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If you have ever taken an interest in Western philosophy, you will surely have come across the name of naturalist philosopher Charles Darwin. Naturalist philosophy is a branch of the intellectual tradition of philosophy within which ideas about the world, and so the human conception of reality, are deduced from the observation or study of nature.
According to a basic Wikipedia search:
Naturalism is the idea or belief that only natural (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual) laws and forces operate in the world. Adherents of naturalism (ie, naturalists) assert that natural laws are the rules that govern the structure and behaviour of the natural universe, that the changing universe at every stage is a product of these laws.
If you know who Darwin is, then you are certainly aware of some of his ideas and “greatest” contributions to collective knowledge, such as the concept of evolution, and the “survival of the fittest” interpretation of evolutionary dynamics. What you may be unaware of is the impact that Darwin’s ideas have had, and continue to have, on the world: in the formation of human attitudes and logic, and especially, in the workings of the interdependent, ever globalising, capitalist, private property rights, world economy.
The effect of Darwin’s dangerous, hierarchical idea of fierce competition among members of the same species in the fake scientific discipline of economics, and the necessity for decolonisation in the cultivation of knowledge across African universities, not only in economics, but in all spheres, is the focal point of the present discussion.
Before I delve into the discussion, however, I would like to state at the outset that Darwin was not the only naturalist philosopher, and the conclusion which many contemporary Darwinists and economists uphold concerning the bitter struggle for survival among the same species, or in the tone “Bellum omnium contra omnes” (“the war of all against all", which is the description that Thomas Hobbes gives to human existence in the state of nature in De Cive and Leviathan) as the determining characteristic of life and the main factor of evolution is not without fault. Another philosopher, whose name certainly has to be contrasted alongside Darwin’s, is Russian naturalist Peter Kropotkin.
It was particularly interesting for me to discover in my research on evolutionary dynamics that whereas Darwin and his followers argued a case for a Hobbesian interpretation of human existence in an argument pointing to a fierce competition over (scarce) resources among the same species as a natural law, Kropotkin and his friends, the anarcho-communists, argued a case for cooperation and mutual aid as a factor of evolution among animals of the same species, whether in scarcity or in abundance.
Now some readers at the mere sight of words like “anarchy” or “communism” will shrivel, buckle up, and perhaps even stop reading. Fair enough, I myself tightened my seatbelt at the sight of these words when I saw them for the first time. At the time I was ignorant and did not have an understanding of what they actually meant beyond propaganda. What made matters worse is that unfortunately Hollywood birthed entertainment and biased interpretations of history have worked into our collective psyche, an instinctive reaction to the aforementioned words. (Ever wondered why America and Western Europe are always the heroes, and Russian communists, Chinese, Arab or African terrorists are almost always the anti-heroes in Hollywood propaganda?)
The point I am trying to make is this: Charles Darwin, the naturalist who from his empirical experiment advocated the idea of fierce competition among the same species as the main factor of evolution, and in effect social change, is today praised as a scientific genius, whereas the more moralistic and humanistic Kropotkin, who replicated Darwin’s experiment, and found no evidence of fierce competition, but rather, found evidence of cooperation and mutual aid is hardly known. Kropotkin, I suspect is overlooked in almost all mainstream evolutionary discussions, be it in biology, in sociology or in today’s favourite economic pastime, development studies, because of his association with the radical political left agitating for a change in the status quo within Europe.
To bring our discussion closer to home, we observe a professor of economic history at Stellenbosch University, Johan Fourie, in his response to the call to decolonise economics writing of socialism and communism that:
It is simply wrong to declare, without proof, that capitalism arbitrarily privileges those with money. Millions of Indians, and Chinese and, yes, Africans too, have higher living standards than their parents did, and that is highly correlated with more market activity, not less. In fact, privileging arbitrarily is exactly what communism does, by removing people’s individual freedoms and choices. Just ask the Latvians or any other Eastern Europeans who suffered its consequences.
