by MPHUTLANE WA BOFELO
- There is an endless list of people of strong socio-political consciousness and with huge activism credentials who are ensnared in the culture of corruption.
- Why does consciousness succumb to corruption and crass materialism, or how come corruption and crass materialism are able to capture consciousness?
- What is required is a break with the capitalist values of competition, individualism, crass materialism and consumerism and the cultivation of the values of cooperation, collectivism, and solidarity.
ONE philosophical and psychological question troubling the people of Azania/ South Africa is why do people of a high level of socio-political consciousness or who are known for advocacy and activism for social, political, economic, gender and ecological justice and good governance, get caught up in financial, administrative, and political corruption.
Across the philosophical, ideological, political, and religious spectrum, there is an endless list of people of strong socio-political consciousness and with huge activism credentials who are ensnared in the culture of corruption.
The question arises: why does consciousness succumb to corruption and crass materialism, or how come corruption and crass materialism are able to capture consciousness? What turns activists and advocates of freedom, justice, and equality into agents of institutional and systemic corruption that has dire economic and social consequences, and hurt the poor and underclasses the most?
What we often ignore when we engage this question is the shifting nature of consciousness. The reality is that consciousness does not fall from the sky. It is a product of a combination of experience, action, decision, choice, and influence within specific personal and social circumstances. Personal and social experiences and realities change. Similarly, the actions, decisions, choices, and influences of people under varying circumstances change.
For some reason, we have the illusion that people’s consciousness will remain the same under shifting power and social relations in which their lived experiences, social position and their relationship with capital, the state and labour change. We assume that individual’s philosophical, ideological, and political convictions are eternal. We expect labour, social, political and community activists who have become part of the political class that lives off politics to have social affinities or class affiliation they had when politics was a platform for the struggle for justice to them.
On one extreme we ignore the human element and assume that people’s social, political, and economic conduct are solely prescribed by their philosophical, ideological, and political convictions. On the other extreme we downplay how the interdependent relationship between dominant ideologies and institutions, interpersonal relationships and internalised oppression entrench systemic injustices and oppressive structures, and how these have a bearing on individual and collective consciousness and agency.
The reality is that both the human element and power and social structures have a bearing on consciousness. Philosophers Georg (György) Lukács, Herbert Marcuse, and Henri Lefebvre have written extensively on the false consciousness that naturalises and legitimises socio-political and economic hierarchies and how the notion of possibilities of equal opportunities and upward mobility in a capitalist society ignore the systemic, structural, and institutional barriers to access to power, spaces, resources, rights, and services.
One of the most influential anti-colonial thinkers of our time, Omar Frantz Fanon has addressed the neo-colonial phenomenon wherein the post-colonial social and political elite and comprador bourgeoisie classes are a mimic of the erstwhile colonisers and oppressors and reproduce racial-capitalist structures. In many ways, this is a product of the double-consciousness and two-ness phenomenon, described by W E B Du Bois, the sociologist and Pan-Africanist activist, as a condition in which the oppressed vacillate between a view of themselves informed by their lived experiences and a view of themselves through the eyes of the oppressor.
Very often, the petite bourgeoisie class that leads the struggle for national liberation is stirred more by its non-inclusion in the authoritative structures of the prevailing system and its desire to be part of the ruling and propertied class than by its opposition to the economic base, and the philosophical and ethical foundations of that socio-political system. However, for the project of socio-political and economic emancipation to result in the reclamation of the humanity and a more humane world, it must be rooted in social, political, and economic conduct and ethos that breaks away from the economic base and philosophical framework that perpetuate the “thingification” of people and social relations.
This requires a break with the capitalist values of competition, individualism, crass materialism and consumerism and the cultivation of the values of cooperation, collectivism, and solidarity. It requires destroying the culture of ‘I consume, therefore I am’ to build what the late revolutionary academic and political activist, Neville Alexander referred to as the counterculture of ‘enough is as good as a feast’. Therefore, the project of self-determination, or what Stephen Bantu Biko referred to as inward-looking process of self-definition, should not be confined to the question of socio-political and cultural identity and vulgar economics. It should equally focus on the question of the rediscovery of our ethical being and humane self beyond the individualistic and crass materialistic values and ethics derived from a system that alienates human beings from their product, their productive activity, other human beings, and their humanity.
