted. And they’re very unhappy with the way that their institutions are performing, I think, both in the United States and in Europe”. In the West, the reaction against globalization stems from the fact that huge swathe of the working population feels that the free market tied to the liberal democracy hasn’t worked for them at all. It has increased the power of a small financial elite to decide the fate of a political system everyone else should put up with even if it is not working for them. That is what makes the illustrious Fukuyama say that people feel the pull of taking part in tribal societies instead.
Talking about tribal societies, in Africa, we never departed from our tribal societies. There is never a need to shun one’s tribe as it does form part of one’s identity. Trouble started when channeling political pluralism in terms of political parties. In most African countries, multiparty politics drew up those political mechanisms of seizing and retaining power along tribal lines, perverting the tribe into tribalism. This permeated the only instance of political participation, i.e. elections, with the consequences known to all. The aggravating circumstance that goes with it is the sheer number of individuals that are far from being members of the so-called middle class. One could even say that what is called “middle class” in a number of African countries is the “indebted class” whose home is mortgaged, the car is on loan, school fees are on loan and, even sometimes, the furniture is on loan, etc…
However, it can’t be said that what is wrong with liberal democracy should be reduced to the social ills of where it is to be implemented. This is because, liberal democracy is also flawed conceptually. Its flaws can be summarized in the following points, proving that its main pillars are rather hollow. Coming to terms with such a reality could push the debate to seek some corrective measures, in the African context, in some of our traditional understanding of the art of government as based upon wisdom. Which pillars appear to be hollow?
1. The principle of liberty and equality
When liberal democracy is touted as the most adequate system of government, it is assumed that it is because, through the distribution and control of power, it offers greater guarantee against arbitrariness and oppression. On such ground it defends its foundational principle of liberty and equality by presenting greater protection to individual liberty and respect for human rights, which are the expression of equality. In virtue of equality all can participate in democratic governance, because all are free and equal. However, political power cannot really be exercised by all. It is necessary to hand it to someone: that is what elections do. Hence the reason why for some, with elections the purpose of public governance is achieved. This means that the purpose of the political community is to give to the individual his rights and consequently the political community has no value in itself. It is an instrument for individual interest. Here is a major characteristic of the liberal tradition, in contrast with the republican tradition. The distinction between these two should be the object of a different issue.
However, political power cannot really be exercised by all. It is necessary to hand it to someone: that is what elections do. Hence the reason why for some, with elections the purpose of public governance is achieved.
Considering the community as a mere instrument at the service of individual liberties, easily morphed into individual interests where free market reigns, is the surest way of emptying the concept of individual liberty of its content. This is because individual liberty exists within an order of liberties. Individual liberty cannot be absolute as liberal democracy has made it to be. It needs a measure, without which it can become a means of violence against other people’s liberties. When individual liberty is absolute, it can easily create fertile ground for conflict of “us” against “them”, or, as it has been the case in totalitarian regimes, a case of conflict of all against all.
What is the right content of individual liberty then? It could have two meanings: fundamental human rights and prosperity for all as well as the good of each citizen. Such content refers directly to the common good, a concept that has not found room in liberal democracies, where it’s all about interests. This demonstrates further why a true content for the idea of equality cannot be found either. Indeed human beings are different. We can’t put the same value on the opinion of educated people and uneducated ones, wise elders and ignorant people, law abiding citizens and criminals, etc. More importantly those upon whom power is invested, in order to be free and equal, must recognize their own good in the common good of the people they lead. This fact clashes, once again, against the wall of individual interests be they of the few or of corporations within a liberal democracy.
The discussion of what is lacking under the pillars of liberty and equality in liberal democracy indicates or gives rise to questioning its understanding of another of its seeming pillar: the idea of what is just.
2. The idea of what is just
In liberal democracy, there is a tension between the idea of freedom, as the form of democratic life, and the idea of what is just and what is right as its content. Observing today’s trends, it can be easily seen that the emphasis is always on freedom, while what is just and good remain secondary matters and, in some instances, they appear in third, fourth or even fifth place in the debate, in the name of the fact that no one wants the State to shape their idea of what is just and/or good. This position is even pronounced when there is need to understand what is just in the light of the truth. The liberal tradition does not believe that truth, especially truth about what is good and just can be known at the level of the community or in the public sphere. Liberals firmly believe that truth belongs to the realm of the private sphere. Thinking about what is truly just and truly good for all is practically un-democratic. So the question is, what is then the foundation of liberal democracy’s claim for social justice if there is no hint of a publicly, or commonly understood truth about what is just, not only for a ruling class but also for an ordinary citizen? Social justice appears then to be another hollow tenet of liberal democracy. The absence of a universal understanding of the truth not only about what is just but also about what is good, for the leader and the citizens, is one of the reasons why a number of thinkers are of the opinion that liberal democracy relies on relativism as another pillar for it as a system
3. The principle of relativism underlying the majority rule
The fact that liberal democracy relies on relativism is a contradiction in principles. This is because democracy is perceived to be the best guarantee of inviolable rights. Indeed, depriving others of their rights cannot be the content of justice and liberty. In fact it is core idea that points towards the ethical dimension that democracy can’t really renounce. However, if democracy cannot accommodate a truly universal and unchangeable idea of freedom as limited by the order of freedoms -the idea of good as personal good and common good and the concept of the truth- it remains without any other reference for political decision except the principle of majority rule. In the political arena, relativism as a pillar of liberal democracy has substituted the truth by the majority rule. And justice is left to be determined by the law, meaning what the competent organs say, even if they could declare something wrong to be just. Here is why liberal democracy has come to be defined by the rules of the game which consists in forming majorities for the transmission and alternation of power. It is no longer about the common good of those who elect the leaders that count!
Liberals firmly believe that truth belongs to the realm of the private sphere. Thinking about what is truly just and truly good for all is practically un-democratic.
The consequences of such relativism cover a wide range of facts such as populism that operates with opinion polls, when it is clear that popularity cannot be synonymous with right; partisan divides with consequent partisan legislation never meant to really achieve the common good but rather serve partisan interests; corruption in the form of clientelism where lobbies and corporations pay for favours in the form of policies; entitlements; formal and informal complex systems of non-accountability etc.
Unmasking the hollow principles of liberal democracy is a duty, if a way to solve such problems is to be found. In summary, the quick diagnosis above shows that, only a return to the ethical dimension of democracy would pave the way to solutions. However, consideration on this needs a greater elaboration which must start from the truth about the nature of political society in order to restore the true meaning of freedom and equality. Such an elaboration would also need to include: a) a discussion on the true meaning and role of “civil society”; b) an analysis of the distinction between metaphysical liberalism and political liberalism, which would also indicate a mention of c) the distinction between the liberal democracy tradition and the republican tradition.
 Ratzinger, J. (2006), Truth, values and power, Rialp, 6th ed., Madrid, p. 82. (in Spanish)
 Ibidem, p.83.
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