Yes, the above quote, and a complete misunderstanding of the idea of communism, is from a professor of economics at a well-regarded South African university. Granted, we all have our biases, as well as our subjective interpretations of history and truth, and there have been fundamental problems with human aspirations towards the idea of cooperation, mutual aid and communism.
But communism, dear reader, is first of all an idea. On a fundamental level, communism is the idea of cooperation and mutual aid in human affairs, and contrary to what Johan Fourie believes, it is not necessarily against the market. The socialist/communist position is that whatever be the case, a market exists because of the need for interaction (mutual aid) among humans and so even if there is a market, it must a priori benefit humanity equally through humane relations and through how we collectively decide to specify this market. Because human beings necessarily have agency in the market. From the communist viewpoint, the “free” market is certainly a myth when there is human inequality on the levels we have today. Living standards, as Fourie asserts, have certainly improved, but consider the work of Thomas Piketty if you think relative inequality has actually regressed. Couple this with the recent leaked Panama papers and the Thabo Mbeki-led UNECA report on illicit financial flows from Africa, then one may conclude that we actually have a global economic situation reminiscent of feudalism and pre-French revolution France and wider Europe. For communists, since the market is specified by human beings, human beings must not be enslaved or alienated from themselves and one another by the market and its mythical forces (see Marx’s theory of alienation).
Thus communism is an idea, it is not the previously failed attempts at implementing this idea, as the esteemed Prof Fourie describes; in the same way a terrible game of football with no goals scored is not what the game of football can be. Do we need to ask the Latvians anything when we not only understand conceptually but have lived what they attempted and failed to do? Philosophically, what this means is that the description is not always the described, and we must beware of slippery slopes and the straw man.
Moving on, it is important to note that there is an ongoing political campaign as a result of previous cold war politics, and America’s domination in global political affairs, propaganda and knowledge cultivation. Propaganda, we must not forget, is the Siamese twin of a technological society. The capitalist technological society needs propaganda to stimulate demand for commodities. A typical example of this phenomenon is the advertisements and TV commercials. The propaganda against the communist ethos is not in our sights in the present discussion, so I will leave such mutterings here. From the above, what is left relevant is that from the Western philosophical tradition, two metaphysical propositions are realised; the assumption of fierce competition over resources (which are a priori defined as scarce) and that of cooperation, whether in scarcity or in abundance.
We for instance find Kropotkin writing in the introduction to mutual aid (pardon his patriarchal/cisgendered attitude) that:
When my attention was drawn, later on, to the relations between Darwinism and sociology, I could agree with none of the works and pamphlets that had been written upon this important subject. They all endeavoured to prove that man, owing to his higher intelligence and knowledge, may mitigate the harshness of the struggle for life between men; but they all recognised at the same time that the struggle for all the means of existence, of every animal against all its congeners, and of every man against all other men, was a “law of nature”. This view, however, I could not accept, because I was persuaded that to admit a pitiless inner war for life within each species, and to see in that war a condition of progress, was to admit something which not only had not yet been proved, but also lacked confirmation from direct observation … in all the scenes of animal life which passed before my eyes, I saw mutual aid and mutual support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species, and its further evolution.
Communism, mutual aid and ubuntu
Peter Kropotkin in my reading of him, mutual aid, a factor of evolution, objected the Darwinian law of competition because he observed directly that no progressive evolution of any species in nature can be based on periods of keen competition. The communism of mutual aid that Kropotkin describes is no different from the southern African metaphysical principle of ubuntu, which according to philosopher Mogobe Ramose “may be construed to mean that to be a human being is to affirm one’s humanity by recognising the humanity of others and, on that basis, establish humane relations with them”.
Thus in my interpretation, the maxim which Ramose identifies, “umuntu ngumuntu nga bantu (motho ke motho ka batho)” is: “If I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then in truth, I am not I and you are not you, because we interdepend. We are all backs and fronts to each other. Our interdependence is what is important.”
