Utopia Part Two: An eminently realisable dream made possible by who we are

Illustrative image | Sources: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Cornel van Heerden | Flickr

The fear of being a loser in this competitive world of constant anxiety provocations takes forms often so bizarre that we don’t even recognise them. One such phenomenon is so widespread that it has its own universally recognised name, FOMO – fear of missing out.

This is Part Two of a two-part series. Read Part One here.

A recapitulation of where we are now might be useful.  

Picking up Don Pinnock’s challenge of a science-based ethics, I have developed alternatives to both an externally imposed set of commands and a subjective, internal ethics based on what one ought to do.  

Who we are, not by choice but by the nature of our human needs, I am arguing, allows us to recognise the imperatives of our humanity and thereby transform the internal “ought” into a freely chosen “must”. What happens when our humanity is disregarded is the constant reminder to the “must”.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s aphorism, “hell is other people”, is, within the constraints on the length of an op-ed, the easiest and quickest way of linking Humanity with its dystopian opposite, Inhumanity. 

The denials and distortions of our humanity are the dominant experiences of all of us. This is so for much, if not most or even all of our lives and has been so for all but the first period of our existence as a distinct species. 

Suffering is probably the most accurate single description of humanity. Yet, apart from the permanence of death and (currently) sickness and serious physical handicaps, at least most of this suffering in 2020 is avoidable worldwide. Yes, avoidable.

This seemingly fantastical statement is based on the following race through the tens of thousands of years of our human history, beginning with our far distant ancestors. 

They had things both exceedingly hard and free of the stresses that were to come. The hardships came from the constant daily battle of just staying alive: of just having sufficient food not to starve to death, or, depending on where they lived, freeze to death. 

Surviving each day exposed them to the additional daily dangers of being eaten by larger animals or killed by diseases sometimes caused by things so small as to be invisible to the naked eye. We now call them viruses and bacteria.

Surviving under such conditions was possible only because each person was simultaneously a social individual and that all these group-living individuals cooperated so that each person’s survival depended on everyone supporting everyone else. 

Other people, being thus essential for one’s own needs, were treated accordingly. Countering the enormous dangers of life was the comfort of the security of belonging. There were no strangers in the intimacy of these tightly knit communities. 

Other people being hell would have been as unfathomable then as my current suggestion that other people are our heaven.

Then things changed, dramatically. 

The accidents of climate and geography allowed many of us in different parts of the world to harvest our brain power to wrestle sufficient autonomy over nature, the natural environment, to have what would then have been unthinkable: a surplus though still hazardous supply of food via the discovery of agriculture.

This initially small and insecure surplus grew rapidly over time, as we drew increasingly on the wonders of our uniquely human brains. But at a cost of collective production becoming increasingly less cooperative. 

As in the natural world, being big and strong gave a huge competitive advantage in the struggle to survive. However, we were also people endowed with brains. This gave another advantage to those who were cleverer, quicker and less ethical than most of their peers.

Putting all their advantages together, they turned the world upside down. 

From everyone struggling together to the best of their abilities, they learnt that the quickest and easiest way to the growing surpluses, which quickly expanded beyond food into more and varied artefacts, was via the labours of others. 

The collective security and harmony of subsistence living disappeared. 

Cooperative production gave way to a conflict between the haves and have nots, as other people became the principal source of wealth for the fortunate few. The once close intimacy daily relived and strengthened by everyone’s dependence on each other for physical survival and emotional support came to a stop.

Innumerable forms of forced labour followed throughout the world to culminate in today’s nominally free labour. 

This freedom, for most of us, is having the choice between either working for someone else or starving for want of money. The outcome is the world as we know it today: a world sharply – and increasingly – polarised by inequality. 

What bears reminding is that this inequality has been with us for a considerable time. 

The pyramids of Egypt, a glorious monument to our human ingenuity and imaginations, are also a reminder of the long history of forced labour and the unequal wealth it produces throughout the world. 