Victims of different forms of colonialism, imperialism, dispossession, and dehumanisation have the collective duty and mission to critically meditate on how to extricate themselves from philosophies and ethics that are at variance with the human emancipation or re-humanisation agenda. When the legendary Libyan anti-colonialist freedom fighter, Omar Mukhtar was asked why he would not unleash on Italians captured by the Libyan freedom fighters the same brutality unleashed by Italian colonisers on Libyan freedom fighters, he responded: ‘They are not our teachers’. This is a classic example of refusing to allow to judge yourself on the standards of an oppressive system. Contrast this with the conduct of our leaders who rebuff concerns about levels of corruption and state capture in post-apartheid South Africa with reference to levels of corruption and state capture under the apartheid regime, or seek to use the service delivery indices under a regime that rendered racialised, separate, and unequal public services as a standard by which to measure progress in the current dispensation.
The point one seeks to highlight here is that consciousness must be accompanied by conscience. While the former refers to being aware of oneself and the environment, the latter refers to a moral understanding of right and wrong. This implies an awareness of the importance of the ethical implications of one’s social, political, and economic conduct. Directly related to the problem of a consciousness without conscience is a straitjacket consciousness and a selective sense of justice. By this I refer to the tendency to confine one’s consciousness and sense of justice to only one sphere of life or only one aspect of one’s life.
The remedy to this malady is the development of a holistic consciousness and all-round activism that is informed by the five levels of consciousness that constitute the human personality, namely, physical, aesthetic, intellectual, moral, and spiritual. In the context of the struggle for a more just and humane world, this implies the need for linking political consciousness, social consciousness, cultural consciousness, and spiritual consciousness as well as the need to link social, political, cultural, and spiritual activism.
While political consciousness is the awareness of one’s place and position in the world and of historical and material realities and processes that shape the world and one’s position in it, social consciousness is the awareness of the intersection between the impact of one’s action on the people and society, and the impact of the actions of others and the social structure on one’s life. The latter includes what the late President Mandela referred to as a sense of solidarity of ‘being in the world for one another’. Whereas spiritual consciousness simply refers to the consciousness of the transcendental being, cultural consciousness refers to peoples’ recognition and respect of other cultures, their own culture and cultures that are marginalised or are not included in their environment.
According to psychologist John D Mayer, spiritual conscience or spiritual intelligence entails
- attending to the unity of the world and transcending one’s existence,
- consciously entering a heightened spiritual state,
- attending to the sacred in everyday activities, events and relationships,
- structuring consciousness in a way that problems in living are seen in the context of life’s ultimate concerns, and
- desiring to act, and acting, in virtuous or ethical ways.
This is the basis for a spiritual activism that eschews the inward-outward, spiritual-material, and personal-social binaries and emphasises that these are interrelated and complementary aspects of a greater interconnected whole between living beings.
Building a holistic consciousness should entail simultaneously inculcating and deploying political, social, cultural, and spiritual consciousness. Accordingly, all-round activism must entail creating linkages between social, political, cultural, and spiritual activism and developing activists who can interact within and across these spheres of activism.
The first step in this direction is to reclaim politics from the parasitic political class by building self-organisation, independent political action, and platforms of popular politics.
These should operate outside the confines of institutionalised and corporatised politics. They should be autonomous from the state, political parties, and the corporates but have the capacity to engage, challenge and contest formal political institutions, including government, from an independent position, drawing on the instrument of people’s solidarity and power.
The second step should be popular mobilisation and action to pressurise for political and social reforms that roll back the institutional, systemic, and structural arrangements that facilitate institutional and systemic corruption and various forms of socio-economic violence against the underclasses.
Lastly, self-organisation, independent political action and popular politics should be directed towards building the capacity to question, challenge, and contest power from below, from within and beyond the organs of institutionalised politics.
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(Mphutlane wa Bofelo is a South African cultural worker and political theorist who is currently the training officer in the Members Affairs Section of the Public Servants Association of South Africa (PSA). He writes in his personal capacity.)