In the above, the interdependence between me, the writer, and you, the reader; between Kropotkin and Darwin; between Fourie and Ramose; and so between different human populations and the primacy of humane, ethical and equitable relations is thus the only discernible law of nature according to ubuntu and African philosophy. Today it is interesting that despite the foundational blocks of African philosophy in metaphysical principles such as ubuntu, the inhumanity of fierce competition is such a rudimentary part of our logic. Furthermore, such logic is emphasised in the economic curriculum that I for one was subjected to at Stellenbosch University. In my first year of undergraduate economics, for instance, in Economics 114 and 144, the definition of economics provided by the textbook and affirmed by the esteemed lecturers at the university was along these lines:
Economics is the body of knowledge which aims to understand how man (woman) satisfies his unlimited needs and wants in the midst of unlimited constraints, and in the face of a fundamental scarcity of resources (Robbins 1935). Michael Parkin defines economics as follows: “Economics is the social science that studies the choices that individuals, businesses, governments and entire societies make as they cope with scarcity and the incentives that influence and reconcile these choices” (Parkin 2010).
From these two definitions by Lionel Robbins and Michael Parkin (author of the textbook used) one can conclude that the fundamental unit of analysis of economics is the human. The human as an individual, as a collective, and as a business or a government. Furthermore, the paradigm within which contemporary economics operates is through a paradigm of scarcity. More precisely, a fundamental scarcity of resources.
From such a perspective it is not surprising that the average student, and later-to-be “uncritical” trained economist, who accepts everything the well-intended, all-knowing, dogmatic economics lecturer tells him as absolutely right, arrives at the universal tenets of modern (Hayekian) neo-liberal capitalism, the myth of the free market, private property rights, the primacy of competition for growth and development, negatives of the welfare state, minimal state intervention as a factor of growth, etc.
There are several things to point out. Although this economics claims to speak about human beings, it makes no mention of morality or ethics, which from my reading of global history is the engine room of human evolution, and yes, even of the evolution of capitalism itself. This is especially so if you consider global history from an Africanist perspective. The abolishment of slavery, for instance, was moral in nature. Let us not forget that for over 400 years slavery continued in the world, without censure or moral compunction. Simply put, property rights in imperialist capitalism were held in human beings (particularly Africans and Amerindians) as well as in things. It was morality that changed this in the abolishment of slavery, not scarcity. We all know this, so why is it that in South Africa we neglect history and morality, the motor of social change, in our discussions of economics?
Second, scarcity is not a universal law. And scarcity is not absolute as contemporary economists define it, it is relative. In this sense relative abundance is just as much a law as relative scarcity.
Here is a typical thought experiment to illustrate the relativity of scarcity and abundance: while some citizens of South Africa beg for food and water on the street outside big retail shops (outside Rondebosch Pick n Pay, for instance), there is usually food going bad inside the shop which the beggars are standing outside and begging. Furthermore, while some people find it difficult to eat three meals a day, some other global citizens do not have to think about food at all, but rather they are so comfortable on earth that they are thinking about heading out into space, exploring Mars or perhaps even Jupiter. While some people beg for jobs to make a paltry living, some CEOs are well overpaid in bonuses, which they invest in luxurious commodities like Ferraris and diamond bling. Dear reader, don’t take my word for it. Think about it some more; perhaps more examples exist.
The amount of waste in today’s modern capitalist society is staggering; things would certainly be different if economists deployed a different paradigm of analysis and thought about their optimisation functions from a perspective of relative abundance and not only relative scarcity. In this sense, economics actually betrays its biases when it takes scarcity as well as production as its fundamental point of departure, ignoring relative abundance and consumption in its functional paradigm. This fact has been well argued by French thinker Georges Bataille in The accursed share: an essay on general economy, which you can perhaps purchase at your local bookstore and free yourself from the chains of dogmatism and ignorance because most universities, even in South Africa, will not mention him or ubuntu as an economic principle.