Robert Burns, Scotland’s contribution to world poetry, reminds us of the ethical basis of our human nature. Writing in 1784, he bequeathed us the following lines, from his poem, Man Was Made To Mourn:

Man’s inhumanity to man

Makes countless thousands mourn

This is our history. 

This is what has happened as a consequence of the economic surplus being sufficient for some people to turn other people into the source of wealth, as measured by money and the things that money can buy. 

This includes the prestige and power that goes with wealth.

Recall the three essential human needs previously identified: 1) Love, social support and belonging needs; 2) Esteem needs; and 3) Self-actualisation and autonomy needs. 

It is the absence of the first in today’s world that compounds the need for the second and, by making the achievement of the third increasingly difficult, turns the second – the need for esteem, for social recognition – into an insanity.

A single, recent incident illustrates the dynamic of this global Inhumanity. 

Moreover, it does so more poignantly than any (unavoidably) long formal exposition could do. Enter Hamilton Ndlovu

We know about Ndlovu only because of his need to make public that he was a winner. He posted a video of his five cars, each of which was a singular status symbol proclaiming his exclusivity. But this was not enough. He had to boast still further by telling the world that he had bought all five cars in one day, for more than R11-million!

This was how his moment of triumph became, at his own doing, his downfall. 

His video succeeded in attracting his sought-after publicity, but the publicity also alerted the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, better known as the Hawks. 

He is now facing allegations of “serious acts of criminality.” His self-inflicted downfall additionally includes the Companies and Intellectual Property Registration Office deregistering one of his companies for failing to submit its tax returns and the South African Revenue Service (SARS) has frozen his personal and company bank accounts and seized three of his prized cars.

And all this, for what? 

As an electrical engineer, owner of several companies, a business executive and well-known entrepreneur, he was already a notable winner. But he needed more. 

Despite the catastrophic impact of Covid-19 on most South Africans, he had to use the opportunity of the emergency regulations to allegedly steal public money – precious because of its scarcity – in order to flaunt his wealth. 

As the final act of this tragedy that is so evocative of the inhumanity we’ve created by trampling on our basic human needs, his need to proclaim his humanity took the form of having to buy a fleet of ostentatious cars. 

He lost by publicly proclaiming his winning status.

There is yet another dimension to this tale. A uniquely South African one, this time. Social media’s immediate response to Hamilton Ndlovu’s video included the applause he sought. 

He was praised for proving that one didn’t have to be white to buy flashy cars; a black man could also reach those heights. The black inferiority complex about which Frantz Fanon wrote so much is probably involved here. 

It is likely that Ndlovu’s internalisation of the racist nonsense of black inferiority – of the denial of his humanity – was an added factor in his desperation for the needs of both public esteem and self-affirmation.

The essential life-enhancing assurances we receive in childhood become the affirmations we seek and need in adulthood, but without them now being adequately provided by other people. 

This is the tragedy of Hamilton Ndlovu. 

His is the 21st-century tale of the consequence of the long-ago emergence of people being turned into things for exploitation (not just confined to the economic sphere) in a brutally competitive world. 

The result, in Thomas Hobbes’ words from nearly 400 years ago, is “the war of all against all”, in which one is either an exploiter or an exploited; either a predator or the prey.

This state of disharmony leaves real winners so haunted by the terror of being a “loser” that relaxation is impossible. 

To prevent being seen as a loser, one has to be a constantly recognised and reaffirmed winner. 

This leaves everyone on a treadmill of perpetual anxiety: for the winners, a need for reassurance that can never be satiated; for the losers, the double burden of living with failure – their own self-assessment compounded by their experience of a world that does little to disguise that they are discarded people.

Ndlovu alerts us to one other fundamental of the inhuman world we have created. 

His need for five of the most sought-after of cars embodies a more universal compulsion to “have”, to “possess”. This speaks to the huge emptiness and feelings of weakness, of vulnerability, that is so characteristic of today. 

