Saturday, October 29, 2011

We Are the 1% (Or at least I am, I'm not sure about you)

This is a sort of meta-post, but (a) it’s been bothering me and (b) after closing comments on my post below, I feel like there should be a venue for people telling me I'm an idiot that’s open.

I’m currently in Ghana, which is why I’m not finding ways to be at Occupy Baltimore at least part-time (I have a three year old who gets cranky if we’re out occupying public space past 7PM, though she has been asking about camping recently...).  But, beyond that, I’m not sure what to make of being in another part of the world watching OWS from the outside in.

As far as I know, there are no sympathetic movements in Ghana (and the only OWS-related protest I know of was in South Africa).  Which is not to say that there aren't various moments of resistance around the continent, many of which have grievances that would be familiar to OWS (I could have sworn that Tom Friedman said there was no Arab Spring in sub-Saharan Africa, but I can't find it now, so it may just be that it's the sort of thing I'd imagine Friedman saying). Just off the top of my head,

I'm sure there's more that I'm missing.

Here in Ghana, doctors just ended their strike.  This was over the delay in moving publicly-funded doctors onto the new pay scale for public servants, which would raise their pay.  Last week, on my walk to my office, there as a giant pile of burning tires on the median, which I’m told—variously—was either about raising tuition or increasing the number of students to a dorm room (word on the street was that the University was talking about raising it to 6).

None of this stuff is too remote from the goals of OWS, but lumping it together as if it’s a movement waiting to be born seems to level the serious differences between the situations.

And I hate being that guy, the one who’s always on about how much better we have it, and how we should worry about having real problems, but... if you’re even middle-class-ish in the US, you have it really good.  I don’t know many people in the US in my circles who would be totally comfortable living the way that middle-class Ghanaians do, let alone poor Ghanaians. And Ghana’s not that poor.

This is why, in my earlier comments, I pointed out that the game many people seem to be frustrated had the rules changed, was rigged from the start.  It’s rigged worse than ever now in favor of the 1%.  But, I'm not in that 1% in the US, and the game was massively rigged in my favor—I would (likely) not be where I am, precarious as it may be, were I born in Mogadishu, or Lagos, or Accra.

So, on the one hand, I worry about appropriating the situation of folks around here, as if saying “global capitalism!” solves, like, chieftancy disputes and the argument over whether the NDC has been using thug tactics against Rawlings’ wife.  On the other hand, it strikes me that OWS should have cosmopolitan reach.

I throw myself on the mercy of more perceptive minds to make sense of all this.


  1. "And I hate being that guy, the one who's always on about how much better we have it, and how we should worry about having real problems, but... if you're even middle-class-ish in the US, you have it really good. I don't know many people in the US in my circles who would be totally comfortable living the way that middle-class Ghanaians do, let alone poor Ghanaians. And Ghana's not that poor."

    You're living in Ghana; I've only just read about it. But Ghana is a postcolonial society, and the class system you are referring to is a vestige of its colonial past. From my readings in African philosophy, I suspect that many Ghanaian intellectuals (no less than Kenyan, Nigerian, South African, Congolese, etc. intellectuals) have a very nuanced perspective on this phenomenon that is very different from mine or yours. For example, is it just that the Ghanaian middle class is materially less well off than the American middle class? Does it not differ from the American middle class in terms of how it understands itself relative to Ghanaian society as a whole? Is not this self-understanding shaped and defined by complicated historical, cultural, social, political, and economical forces that are difficult to comprehend outside of Ghana, or any (post) colonial context for that matter?

    I believe in the old socialist ideal of internationalism, but with the important qualification that there is no such thing as one "working class." As capitalism has taken root in differing cultural contexts, so it has generated many differing class systems. I believe there is a Ghanaian working class, and but it is difficult for American workers to speak unproblematically about what interests they share with Ghanaian workers beyond, e.g., not being exploited by their bosses. The former may have interests qua Ghanaian workers that the latter do not have qua American workers. Recognizing and respecting this is a condition of possibility for solidarity.

    And by the way, I didn't Godwin the previous thread.

  2. I think most of what you say is on point - though it does bring me back to the kernel of my conundrum, which is how to practically promote solidarity given those differences.

    I'm in the slightly odd position of being a philosopher who writes on issues related to Africa without really being an "African philosopher" (OK, I've read some Wiredu). I've no doubt that there are African philosophers who have written quite seriously on these issues, but that brings me to two interesting theoretical-practical issues.

    First, because of the colonial context, while we Westerners may be looking for solidarity, a significant fraction of African political philosophy (what I know of at least) is concerned with asserting an African identity. One key problem for African thinkers is *not* having Africa defined in Western terms. So, anti-colonial thinkers like Fanon and Cabral are more concerned with how to theorize opposition to Europe than solidarity with European workers (even Gandhi basically said he straight up wasn't concerned with UK textile workers' interests). And many post-colonial thinkers are interested in exploring the way that African thought is distinctive.

