The constraints and tensions of our time
The constraints and tensions of our time
I spent most of the first half of this year in Stellenbosch, South Africa. I had taken time out of the routine to get some quiet so I could think, read, and write. But it also gave me the opportunity to reflect on a country that I knew very little until now through experiences and direct encounters.
South Africa is a nation of incredible contradictions, both immensely endowed, just as the rest of the African continent is immensely wealthy, but also simultaneously afflicted by socio-economic epidemics. It is a country of two worlds, or even more.
In Stellenbosch where I lived, it’s a different world to the sprawling Khayelitsha neighborhood in Cape Town where the damned of the earth reside in decidedly undesirable conditions.
But it’s not just South Africa, despite the country’s level of socio-economic inequality being one of the worst in the world. All over the world there are different worlds that people inhabit, the world of those who are well off and a different world of the majority who are pulverized and live on the margins. This is hardly new. But it appears that the capitalist exploitation of our time has engendered new forms of alienation and impoverishment. It is fed and propelled by the Internet and the digital forces which are the new sources of inequality.
The last time this phenomenon reached its climax, the world faced a world war in 1914 and a repeat one in 1939. Drawing inspiration from a Marxist intellectual tradition on the tragedy of the two world wars, the philosopher and theorist Politics Karl Polanyi pointed to the commodification of human labor and the accompanying struggles to earn a living.
Reducing human beings to commodities in the marketplace, first as slaves and later as wage laborers, meant that vast masses of the public across the world were alienated from the processes of production and disarticulated from society. even where they lived.
These disjointed populations are cannon fodder for all sorts of agendas and ideologies, including violent extremist entrepreneurs and populist politicians in poor and rich countries alike.
From stockpiles of supplies for street protests to suicide bombers and AK-47 carriers, there are enough foot soldiers to take the war to the upper classes and elites who otherwise enjoy the comforts and trappings of a skewed world order. Whether in Somalia or Yemen, in DR Congo or Cameroon, on the streets of Iran or Sri Lanka and in the cyberspaces of European citizens, the motivations and inspirations are surreal and sobering. It is nothing less than a call to rethink the foundations of the ideals and realities of our time. Our world is not one for all.
Faced with these daunting questions and challenges, as an academic I withdraw into the world of ideas and thoughts to hopefully make sense of the stresses and tensions that lie in wait for us. I have always found cover in the arguments and exhortations of the Indian thinker, Pankaj Mishra, a fast and furious critic of the Western world’s liberal agenda, much like my teacher, Partha Chatterjee.
Like other Indian and South Asian thinkers, Mishra offers a balanced and compelling approach to understanding the world precisely because he was born and raised in India, but lived and worked in the western metropolis, thus making direct experience of Western hypocrisy and empty promises of modernity.
In short, Western modernity and the liberal worldview promise equality, freedom and material prosperity to the masses of young people who end up yearning for anything but these promises of modernity. This applies as much to so-called advanced Western societies as it does to underdeveloped communities in the Global South.
These arguments may seem somewhat abstruse (although I get up late at night trying to form them), so I have to go out and deal with the issues directly. Today our world is plagued by the same grievances and alienations that have dotted human history and given us two disastrous world wars.
The core problem is the refusal to embrace and promote our common humanity, to pursue agendas that enhance prosperity and broader well-being. Europe seems to have taken seriously the lessons of the Second World War when the welfare state system took root in the 1950s and 1960s, a phenomenon that manifests itself in education and health policy programs socially progressives from newly independent countries like Uganda in the 1960s/70s.
But this trend and trajectory ended at the best of military coups in Africa and the rise of right-wing populism in the West in the 1980s and 1990s. After a brief setback in 2000/2010s, particularly in Latin America and Europe, we seem to be back to right-wing populists demanding European purity and Western white supremacy. For Africa, the writing is on the wall, as it always has been. We will come back to it later.