The success of our consumer economy is a reminder of the size of the void, the hole inside us, that devours us with an insatiable appetite: no matter how much we eat, we can never be satiated: hunger is always guaranteed. 

The market relies on that hunger, like any blood-sucking vampire. 

Indeed, the market spends trillions enticing us to buy still more; further billions are spent inventing new needs to keep the furnace of our fears fully burning. Our global economy would collapse if we were to stop buying. 

Buying, it must be noted, not to meet our essential physical needs, but rather our battered psychological and emotional needs.

There are no ‘others’ – a self-liberating realisation

We face the fundamental paradoxes of today: life was physically demanding and short when everyone was equally poor. 

But that poverty that made everybody confront the same struggle just to survive made everyone equally rich, emotionally. Today, people are emotionally impoverished even when surrounded by a hitherto unimaginable abundance of things. 

We have created what ought to be the anomaly of unemployment: the huge unmet physical needs of hundreds of millions of us worldwide who are left discarded and destitute because of what is said to be insufficient demand! 

Covid-19 has merely made this worse. 

Going beyond the unemployed, we have the productive capacity and the science to feed everyone on earth, to warm everyone, to house everyone. Such is our global wealth that we are additionally able to provide universal education and healthcare worthy of the 21st century. 

So why are there people who are poor, hungry and uneducated?

Such are the paradoxes of the madhouse we have built for ourselves. They additionally result in the increasingly enormous importance we give to identity and diversity. We seek the desperately missing sense of belonging and the security and comfort it brings. 

Identities of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, language, nationality, history, sexual orientation – even football clubs – exist to fill this void. However, we differentiate ourselves from everyone else not to be different from them, but, crucially, to be better than them, as befits an overwhelmingly competitively and unfriendly world. 

So overwhelmingly important are these identities that we are ready to kill and die for them.

The fear of being a loser in this competitive world of constant anxiety provocations, takes forms often so bizarre that we don’t even recognise them. 

One of them, however, merits mentioning if only because it speaks so evocatively of our insecurities. One of the reasons for South Africa’s high road deaths is cellphones. More particularly, some of these driving accidents are caused by a phenomenon so widespread that it has its own universally recognised name, FOMO – fear of missing out. 

Googling it produced 9,630,000 hits, along with a definition: “Anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on social media.”

Such is the level of our normalised competitiveness that “winners” are those first with the news. The fear of being late with the news – and thereby being branded a loser – is sufficient for people to check their cell phones while driving.

Competition creating only winners and losers has indeed become so normalised that we don’t recognise when it becomes nonsense even in its own terms. 

Football is a case in point. 

Until relatively recently newspapers didn’t give tables listing team positions in descending order until the first few games of each season had been played. This delay was because the season was a marathon rather than a sprint, which made it meaningless to rank teams too soon. 

Yet, this is precisely what now happens: tables are provided even after the first game. Even the “quality” press does this.

This headline from The Guardian, a recognised “serious” newspaper, is typical. “Jamie Vardy provides cutting edge as Leicester go second”. This was after only seven games had been played and with three points for winning a game, there was only a three-point difference between second and nineth and only one point between second and first. 

But, still, the important news was that Leicester go second!

Things like FOMO and football league tables signal just how far removed we are from our essential human needs. It is precisely the smallness of the FOMO and league table alarms that should alert us to the enormity of the inhumanity we have created for ourselves.

We know enough about ourselves and the world we have created, when leaving our original existence as subsistence hunter-gathers, to know that it has been a false start. 

Thomas Hobbes’ war of all against all is nothing less than a war against ourselves. 

Enough has already been said here to recognise the obvious: the need to protect ourselves from ourselves. The protections we have offered ourselves do not work; worse still, they exacerbate the very conditions they’re intended to ameliorate.

Identity does more than just fragmenting us because we do much more than just give ourselves distinct identities. 

It bears repeating that these identities are not merely descriptive ones indicating difference but are ones packed with emotion and meaning. Even a struggle for nothing more than equality means another group struggling to maintain their privileges. 