In fact, from my discussions with some academic economists, I suspect that many of our esteemed teachers, who do not see the relevance of decolonising the economics curriculum from the ground up and critically reconsidering all of its contents in the process, such as the very paradigm within which it proceeds today with its analytical tools, have never even heard about Georges Bataille or seriously considered the meaning and relevance of ubuntu in our society and economy.
In summary, it is surprising that although an objective reading of Africanist historiography and philosophy brings out issues of morality and ethics, intellectual traditions such as economics as dispensed on the continent neglect morality and ethics and by so doing the fundamental lessons of African history. South Africa’s historic transition from apartheid to the current democratic regime, for instance, is fundamentally moral. The transition is history teaching the world and future South Africans a moral lesson. Why do you think that when Nelson Mandela died, his ceremony was live-streamed all over the world?
The question ought then to be asked what at all is the function of a university in South Africa. Is the purpose of a university to maintain the status quo or is it, rather, an institution for the cultivation of knowledge in the broadest sense? If Sobukwe, Mandela, Biko and co were interested in maintaining the status quo, South Africa would be a very different country today. The lesson from South Africa’s own history is an emphasis on critical, moralistic thinking, especially in a field as fundamental as economics, so why do our universities ignore this?
Problem-solving theory versus critical theory
The above questions have also been asked by historian of ideas Robert Cox, who has argued that when it comes to ideas in general and theories that have to do with international relations and societal reconstruction such as in economics and politics, there are two intellectual paradigms which guide the movement of socio-economic forces in the world order: that of problem-solving theory, which serves the purpose of preserving the status quo, and critical theory, which is more radical, open to change and the movement of social forces.
Problem-solving theory, according to Cox, takes the world as it is and focuses on explaining and correcting certain dysfunctions, certain specific problems. Critical theory, on the other hand, is concerned with how the world, that is all the conditions that problem-solving theory takes as given, may be changing. “Because problem solving theory has to take the basic existing power structure and relationships as given, it will be biased towards perpetuating those relationships, thus tending to make the existing order hegemonic.”
What critical theory does, he argues, is question these very structural conditions that are tacit assumptions for problem-solving theory, to ask whom and which purposes such a theory serves. It looks at the facts that problem-solving theory presents from the inside, that is, as they are experienced by actors in a context which also consists of power relations. “Critical theory thus historicizes world orders by uncovering the purposes problem solving theories within such an order serve to uphold. By uncovering contingency of an existing world order, one can then proceed to think about different world orders.”
Surely we have to have both problem-solving thinkers and critical thinkers in our higher education institutions. Nevertheless, using Cox’s scheme, and given Africa and South Africa’s moral history and communistic ubuntu philosophy, is education in South Africa today problem-solving or critical? Given the African philosophical principle of ubuntu and the current inequality in the global economic order, should the economic curriculum in South Africa be critical or problem-solving? Do we as Africans not have a fundamental role to play in international relations, that is, to develop, uplift and share with the world our conceptions of reality such as ubuntu? The Chinese have Confucius Institutes; what is the African viewpoint?
This is the all-important question which we see students at tertiary institutions asking of education in South Africa today. This is the question of decolonising the curriculum.
Darwin’s dangerous idea
As a student of social and economic thought, the most dangerous idea in the world today from my perspective is the idea of order as a hierarchical system in the global economy; with the strongest (most productive) at the apex, and the weakest (relatively unproductive) at the bottom of the hierarchy. This idea which has haunted me since my first year in undergraduate economics at Stellenbosch University, when I was first exposed to the contemporary scarcity definition of economics, is hardly empirical, it is essentially from Western philosophy, particularly from Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan), and enforced by Darwin in his naturalist experiment and survival of the fittest argument which, perhaps to the chagrin of others like Kropotkin, has had a tremendous impact on Victorian Europe, in the formation of racist attitudes and manifested in pseudo-scientific disciplines such as eugenics and phrenology and today economics.