    Which is all generally understandable and fascinating, but not designed to make solidarity an easy road. In fact, I suspect that a major thing Westerners should learn from it is that you can't exploit the global poor and then turn around and say, "Solidarity! Right, guys?"

    Second, for most Westerners, if they want to learn more about how Africans think about these things (or Latin Americans, etc.), the easiest sources to access are going to be... the writings of intellectuals, i.e., the ideology producers. So you need to take seriously the idea that if you read, say, Anthony Appiah, or Kwame Gyeke, you are not necessarily learning "what Ghanaians think" in any straightforward sense. I mean, I live here, but still most of the Ghanaians I talk to in substance are elites - faculty, the military guys I'm researching, etc.

    Anyway, I guess this is to say I mostly agree with you, but I think it's serious pitfall for a movement like OWS. Within the US, there are already criticisms that OWS is basically an outcry of the middle class white people suddenly having to face what the working class (esp. non-whites) have had to for years. Globally, potentially same thing.

    I suspect that in some sense, the outcome of a lot of the recent foment in the US will be that the middle-class elements in OWS (and to some extent, the Tea Party) will be offered a deal that looks like, "OK, we're going to give you some stuff that will put you back on something close to the footing you were on before, as long as we get to keep screwing the bottom 30% or so. Everyone knows you don't want the extremely radical changes that would make the system really fair, not just Hollywood-fair." And that that's going to look like a pretty good deal.

    BTW, I didn't say you Godwin-ed it. 99 removed the comment to which I was immediately reacting.

  3. while we Westerners may be looking for solidarity, a significant fraction of African political philosophy ... is concerned with asserting an African identity

    Why think that these two projects are in tension? I suppose, if solidarity requires some sort of thoroughgoing uniformity, then there's a tension. But why think that the antecedent is true?

    Here's another way to think about it. Carpenters, electricians, and plumbers all do different kinds of work, have different aims in their work, and may sometimes disagree over how a building should be put together to facilitate their respective work. The right way to reconcile these tensions is not to have everyone do some (unintelligible) carpentry-plumbing-electricial work combination. Nor is it for the carpenters to claim that they're doing the REAL work, and the electricians and plumbers should fall in line behind the carpenterian leadership. Rather, the right way to reconcile these tensions is to recognize that each kind of work makes its own distinctive kind of contribution to the shared overall project of building a building. The three kinds of activities are different, but in some sense equal, and complementary contributors to the overall project.

    Back on the philosophy and political side of the analogy: Euro-American (esp. Caucasian) thinkers and activists have their (our) own kind of contribution to make to creating a just world. Likewise with African thinkers and activists. Solidarity, I suggest, comes from considering the different and complementary contributions each can make to this overall project, not from finding a way to hybridize the Euro-American and African sides of the project. (This brackets race in America. I can elaborate on that if anyone would like.)

  4. @Dan

    Thanks for the great reply! Two points especially resonate with me. First, you're absolutely spot-on that we (Westerners) won't get very far in our attempts to cultivate solidarity with the Other if our understanding of the Other comes from ideology-producers alone. Back in the heady days of the alter-globalization movement, American activists would travel to Central and South America, India, Southeast Asia, etc. in order to bear witness to the consequences of globalization first hand. In so doing, they also had the opportunity to experience how workers in these parts of the world were resisting (or attempting to resist) capitalist oppression and to learn from these strategies. This created valuable cross-cultural relationships; sweatshop workers from Central America and union organizers from India were invited to speak on American campuses, for example. At the present moment, I think something similar is happening with the visits of Egyptian activists to Zucotti Park. (Were I in the position to speak to an Egyptian freedom fighter, I would consider that conversation far more valuable than anything I had read by an Egyptian ideology-producer...)

    Second, I think you're right that "a major thing Westerners should learn... is that you can't exploit the global poor and then turn around and say, 'Solidarity! Right, guys?'" There are probably many people the world over who are looking at what's happening in the U.S. right now and saying "the chickens are coming home to roost." The same thing happened after 9/11. So yes, we should regard what's happening in the West right now as incredibly humbling and see it as a "sackcloth and ashes" moment. To turn around and demand solidarity with the very people we have exploited for centuries is to exploit them anew; they'd have every reason to tell us "screw off -- you're on your own." But if we treat this as a moment of humility and reconciliation, rather than as a self-evident cause for global solidarity, we might have more of a chance for achieving the kind of cosmopolitanism you mentioned in your initial post.

    Fantastic insights. Thanks again.

  5. @Dan: I wasn't trying to say that an emphasis on African identity in much African philosophy was incompatible with solidarity, and I'm sorry if I seemed to. My point was a bit narrower - that, given that focus, African philosophers that I've read have tended to emphasize the distinctiveness of African culture and situation, rather than any similarities to Western culture. So, if you're looking for commonality, you may not find a lot of help.

