Wednesday, 17 October 2012

What would be required of a theoretical practice for it to be premised on a genuine commitment to universal equality?

by Michelle Morgan, 2012

This essay serves to discuss what would be required of a theoretical practice for it to be premised on a genuine commitment to universal equality. I will argue, in line with Jacques Ranciere (2006), that for this to be achieved a theoretical practice has to start from the point of equality, a genuine equality in which each and every human being is respected in being able to think and act for themselves. The point of departure of this theoretical practice has to be equality of every human being, equality of intelligence and status. Therefore, such a principled theory would have to form part of an emancipatory political project, which arguably can only be realised though a genuine commitment to universal equality. Furthermore, for this equality to be truly universal it has to be part of a dialectical approach which is premised in theory that is specific as opposed to singular.

Before this can be discussed and explained at length, one must look at the failings of current and past theoretical practice and deduce that, whether it has been along lines of class, race or gender, distinctions have been made that have not allowed for a genuine equality to be realised. Here one can consider the problems that Lewis Gordon (2006) brings to light in terms of theoretical practice falling into the web of theodician tendencies which allow people to be problematized as opposed to being viewed as people with problems. In addition attention must also be given to the the current inequality of class embedded in the concept of civil society and the problem of the dominance of oligarchy masquerading as democracy in identifying the current shortcomings of theoretical practice as it stands. I will argue here, in line with Gordon (2006), that we need to “shift the geography of reason” in which these distinctions have been normalised in order to start from a point of a genuine universal which is premised on equality. We must also look at the concept of “disciplinary decadence” (Gordon, 2006: 32) and how this needs to be avoided to achieve a theoretical practice which is based on a genuine commitment to universal equality. It is after such considerations that efforts to identify a genuine concept of universal equality can be made and, and from this point of departure we can procure a theoretical practice that is premised on a genuine commitment to universal equality.

Throughout history people have been classified according to “degrees of humanity… (in which) some humans were more than others,” (Trouillot, 1995: 76). This can be seen specifically in the historical events of slavery, colonialism and apartheid in which race was legitimised as a classificatory distinction. This distinction has perpetuated the notion that black people are not the same as white people and therefore should not have access to the same equal basic rights. It has perpetuated an inequality in which "The standard view is that things white represent universality and things black are locked in the web of particularity," (Gordon, 2006:8). This claim advocates that whiteness has been normalised as the universal, while that which is black is singular as it has been placed in a location which is “outside the system of order and rationality,” (Gordon, 2006: 7). This racialised logic has been prevalent in theoretical practice throughout history, and even though racial distinctions in terms of humanity and equality have been denounced worldwide and proven to hold no weight, this reasoning still persists in much contemporary theoretical practice.

This reasoning has been legitimated though secularized theodicy in current theoretical practices (Gordon, 2006). This is theodicy in which a secular theory has the same logic of theology in that the system has been presented as that which has no flaws and thus the people must be the problem. Gordon claims that :

 “in the context of modern attitudes and political treatment towards black folks, a special kind of theodician grammar has asserted itself. The appeal to blacks as problem-people is an assertion of their ultimate location outside the system of order and rationality… blacks become rationalised as the extraneous evil of a just system,” (2006: 7).

The relevance of this is that much theory has been written which looks at people as the problem, not the system. This can be seen currently in America, as people try to theorise about why the majority of prisoners are African-American men. Black people, rather than the system, are seen as the problem. Instead Gordon (2006: 6) advocates that we need to study people as human beings and “find a way to study black people without black people becoming problems in themselves”. Thus, we need to move away from this theodician logic in theoretical practice to start from a point of genuine equality which is universal in nature.

While the classificatory distinction of race have been shown to hold no weight, the distinction of class has become the most prevalent in current neo-liberal, ‘democratic’ society. Partha Chatterjee (2004) argues that the formal structure of the democratic nation-state, which has come to be regarded as the standard political form of the modern world and is premised on the equality and freedom of citizens, imagines a broad conception of civil society, (25). The guarantee of equal citizenship rights to all members of the nation state permits the constitution and laws of the state to officially recognise that “all of society is civil society,” (Chatterjee, 2004: 38). In line with this, every citizen has the capacity to exert their will in the process of political deliberation and negotiation that transpires between the state and civil society (Chatterjee, 2004: 38).

However, in practice this is not the case. Rather, most citizens are excluded from the process of political deliberation and negotiation that results in the determining of state policies. Instead, most citizens (those who are not elite) have been regarded not as full, right bearing citizens. Rather, they are treated as passive, apolitical subjects in need of ‘service delivery’ as is the case in South Africa. This majority are then excluded from the benefits of being part of civil society but still have to bear the consequences of being within a political society. Thus, civil society has been restricted to a small section of culturally equipped citizens representing the high ground of modernity, namely, the elite, (Chaterjee, 2004). This argument put forward by Chaterjee is very evident in the current day political situation in South Africa. Elites of political parties control the political agenda while the majority of South Africans, who repeatedly attempt in the form of popular protest to influence the political agenda, are not acknowledged as legitimate participants in civil society, and thus are reduced to unreasonable, unthinking barbarians.

