"Siddiq Khan lives in Cape Town, South Africa, where he was born at 8pm during a shrill April evening in the year 1990. A product of his times, his time's been spent within the murderously narrow range of passions, adventures, crises, threats & opportunities presented to him by his society, of whom he is an irreconcilable enemy. All his action is produced as a result and (woefully inadequate) negation of this thoroughly dissatisfying situation."
The Hairless Ape's New Clothes
Beliefs can survive potent logical or empirical challenges. They can survive and even be bolstered by evidence that most uncommitted observers would agree logically demands some weakening of such beliefs. They can even survive the total destruction of their original evidential bases.
– Lee Ross and Craig Anderson, On the origins and maintenance of erroneous social assessments
If Jan Van Riebeek had related to our ancestors as a friend rather than an instrument of colonial conquest; if he brought with him the most modern technology available today and decided to share it as a gift, and left it to the indigenous peoples to decide how they were going to use it, what might South Africans have made of their destiny?
The fool, the child, the joker, the prophet and the artist have historically been accorded a measure of indulgence for utterances which would otherwise provoke the most unacceptable scandal. The double-edged nature of this ostensible privilege is the fact that their apparent freedom of expression was always accompanied by an even more liberal denigration towards any profoundly uncomfortable truths they were allowed to utter. In the history of civilisation, which until recently has adopted a near-universal authoritarian form, they each presented a particular case of what has in modern bourgeois democracy become a general rule: expression is free on the condition that it is not taken seriously.
Laughing in the face of those 'winds of change' which swept through the colonial world in the second half of the previous century, the great Nigerian satirist Fela Kuti released an album of his typically infectious afro-beat called Gentlemen, with a monkey dressed in a suit on the cover. If this was not suitably unambiguous, his lyrics ensured there was no mistaking the target of his mirth: the ridiculous slavish adoption by oppressed people of the master's ways – which had previously been excoriated in equally blunt terms by Malcolm X in his infamous parable of the House Negro and the Field Negro. Yet, since these and similar critiques were made, the empty promises of colonial civilisation have been enthusiastically pursued by seemingly every inmate of the neo-colonial world despite the fact that it has never benefited any but a tiny minority.
What is astonishing is not so much the adoption of a purported western culture at the expense of its supposedly traditional equivalent – any cursory survey will reveal a process involving a more or less complex fusion rather than simple replacement – but the complete and universal voluntary submission to the slavery and economic exploitation which initially had to be imposed by brute force. It is not surprising that the rich, who at first could procure cheap labour only through the imposition of colonial taxes, now laugh at the poor who clamber for the most degrading jobs by their millions: the old ways of subsistence through which people supported themselves have long been destroyed. What is surprising is the fact that new forms of subsistence have not been invented now that colonised populations are no longer openly declared savages to be freely exploited by an occupying force in the name of civilisation, but citizens to be guaranteed a life of dignity and respect. For it is self-evident that the pauperised masses of the neo-colonial lands languish in poverty precisely because modern production has rendered the labour of most redundant, whilst the few who are still needed for menial jobs are paid peanuts (the wages of most South African working people – up to 95% in sectors such as domestic work and agriculture – fall well below the 'poverty line') due to the huge competition among job-seekers. All the machinery of government, from the vast bureaucracies to the murderous security forces, has no other task than managing the crisis produced by this intractable contradiction. Yet this economics of work and unemployment is so simple as to be nearly unspeakable – something like the Emperor's New Clothes.
Today less than 2 percent of the population grows all food farmed in the United States. Is it conceivable that our ancestors, who never slaved half as much as we do, given access to new means of satisfying their basic needs a thousand times more efficiently than before, would have, of their own accord, set up a system where half the population spends the better part of their existence in monotonous soul-destroying drudgery while the other half rots in idle poverty, all for the sake of accumulating obscene amounts of useless commodities for a few chiefs and their hangers-on?
Is it not more likely that they would use what we laughably call labour-saving devices so that everyone actually works less, and lives more? Why has not a single neo-colonial society ever tried to do this after so-called independence? Why is this possibility, the only rational solution to the social question, never even mentioned? Why does everyone admire the beauty of an illusory social development rather than admit to the hideous decrepitude of a maggot-ridden body-politic ritually submitted to the bankrupt superstitious witch-doctoring of 'economic growth', 'foreign investment' and 'service delivery'?