Regarding this, there is a question I have hitherto asked almost all my economics lecturers to which I have not yet received a substantial answer. In fact, most of them were surprised that I was asking such a fundamental question that they had not given much thought to. One honest lecturer gave me a partial response: that the answer which I was seeking was historical, and that it was quite embarrassing for him to even think about as a European.
I pose the question here, in the hope that I shall one day receive an honest response from an academic economist in an African university. My question is: Given that all a human being has to offer for his subsistence is his labour, are we as economists not by assumption disadvantaging some individuals by implementing a hierarchy in the valuation of currencies and so labour?
Is this hierarchical order perhaps related to the persistence of global inequality? Will we not do better, if all people’s labour, whether productive or unproductive, was equally valued for the sake of humanity and morality?
What is humane or ethical, when for the love of profits economists and their uncritical indoctrinated students speak of labour through concepts such as minimum wage and not living wage? Surely a minimum wage philosophically implies keeping wages at a minimum to attain more profits, whereas living wages imply providing wages for fully capable human living, irrespective of the cost or profit. Is how we think about the value of labour in the economy not important?
If we are all human beings, enjoying the standard moral, UN-declared human rights, then why is it that some countries’ currencies have more value than others? How come all currencies are not valued the same, just as all human beings have the same human rights? Does our failure to see and implement this not mean that a person in the country whose currency has a higher value (say Britain) than the one with a lower value (say Ghana), possesses labour which is worth more than that of his contemporary, in international economic relations? What effect does this hierarchy have on our ever globalising world economy? Is this not why we speak of foreign direct investment (FDI)?
Also, how come Britain, a small country by all economic measures, be it in terms of consumption or production, possesses the currency with the highest value at least in relation to African currencies? Is it perhaps because of some historical reasons, perhaps the industrial revolution and its imperial antecedents? I heard on the news the other day that we have five reserve currencies in the world: the British pound, the American dollar, the euro, the Japanese yen, and the recently added Chinese RMB.
How come we Africans, coming from a moralistic history and with philosophical traditions such as ubuntu do not question the implicit hierarchy in the economy? Is it perhaps because we are taught economics in an uncritical manner? Or is it because we have no real agency and we blindly follow the Harvards and the Oxfords, because we foolishly think they are always right, even in issues of economy, which is far from a science but rather an argumentative politics, because it is fundamentally concerned with human interests?
We all know the problem with and historical abuse of hierarchies.
Racism is a hierarchy of skin colour and demographic features.
Patriarchy and matriarchy are gender-based hierarchies.
Immigrant (Foreign) and Native are nationalistic hierarchies.
Is there a global economic hierarchy?
Today, students in South Africa’s higher education institutions, both undergraduate and postgraduate, are saying enough of the blind following; decolonise the curriculum, because Africa has a lot to share with the world about ubuntu and humanism, not only in economics but in most intellectual traditions within the humanities.
Bataille, Georges. 1991. The accursed share: an essay on general economy. New York: Zone Books.
Kropotkin, Peter. 1972. Mutual Aid, a factor of evolution. New York: New York University Press
Mészáros, István. 1970. Marx’s Theory of Alienation. London: Merlin
Parkin, Michael. 2010. Microeconomics. 11th ed. London: Pearson Education.
Ramose, Mogobe. 2005. African philosophy through Ubuntu. Harare: Monds Publishers.
Robbins, Lionel. 1935. An essay on the nature and significance of economic science. London: Macmillan.
Schouten, P. 2010. Theory Talk #37: Robert Cox on World Orders, Historical Change, and the Purpose of Theory in International Relations. Theory Talks, 12 March.
Link to Johan Fourie’s article: https://johanfourie.wordpress.com/2016/03/10/how-to-decolonise-an-economics-curriculum.
Link to announcement of China’s recent admission as reserve currency status (why is there a hierarchy in our economic system?): http://www.bbc.com/news/business-34957580.