This can be seen in the recent case of the Marikana Massacre, which took place in Rustenburg on the 16th of August 2012, in which 34 Lonmin platinum miners were gunned down by the South African police during a strike in which they were demanding a living wage. This complete disregard for the humanity of the poor shows their exclusion from civil society due to their lower status in terms of class. Furthermore, the dehumanisation of these miners in the eyes of the media and the state show the inequality inherent in current state policy and practices. Once again a theodician logic is being applied in which the people are problematized as opposed to the system, namely the colonial mentality that remains in the South African mining business (and state as a whole), perpetuated by the fundamentally classist nature of neo-liberal policy. This is significant precisely because we are currently operating within a system that incorrectly claims to be based on equality.

The consequences of Chatterjee’s claims about the true nature of civil society for theoretical practice are that we need to acknowledge that elites have become the representative trustees of the will of the people. Accordingly, this has resulted in the silencing of the voices of ordinary people so that they are excluded from the national political process (Chatterjee, 2004). For a theoretical practice to be premised on a genuine commitment to universal equality we need to acknowledge this inherent inequality and make a point of rectifying it by starting from a point of  genuine equality in which every person is respected on an equal basis above all else. An effort needs to be made to break down the debilitating distinctions of race, class and gender within theoretical practice to reach a point of genuine universal equality.

This problematic notion of civil society that Chaterjee (2004) brings to light is part of a larger problem that Ranciere (2006) brings to bear, the problem of rights being enshrined in the nation through the notion of citizenship. The fundamental problem of the “duality of man (sic) and citizen” is that if two principles are required for politics instead of one there must be some “deceit or vice” at the heart of this dual logic, (Ranciere, 2006: 58). It is this deceit which is at the centre of the politics of the nation state as “the rights of man are either empty or tautological. They are the rights of bare man; but bare man, the man who belongs to no constituted national community, has no rights. The rights of man, then, are the empty rights of those who have no rights,” (Ranciere, 2006: 58). This deep-seated obstruction to the realisation of a true and universal equality within theoretical practice and current political systems needs to be acknowledged and rectified. Citizenship has hollowed out the concept of rights and made them exclusionary which points to the need to start from a point of genuine equality. For a theoretical practice to be premised on a genuine commitment to universal equality we need to develop a notion of rights that is not exclusionary and tautological, one that is dedicated to a true realisation of equality of every human being.

Discussion now turns to the problems of “disciplinary decadence” (Gordon, 2006: 32) within theoretical practices and how this needs to be avoided in order for a theoretical practice to be premised on a genuine commitment to universal equality. Gordon (2006) criticises many disciplines and the theory founding them in that they are narrow and collapse in on themselves because they are not wholly inclusive. “This phenomenon is the error of disciplinary reductionism. It involves ontologizing one’s discipline – literally, collapsing “the world” into one’s disciplinary perspective” (Gordon, 2006: 33).  What needs to be taken into account in a theoretical practice that is committed to a genuine universal of equality is that human reality is all encompassing; hence, we cannot see it through one particular lens such as one discipline, as each discipline in isolation is too limited in scope (Gordon, 2006). Therefore, contemporary theory needs to be more encompassing and inclusive if it is to be premised on genuine notion of universal equality.

Archives of theoretical practice have traditionally been elite spaces in which white, western theory has dominated. We need to move away from this to achieve a theoretical practice which is founded on a genuine commitment to universal equality. This can be done through such projects as Subaltern Studies which seek to tell the politics of those marginalised, to articulate a real politics of the people (Guha, 1997). Gordon (2006) also advocates that this can be done by looking at theory from the “underside of modernity.” W.E.B Du Bois idea of ‘double consciousness’ can be inverted here in that when you are aware of the limits of dominant theory you have  a second lens in which to understand life (cited in Gordon, 2006). Through integrating and including the perspectives of everyone, poor or rich, white or black, male or female, we can move toward achieving a theoretical practice which is premised on a genuine commitment to universal equality, which takes as its starting point, equality.

It is now time to discuss in depth how the geography of reason should be shifted in a achieving a theoretical practice that is premised on genuine commitment to universal equality. As I have mentioned before, I believe that this has to be done through starting from the point of equality above all else. For this to be achieved we need to recognise the ability of every human to think and act with intelligence. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former president of Haiti, puts this concept beautifully saying, “tout moun se moun – every person is indeed a person, every person is capable of thinking things through for themselves,” (cited in Hallward, 2007: 13).  We need to acknowledge the “open door of every consciousness” (Fanon cited in Sekyi-Out, 2001: 49) and give every human an equal opportunity to be the masters of their own destiny. We need to value the humanity of all people regardless of race, class and gender and this should be the starting point for any theoretical practice if it is to be based on a genuine commitment to universal equality.