Since nearly half the South African workforce today is unemployed, and the other half over-worked and underpaid, with no reasonable prospect of change in sight, the obvious thing to do would be simply to halve the working-day and thereby double the number of jobs. It might be objected that under the wage system this arrangement would also mean halving the salaries of workers, who would thus be unable to support themselves. So much the worse for the wage system. Just as property is the result of a con-job whereby the wealth of the entire planet was turned into an exclusive possession of the ruling class, so too money is a result of a conjuring trick whereby the victims of modern servitude are forced to work for the sake of worthless pieces of paper whose value is based on nothing but the authority of the government. Title deeds and fiat currency, the foundations of the modern economy, are no less imaginary fabrications than the invisible regalia of the royal imbecile in Hans Christian Anderson's all too prescient fable. Abolish the whole irrational swindle – together with the miserable swine that control it – and you no longer have any problem. When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the businessman? None of our ancestors demanded 'a fair day's work for a fair day's pay' before they were yoked into imperialist slavery. There is no evidence those who had for millennia lived and laboured communally for themselves without the benefit of money ever suffered for it, whilst a painful plenitude of disastrous evidence daily demonstrates the disgraceful deprivation of their modern day descendants, now shamefully reduced to the role of compliant servants.
Moreover, it is clear that the vast majority of jobs which currently exist are in any case harmful, or at best useless (not merely those such as bankers, politicians, police, bureaucrats and lawyers, whose products are quite obviously good for nothing even today, but also those whose products or methods of production are only useful in the context of an insane society, such as autoworkers, whose products function primarily as conveyors of human capital between points of production and consumption – infernal machines that play a crucial role in the reduction of all social space-time to a vast global assembly-line dominated by sprawling asphalt conveyor-belts and regulated by profit-maximisation – chemical weapons that assault our lungs with poison and our earth with rapine – pseudo-conveniences whose use-value only exists in a world where time is money and money is God), and it is highly unlikely that our ancestors would have, of their own free will, condemned so many of their people to waste their lives engaged in pointless toil that creates absolutely nothing of beauty or value for themselves or their community – activity that in fact relentlessly exterminates all beauty, value and community from the surface of the planet. On the other hand, we are far worse off than our forbears were in the sense that, despite this unconscionable dissipation of human energy, the vast majority of tasks necessary for the satisfaction of all (building beautiful and exciting places in which everyone can live well, producing delicious and healthy food so everyone can eat well, and so on) remains undone. There is no doubt that they would have thought those currently engaged in useless or contemptible professions would be far better employed attending to these vital tasks. With the elimination of bullshit jobs and useless unemployment and the massive reduction of the working day, the vast human potential only accessible to those engaged in creative leisure and productive play, from which all the most valuable aspects of culture have historically emerged, would be unleashed at a level never-before imaginable.
It is characteristic of the malaise of our times that a monopoly on the definition of reality is currently held by those who resolutely reduce it to a series of empty abstractions. Such people would dismiss the possibility of any serious movement to eliminate the misery of this world as unrealistic due to constraints imposed by economic laws invented precisely to justify that misery. They will say 'emerging markets' lack the capital to accomplish such a project, forgetting the fact that capital is not a thing but a social relation. The unprecedented industrial development of Mao's China and Stalin's Russia was achieved through massive use of forced labour, and accomplished for the sake of a military-bureaucratic class. These are presented as warnings to those who speak of alternatives to capitalist development, yet anyone alive today can plainly recognise that China is nothing more than another form of capitalism, as were all so-called socialist states. Beneath the abstractions of ideology, everyday life in these workers' republics was and is the same joyless hellish round of work-commute-tv-sleep-commute-work-commute-tv – a suicidal spiral of alienation whose only relief is one or another variety of madness or death.
Yet there is no law in history, society or nature which condemns all human beings on this earth to act as mere grist for 'the dark satanic mills' before their dreams of security, abundance and ease come within reach. Nor is it pre-determined by the character of pre-conquest societies that their traditions of communal tenure and mutual-aid could not have assimilated the most modern means of production in order to 'leap over' the purgatory of an interminable economic pseudo-development in which we have wallowed for centuries (a possibility that was explicitly recognised by Marx at the end of his life with regard to the Russian peasant commune, though most Marxists prefer to ignore it). The most advanced technologies being developed today, from small-scale aluminium extractors which allow the world's most abundant metal to be mined from ordinary sand, to 3D printers, self-replicating automated fabrication laboratories, and off-the-grid renewable energy, all make the decentralised construction of modern infrastructure more easy than it has ever been, to the extent that a mode of subsistence based the existence of material scarcity for anybody, and a mode of social development based on dependence towards neo-imperialist powers, are both becoming increasingly inconceivable. Nor is it written in the stars that we can't still alter the catastrophic course of our own destiny immediately, here and now.