    That said, this is not intended as a knock at all against any African philosophers. Cabral, e.g., focuses on the importance of reclaiming a notion of African culture, and if one complained about this not giving Westerners enough purchase on how they could make common cause, he would rightly flip you off. Nor is it to say that African philosophers are unconcerned with their relationship to Western thinkers - there are plenty of African philosophers (as I was recently set straight on) talking about Rawls, etc.

    @N.J. I'm not sure I have anything to add, at the moment.

  6. I should reiterate that I am NOT an expert on African philosophy - and my knowledge of it is least crummy with respect to anti-colonial thought, so that surely skews my knowledge of it. So, African philosophers, I apologize for my ignorance! I'm working on it.

  7. @Daniel

    I'm not an expert either, but I had to do a lot of background reading to prepare for an independent study I'm doing this semester. For anyone who's interested, Imbo's "Introduction to African Philosophy" was an especially helpful starting point, especially for laying out and explaining the various schools of/currents in African philosophy.

    I would just add parenthetically that this issue (how to think about the relationship between Western thought and African identity as such) seems pretty central in African philosophy. (Witness the whole debate on "ethnophilosophy," for example.) I think any philosopher who has an interest in African political struggles owes it to him/herself to become at least passingly familiar with some of this stuff...

  8. Man, I bet Cabral never had to deal with Vodafone constantly crapping out and eating his comments.

    I think you're right, and that the better way to put my concern/idea is something like this:

    1. To the extent that OWS is or is to be global, it's important that we Westerners find a way not to understand the struggles of non-Westerners as extensions of ours, but conceptualize ours as extensions of theirs.

    2. It's really easy to *think* you've done this, but really because you've retconned someone else's struggle to be a precursor of yours.

    3. Many African political philosophers, particularly the anti-colonialists, don't seem - with good reason - to have been all that interested in recruiting white allies. So if you look to, e.g., Cabral to explain to you how OWS and Africa fit together, you run the risk of in your mind saying, "yeah, as a white US professor, my struggle is *totally* like that of an African under colonial or neo-colonial domination!" (see 2) or having to swallow the bitter pill of *it not being about you* and maybe not compatible with you getting what you think you want (maybe the way to overcome 2, ultimately).

  9. PS I'm reading Hountondji now, but I'll add Imbo to the list. Ironically, my priority while actually here is to read non-philosophical stuff that's hard to find abroad, like books on civil-military relations under Nkrumah.

  10. Though, this whole conversation brings me back around to my second original point, about ideology-producers. The past three occasions I've been going to or transiting through Accra airport, the plane has had a solid contingent of US oil company folks on it (I'm not just being conspiratorial - in June, on my way to Monrovia, there were about half a dozen guys with bush mustaches, beer guts, and Halliburton baseball caps. It was like bad parody.).

    Which makes me think, OK, is what I should do to properly respect the average Ghanaian to make sure I get around to reading more Wiredu? Or am I missing something by thinking that what makes my life harmful to people in the rest of the world is that I'm insufficiently sensitive to trends in current non-Western philosophy?

  11. @Dan

    "Or am I missing something by thinking that what makes my life harmful to people in the rest of the world is that I'm insufficiently sensitive to trends in current non-Western philosophy?"

    I don't know, man, but I wouldn't be too hard on yourself. As far as I'm concerned, just being aware of those trends puts you heads and shoulders above a lot of your peers in North American political philosophy -- even those who are putatively interested in, or concerned about, African political struggles. I think that counts for a lot FWIW.

  12. It's not about being hard on myself - it's about being hard on ourselves in the wrong ways. Many of my colleagues here would be helped more as philosophers if I published an article that was totally tone-deaf to African philosophy but was in an open-access journal.

    If we philosophers often have the luxury of taking the broad view, I wonder about the best way to use that luxury. You're surely right that learning more about African philosophy is in-itself cool. But meanwhile, US evangelicals have been pushing for the death penalty for gays in Uganda, Shell's taken over half the oil-related offices in Nigeria, and we've got "advisers" in Somalia and the DRC.

  13. Right, and all of these things mean something to Africans--including African philosophers--and it's very difficult for us non-Africans to know what that is. So what can we do? Well, as non-African philosophers who care about these things, we can at least familiarize ourselves with how our African comrades have thought about and continue to think about them. I think this is a helpful thing for us to do. Are there other things we can do that are more helpful? Well, that depends on who the "we" is, Kimosabi. Obviously things are very different for you, Dan, since you're actually over there. I won't even pretend to know what you should and shouldn't be doing. (I'm in Wichita Falls, Texas, so my range of opportunities is very limited by comparison! Sometimes I feel like the best I can do is just try to keep up with the news in Subsaharan Africa, which is often a challenge in its own right.)