Maverick Citizen

TUESDAY EDITORIAL

Spring-cleaning for society? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind

Spring-cleaning for society? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind
In a few days it will officially be spring. Yet this spring comes with a foreboding. (Photo: iStock)

What strikes me again and again and again, is that the problem is not that we are without solutions or ideas: we know how to alleviate hunger and we have enough food; we know how to offer quality medicine and care and we have the systems, science and resources; we know how to generate renewable energy on a mass scale. We just think that we lack the power. We are learning to unlearn, but struggling to rebuild.

In Johannesburg, August always feels like the cruellest month. There’s a lightness in the air, the smell of jasmine, but there’s also the dust and the dirt. There’s a minute but discernible warming, but just as you put away your winter blankets, a cold snap blows in from the south and forces you to take them out again. Birds tentatively commence their dawn chorus a few minutes earlier. Overnight, new leaves unfurl from grey branches. Silently, but still invisible, the gnarled jacaranda tree is storing energy, for when it will burst its purple all over the city in a few months.

In a few days it will officially be spring. Phew.

Yet this spring comes with a foreboding. We may have escaped the total collapse of the electricity grid (largely a media invention) but, according to scientists, we are clearly not escaping the total collapse of the climate (not a media invention). With La Niña having surrendered to El Niño, it’s hard to know what Sturm und Drang the summer climate has in store for us in southern Africa, or when the rains will come to the northern parts of our country. 

The government is hedging its bets on something it can’t control directly. A few days ago I heard the minister of agriculture reporting that they were sending letters to small farmers, warning them to conserve water and warning of the unpredictability of this year’s rains. 

Pissing in the wind. Without the piss.

spring minister of agriculture

South African Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development Thoko Didiza. (Photo: Siyabulela Duda / GCIS)

It’s not been a good winter for democracy. In fact it’s been a winter of democracy: as predicted last week, the rich and fertile country of Zimbabwe was given back to the elite of Zanu-PF to feast from, and the Zanu wannabes in the ANC have been applauding on the sidelines. 

Zanu-PF leader and Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa on an election poster in Harare on 27 August 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Aaron Ufumeli)

Read more in Daily Maverick: Cry Zimbabwe – Zanu-PF plans to rule forever

Making matters worse, our own beloved country is also up for sale again. In the same week as celebrating the 40th anniversary of the UDF, a genuine people’s movement whose agency and activism brought them to power, the ANC has hurtled South Africa into the embrace of a new collective of the fascist, kleptocratic, theocratic and totalitarian. BRICS Plus for bastards. No talk of human rights permitted. Don’t like the opposition? Off with their heads.

BRICS

From left: President of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, President of China Xi Jinping, President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi and Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov during the 15th BRICS Summit in Johannesburg on 23 August 2023. (Photo: GCIS)

We may have a human rights-based Constitution, but with friends like these there’s a clear and present danger about where our leaders are taking us.

But these days governments shoulder only part of the blame. Most of the minnow states, including ours, have just become flotsam and jetsam to the forces of a flailing and failed global capitalism, prey to faceless and soulless markets, morbid symptoms of an old world that won’t accept that it should die quietly. 

It lingers only because people think they have lost the power and the will to get rid of it.

Over the past few nights I’ve been watching the film Painkiller on Netflix. Based on Empire of Pain, the Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, a brilliant book by journalist Patrick Radden Keefe, it’s a horrible and true story of how the opioid epidemic was seeded in the US by the Sackler family and their company, Purdue Pharma, and its “blockbuster” painkiller (actually heroin) OxyContin. 

Despite knowing exactly what harm their cynically developed drug was capable of doing, they corruptly got it approved by the FDA, and then used “OxyContin Barbies”, who schmoozed, enticed and bribed thousands of doctors to prescribe it to their patients. As a result, according to the US Centers for Disease Control, more than one million people have died in the US from overdoses of prescription drugs since 1999.

Just as much as BRICS is modelling anti-democratic rule, Purdue Pharma has been a trailblazer for neoliberal monopoly capitalism.

As usual, it was the media, a few good cops and prosecutors and civil society that tried to take them on. I haven’t watched the last episode yet so I don’t know exactly how it ends. But even if Richard Sackler gets a comeuppance, it’s too late. As I watch the intentional pain and suffering of people addicted to OxyContin I can’t help dark thoughts of retribution, a feeling I suppress that some people in this world do deserve cruel and unusual punishment. However, I would settle for justice.    