The struggle is more explicit when two similarly equal identities clash over claims to supremacy. 

The raison d’être of identity requires a hostile Other. 

When the enemy status of the Other isn’t sufficiently plain, we – who chose our own identities – are quick to impose identities on others: We call them strangers, foreigners, immigrants, illegals, aliens. We additionally have a name for our dislike of them: xenophobia. 

People used to dispute this hostility, when applied to them. Not anymore. Elections are won these days in all parts of the world by politicians claiming to protect “us” from “them”.

Despair invoked by the forgoing is misplaced, however. 

We have the good fortune of being able to call on our humanity to counter our inhumanity. Our brains give us the understanding to know what we’re doing. 

This op-ed is no more than an outline of how we got ourselves into this mess. 

Our consciousness is also our means of reuniting us with our humanity. This process of self-liberation begins with the recognition that there is no Other: We are One.

Crucially, this is not an edict, or a proclamation. 

Most emphatically, it is not an “ought to be” but, rather, a “must be” based firmly on who we are. 

Let’s remind ourselves of the universality of the ethical principles and moral values that affirm our membership of a single species. 

Let’s further remind ourselves that the confirmation of our oneness is the body of needs common to all people everywhere and for all of our recorded history. 

This is our Humanity, scientifically established.

Recognition of this allows us to claw back ourselves from our inhumanity. 

The steps are few and easy to outline. We begin with us being social individuals. Derived from this unity is that each one of us owes our separate existence to the complex of all the other social individuals. But it is much more than the fact of our existence that we owe to this complex. 

It is a complex that profoundly shapes all of our lives, for good or ill. Knowing what our essential needs are, we can draw on our brains to say how they can best be met and, indeed, enriched. 

Assisting us in this endeavour, we can draw on the negative lessons offered by our inhumanity to avoid repeating any mistakes.

The essence of this whole deliberation is breathtaking in its simplicity: there can be no humanity without the social conditions consistent with humanity.

There is a final aspect to this need to restore us to our essential humanity. As inextricably social individuals, this is a theoretical task and practical journey that can’t be taken by us individually. 

A critical mass of us as individuals need to be committed to societal reconstitution, so that we do it collectively as the social individuals we are. 

Implicit in this is that restoring our humanity can never be something imposed on us from without. It must be a process of self-liberation otherwise it is guaranteed to end in failure. 

In the 1905 words of Eugene Debs:

“Too long have [people…] waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. He has not come; he never will come. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back in again.”

A confession serving as a conclusion

Having read so far, may I hope that one or two of you have been saying: “Brilliant! I must pass this on”? Others might be thinking: “Well, yes, he does make important points even if I still remain to be better persuaded.” 

To all of you, I have a confession.

A long time ago I wrote a paper inspired by someone from an even longer past. He was eight years younger than me when we wrote our respective papers. He jotted down his thoughts, which remained unpublished for more than 50 years after his death. 

Inspired this time by Don Pinnock, I reread his manuscripts after a break of 43 years. I changed the vocabulary slightly. I use the word “Humanity”, for the “species being” of the manuscript. What the manuscript describes as “alienation” I’ve called “inhumanity”. The Utopia of this paper is the manuscript’s future world built on the honouring of our human nature. The “self-liberation” that emerges from our collective recognition of the necessity for “human emancipation and rehabilitation” comes unchanged from the original.

The name of this manuscript is “The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844”. Its author was Karl Marx. 

He had this to say about what I’ve called Utopia, the eminently achievable – though still elusive – abode of our freely chosen self-liberation; the must-be abode if we are to have a future that is not even more dystopian than the present:

“[This future is] the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man; […it is] therefore… the complete return of man to himself as a social (ie, human) being – a return accomplished consciously and embracing the entire wealth of previous development. … It is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man – the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. [It…] is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.”

In 1845 he left us a challenge still waiting to be met:

The philosophers have merely interpreted the world in various ways. The point is to change it. DM


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