There remains some truth in the aphorism that people are prepared to accept that others may be intelligent, but they always believe that their own intellect is superior, forgetting, conveniently or expediently, that they are closest to their own intelligence. I thought about this over the past week during communication with a Distinguished Professor, who would imagine his own knowledge and intellect is superior and eternally valid, and that there is a single problem in the world (capitalism) for which there is a single solution (communism).
Sometimes, when I get really annoyed, I want to shout out, at the top of my voice, that the two or three good ideas he has had over the past 20-30 years, and rewritten and published on different platforms, do not make him a genius, just a twat, but I have to hold my tongue. He really is an odious fellow and represents the worst of Stalinist self-righteousness and persistence. His signature move is weaving elaborate conspiracies, and gaslighting people who don’t share his ideological beliefs in all their rigidity. Let me not get distracted, and put him aside, for a moment. In truth, he is not the worst of the villains.
More generally, what sets some of our revolutionaries apart (apart, that is, from anyone who really prefers to think long and hard about the state and society) is their habit of believing everything that someone – invariably someone who died several decades, or more than a century ago – once said or wrote, and accept it as eternally valid. The revolutionaries share this habit with religious fundamentalists who believe everything that is written in their holy books, and regard any criticism or the most elementary questioning as apostasy, and with market fundamentalists who suck us all into the false binary of choosing between saving “the economy,” or “the people” in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. Nevermind.
Ideas, beliefs and people change
In an earlier incarnation, I used to tell my students to always quote people like Karl Marx in the past tense in their essays. I asked them to do so for philosophical and for historical reasons. It’s simple, whatever Marx said or wrote, he did more than a hundred years ago. That’s the history part. The philosophical part is that we should, in fairness, probably assume that Marx may have changed his mind as conditions changed, and as new information became available.
No such luck with our heroes from Thomas Sankara to Steve Biko, and fallen leaders and intellectuals. The fact is that they are no longer around, so we represent or reproduce ideas that they cannot possibly defend, nor change for that matter. For example, there’s an audiovisual clip somewhere, of Biko saying that we (black people) should benefit from mining asbestos. That was before it was found that asbestos was deadly for human well-being. It’s safe to assume that Biko would have changed his mind when that new information became available. We can go back to any of the grandiloquent statements made by ANC leaders before 1994, and weigh them up against greed, avarice and manipulating otherwise noble concepts like “transformation,” “uplifting the poor,” or “restoring the dignity of our people” for pecuniary gain that abounds today on the basis of “it’s our turn to eat”.
It is almost impossible to drum into revolutionaries – from those sleepers in the Cabinet to the ones who prefer performative politics – the fact that beliefs, ideas and people can change over time. As it goes, I tried to explain to the Distinguished Professor, quite a while ago, that during Freddie Engels’ address at Marx’s grave, he said it was a sign of youthful arrogance to believe that the ideas we hold sacred at any given time will remain eternally valid. Parenthetically, there’s a theory out there somewhere that even facts have a “half-life”.
Anyway, the belief that all ideas or ideologies are eternally valid are driven either by a lack of new ideas, or by a type of pareidolia; we see things that seem familiar (and a righteous sign from some dead leader) in the most abstract of things. Like those people who see the traditional face of Jesus, or of the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast, and believe it is a message from god. It is alarming that there are political parties in South Africa that continue to wait for “a message” from the deceased Winnie Mandela.
I’ll fight you for the land
Nobody disagrees – okay maybe some people may – that we live in a world, today, where the distribution of wealth and property are almost exclusively the result of past violence, however much we condemn violence today. This reminds me of the story of a Welsh or Yorkshire miner walking across a field in the United Kingdom somewhere. The local landlord drove (or rode his horse) up to the miner, and said, “you’re trespassing on private property”. The Welshman (or Yorkshireman – I have a soft spot for both), asked the landlord how he acquired the land, to which the landowner replied: “My great-great-great-grandfather won it in a battle.” The miner rolled up his sleeves and replied, “Now then,” (I imagine in a Welsh brogue, or a Tyke), “take your coat off, and I’ll fight you for it now.”
And so…. I have taken a long route to making the point that the decisions we make, now, during the Covid-19 pandemic cannot be sacrificial, in the hope that something good will come from it all. This is not to say that there won’t be some hard choices and trade-offs. If, nonetheless, the ends (a more just, equitable social and ecologically progressive society) remain to be had, we cannot allow the means to those ends to be corrupted. If truth be told, we did just that for more than two decades, and we are left with a polity that is unstable, corrupt, lacking in ethics and trust, and with the best among us seeming to be running out of ideas. The means have made us monsters. I’m not sure who said it, but when you’re fighting cruelty and injustice, don’t let it rub off on you….
Let me put on my political economist cap. The Covid-19 crisis has revealed – especially in the United States – how difficult it is to deal with large-scale social upheavals, when responses are driven purely on the basis of “the market”. The South Korean approach to the Covid-19 pandemic has shown the benefit of state-led (not commandeered), intervention. This is a capitalism that is not rapacious, and leaves no one behind, or at least aspires to, never mind the Biblical injunction that the poor will always be with us. No doubt, the crisis is an opportunity for private sector investors to make bucket-loads of money – they always do, in a crisis. But this is an even better opportunity to reconsider, and reconfigure the role of the state in creating buffers and social safety networks as a matter of principle, and of course. The US example with the Covid-19 pandemic shows that you cannot wait for a pandemic, then treat it as a “market failure” that can be corrected.
States can, and ought to focus on growth, and distribution (simultaneously – that, in essence, is what is meant by inclusive growth) while making sure, as much as it is possible, but deliberatively, that everyone is taken along the passage towards prosperity, high levels of trust, and stability – while ensuring that recurrent crises are reduced in occurrence and impact. Try not to listen to the redwood fundamentalists. They may live for hundreds of years, but they know only one thing – well, mainly. New ideas are needed to create better societies. Ignore the voices from the dead. They are, well, dead and can’t speak for themselves. And whatever you do, enough with the pareidolia – it’s just a slice of toast for god’s sake. DM