This is not to advocate or even imagine an unwanted, not to mention impossible, return to the pre-colonial past. 'The traditional cultures are in any case doomed,' wrote Gary Snyder, 'and rather than cling to their good aspects hopelessly it should be remembered that whatever is or ever was in any other culture can be reconstructed... In fact, it is my own view that the coming revolution will close the circle and link us in many ways with the most creative aspects of our archaic past.' We will rid ourselves of the lies and chains of our masters not by looking backwards, but forwards. The point is to recognise the possibility, for the billions currently condemned to purgatory in 'emerging markets', of defining our own course of historical development even while our economies are still 'underdeveloped'. Indeed, for most of us, a radically new path is not merely a possibility but a necessity. The reasons are as simple as they are incontrovertible:
Firstly, the supposed successes of the advanced economies were achieved at the expense of a process of 'primitive accumulation' that for centuries destroyed generation after generation of European men, women and children by working them like beasts and housing them worse than beasts – a process that billions of us in the neo-colonial lands know all too well because we are being forced to go through it all over again, all over the world. When Marx wrote that 'capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt', we recognise this blood and dirt as our own, and instinctively want nothing to do with it. Yet, unless we determine to 'leap over' this horrendous process through a new game of our own invention, we not only sign the warrant for our own condemnation, but also that of our children and grandchildren.
Secondly, the resources available on earth are insufficient to allow more than a small proportion of the non-western population to acquire the western way of life. Moreover, even in the west, capitalism's dreams of abundance lead to nothing more than an abundance of dreams. The most cursory glance at any aspect of existence in this phoney 'land of opportunity' supplies an abundance of evidence for this conclusion: rampant mental illness (one in three suffers some form according to their own experts); suicide (the average citizen of the USA, the most murderous country in the global north, is more likely to kill themselves than die by murder – and a UK doctor who was also a Labour Party MP seriously suggested poisoning the entire population by putting lithium in the drinking water as a way to 'treat' the inevitable symptoms of an unliveable world); sexual and familial misery (patriarchy thrives in superficially updated forms, most marriages end in divorce and most that survive do so simply out of habit and cowardice); generalised ignorance, illiteracy and stupidity (according to their own government only 15% of US citizens are fully literate at the end of their schooling – George W. Bush Jr, an idiot of unprecedented scale, could be elected supreme leader of the free world, twice); epidemic-level obesity, anorexia, diabetes and other chronic illness; total cultural and intellectual bankruptcy (as French author Charles Nodier, observing in 1831 a phenomenon that has continued ever more vigorously to this day, pointed out: "the peasants of our villages who, a hundred years ago, read legends and fairytales and believed in them, today read the gossip sheets and the newspapers and believe in them. They were foolish; they've become stupid – that's progress"); poisoned air, polluted water, fake food, hideous cities, universal insecurity and isolation; spiritual and moral debility (as German author Gunther Anders noted in The Obsolescence of The Human Species, the drudgery of most wage-slaves in the economically advanced countries, who are more like eunuchs guarding and serving harems of commodities than plantation chattel breaking their backs in the field, tends to cripple their bodies less severely than it does their consciences and consciousness); and so on and on and on. Yet despite the fact that, as Mustapha Khayati said, 'the only people who are really underdeveloped are those who see a positive value in the power of their masters' – the rush to catch up with capitalist alienation continues to sweep us along unimpeded like lemmings over the side of a cliff.
Cognitive scientists claim to have discovered the phenomenon of belief persistence. They say that it is a feature of our natural epistemology that even when we accept that the reasons for our belief are removed, we do not abandon the belief. With all due respect to cognitive scientists, their discovery seems like a fancy way of describing deliberate hallucination. If, as Einstein reckoned, 'insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results', the inmates of today's neo-colonial reality asylum seem to be beholden to a form of collective madness – as if a servile crowd not merely agreed to pretend they admired the imaginary suit worn by a self-important ape, but were seized by a mass hysteria in which everybody truly believed they saw things which proved to be mirages – phantoms like 'progress', 'liberation', and 'democracy'. For it is undeniable that today all the politicians and their parties, all the professors and their theories, all the demagogues and their ideologies, all the journalists and their stories, all the businessmen and their lies, have nothing to say regarding the most vital problems that confront us, the crises which never ceased to plague us since our supposed national liberation, other than the same stale rhetorical garbage, the same vapid platitudinous abstractions, the same glittering generalities which their predecessors, and their predecessors' predecessors, have proven to be abject failures. The hairless ape wears no new clothes. The warts on his naked genitals stare you in the face. You may continue to laugh it off when earnest little boys point out these embarrassing facts. Social convention declares you free to do so and your fragile peace of mind would prefer not to be so rudely disturbed. At the end of the day, however, it may well be the case that the last laugh is on you.