Sackler

Richard Sackler is an American billionaire businessman and physician who was the chairperson and president of Purdue Pharma, a former company best known as the developer of OxyContin, whose connection to the opioid epidemic in the US was the subject of multiple lawsuits and fines, and that filed for bankruptcy in 2019. (Screenshot: Wikipedia)

‘Painkiller’ on Netflix. (Image: Keri Anderson / Netflix / Wikipedia)

Yet to me this film almost trivialises the problem, by lining it up alongside the rest of the shlock you can feed off on Netflix. It’s indicative of how safe global capitalism and the elites feel, that Netflix, itself a giant multinational corporation that shapes our habits, manufactures and manicures our addictions, can bare its peers’ spew- and shit-stained laundry so confidently and not expect that the outrage might ever turn into organisation against the systems that allow this.

In fact, just as much as BRICS is modelling anti-democratic rule, Purdue Pharma has been a trailblazer for neoliberal monopoly capitalism. Big Pharma, Big Oil, Big (ultraprocessed) Food, Big Tech, Big Bombs, Big Alcohol, Big Tobacco – all work from exactly the same playbook. In the name of Big Bucks they suppress scientific evidence, corrupt politicians, murder activists and journalists, manipulate the media and massify fake news, all in the interests of money-making. 

What has struck me is a widespread existential disquiet of the soul that exists among people who are trying to hold onto humanity and hope.

And if the sad, sick Sacklers are anything to go by, all that dosh doesn’t even make them happy.

Yet many of you still have these “desk killers” at your dinner tables and take money from their “philanthropies”.

This is happening all around us today. This is why we are running into the climate catastrophe with our eyes wide open, as if it’s a Netflix movie, not a reality. This is why we are tempting a new world war, with nuclear weapons. This is why we are fat, fucked, addicted, violent, selfish, disconnected. Ultraprocessed people, in the name of a recent book. One-dimensional men (and women), as once predicted by Herbert Marcuse.

And we are certainly not happy.

Reigniting people’s power

In the past two weeks I’ve had to give speeches to a rush of conferences, mostly on health; to nurses, family medicine physicians, child health practitioners, progressive members of the Jewish community in Cape Town and the science faculty at Wits. What has struck me is a widespread existential disquiet of the soul that exists among people who are trying to hold onto humanity and hope. 

Good people, especially those who work in care and provide services to other people, know how deeply we are in the shit. They know the evidence. It’s conveyed in endless PowerPoint slides and conference talks depicting a morbid fascination with our own demise. 

Good people exhibit an anxiety and a restlessness, a desire to do something, but a depression at not knowing just what to do.

How to be an active citizen and how to find power are among the most commonly asked questions.

And in trying to answer them, what also strikes me again and again and again, is that the problem is not that people are without solutions or workable ideas: we know how to alleviate hunger, and we have enough food; we know how to offer quality medicine, and we have the systems, science and resources to do so; we know how to generate renewable energy on a mass scale; we know how to organise decolonised, inclusive universities centred on creating and advancing knowledge for public good. 

We just think that we lack the power. We are learning to unlearn, but struggling to rebuild.  

We have been subtly and not-so-subtly disorganised and disconnected from each other, made to distrust each other, lured into clever-sounding jargons of change and politics that don’t resonate, speak to the heart and imagination, or unleash hope. Keeping ourselves so busy that we don’t have to think.

Reviving people’s democratic organisation, at a mass scale, is the biggest challenge facing the 99% and all the living things, animate and inanimate, that share this planet with us. I don’t yet know how to make that happen, but I’m thinking about it night and day.

In the meantime, we have to balance ourselves with what hope we can find. For me it’s the green leaves returning to the trees, the prospect of losing myself among people on a weekly Parkrun in a new community, the stories the Maverick Citizen team collects of Actionists and social justice activists who have retained their humanity through the joy of serving others.

Happy spring 2023. May you find the change we all deserve. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • betsy Kee says:

    Oh how true this is: “What has struck me is a widespread existential disquiet of the soul that exists among people who are trying to hold onto humanity and hope.”
    But I choose kindness over fear. And I choose what I allow to worm its way into my soul. And I choose to try and make a difference. And if we all do our little bit, then the world will be better for it. So to hell with politicians who lie and posture their way around our country. Let’s all keep on doing our little bit where we have the skills or energy to do so.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    The song “another brick in the wall” comes to mind,difficult to change the finished product “sheeple”.Raw capitilism vs dictatorships,humanity is somewhere inbetween

  • Gretha Erasmus says:

    Fantastic opinion piece Mark!
    Hits the zeitgeist spot on.
    Agree with the comment by Betsy that if we all just keep doing our little bit of kindness in all the spheres of our lives then goodness will prevail over the madness that threatens to over run the world

  • louis viljee says:

    Thanks for a great read Mark. How do we regain our personal power? How to all become Actionists? An inspirational documentary is All the beauty and the bloodshed, the film recording American artist Nan Goldin taking on the Sacklers. And winning massively. Once we realise we’re all in this together against the 1% enslaving and abusing us, and take hands together, we can take them on and turf them out onto the rubbish pile of history where they belong.

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