For this theoretical practice to be truly universal, however, it has to move away from the singular notion of theory in which experience is deemed unique and therefore cannot be related to other situations (Hallward, 2004). This type of theory is locked in a web of particularity in which experiences cannot be connected, writers of this singular theory end up writing about themselves in a narcissistic manner and the experience is not relational and therefore cannot be applied on a universal scale. Rather, we need theory that is produced from the viewpoint of the specific if it is to be universal in nature. This type of specific theory acknowledges that experience happens in a particular context in a particular way, but it can be understood and explained to others in a relational manner (Hallward, 2004). Fanonian theory has been produced in this manner and while much of it is based on Fanon’s own experiences during the Algerian Revolution, it can be applied worldwide because it is not wrapped up in the web of particularity. For a theoretical practice to be truly universal it has to be produced from the viewpoint of the specific in which we acknowledge the particular but in such a way that it can be related on a larger scale to other events that occur around the world. I believe that this calls for a dialect approach to theoretical practice which “moves from the concrete and gives content to the universal (namely, human freedom) as it emerges from the particular” (Gibson, 2011: 15).

As Ranciere (2006) argues we need to move away from the Platonic, totalitarian idea that all people have their place, with the gold philosophers at the top, the silver soldiers and warriors in the middle and the bronze workers at the bottom of society (Russell, 1996: 111). This idea links with the Leninist view that we need the vanguard elite to lead the people to their revolution and freedom. Such a view is flawed precisely because every individual has the capacity and intellect to realise their own freedom and take it. This view is more consistent with, and enables one to distinguish a genuine theory of universal equality. Thus, we should take a Maoist approach and realise that the grassroots do not need intellectuals to lead them, instead every person should be viewed as having the competence to realise their own power and capability to be the masters of their own destiny. An example of the inherent capability we have within us all regardless of status and opportunity can be seen in the case S’bu Zikode, the elected president of Abahlali baseMjondolo. Zikode grew up in a small village in South Africa with little education. He was a petrol attendant and security guard and eventually came to live in a shack settlement in Durban. Going by Plato’s measure of society Zikode would fall under the bronze, bottom sector of society. However, Zikode is now writing important influential philosophy as an active intellect. The same can be said of Ayanda Kota of the Unemployed People’s Movement in Grahamstown. These two examples are significant in that these two people, from an apparent bronze status, have proven to be intellectuals in their own right. Thus, contemporary theory must acknowledge the intellect, voice and opinion of everyone as equal in attempting to be premised on a genuine commitment to universal equality.

The Haitian Revolution, which took place in St. Domingue from 1701 to 1804, provides a clear example of the value of starting from a point of equality. The Haitian Revolution occurred in a time in which it was a completely “unthinkable” event in human history (Trouillot, 1995: 72). This revolution challenged not only the Western institution of slavery but the very idea of man as it was defined at the time. It stretched the radical universalism of the French Revolution, extending it beyond what was thinkable. The Haitian revolution threatened the ontological and political assumptions of the most radical writers of the Enlightenment; “it challenged the conceptual framework of its time” (Trouillot, 1995: 82). This revolution took place in time in which the idea of black slaves organising themselves and revolting, resulting in the abolition of slavery, the recognition of the black person as a human being ontologically equal to the white man, and the creation of the first independent black state, defied all discourse. This revolution was so poignant and radical precisely because it was premised on the notion of universal equality. Using equality as their starting point the Haitian slaves never let their ideal slip from the agenda. In doing so, they were able to achieve freedom in an unthinkable manner. It is with this sort of determination for the recognition of a genuine equality that contemporary theoretical practices need to pursue. Only through starting from this position of absolute, undeniable and genuine equality can we premise any theoretical practice that is to achieve true emancipation of all people from the constraints of our current unequal and unjust society.

In conclusion, it can be seen that theoretical practices need to become wholly inclusive we are to achieve a genuine commitment to universal equality. This has to be done through the breaking down of the current distinctions of race, class and gender which characterise our contemporary situation in order to achieve a genuine equality which can be universal in nature. By starting from the point of equality it becomes a means to an end and allows for each and every person to be the masters of their own destiny.  Moreover, theoretical practice needs to be produced from a relational, specific approach that is dialectic in nature for it to be a genuine universal. By recognising the humanity of every person a theoretical practice can be produced that is truly premised on a genuine commitment to universal equality.

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Gibson, N.C. (2011) ‘Introduction: Amandla is still Awethu’ in Fanonian Practices in post-apartheid South Africa. University of Kwazulu-Natal Press.
Gordon, L. (2006). African American Philosophy, Race and the Geography of Reason in Not Only the Masters Tools. Paradigm Publishers: Boulder.
Guha, R. (1997). ‘Introduction’ in A Subaltern Studies Reader. Oxford: Delhi.
Hallward, P. (2004) ‘Haitian Inspiration’, Radical Philosophy, No. 123
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Russel, B. (1996). ‘Plato’s Utopia’ in History of Western Philosophy. MPG Books Ltd, Bodmin, Cornwell.
Skeyi-Out, A. (2011). ‘Fanon and the Possibility of Post-Colonial Critical Imagination’, Living Fanon: Global Perspectives ed. Nigel Gibson. Palgrave Macmillian: London.
Trouillot, M-T. (1995) ‘An Unthinkable History’ from Silencing the Past, (Boston: Beacon Press)