DIESCHO’S DICTUM: The philosophy of poverty (Part 1)

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In 1847, Karl Marx wrote ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’ in which he began to expand the tenets of his later and larger work, ‘Das Kapital’, which became the bible of scientific socialism through dialectic materialism. ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’ was Marx’s analysis of the correlation between economic struggle on the one hand, and the political struggle on the other of the working class, as a basis for a communist society wherein each would be given according to their needs and from each be taken according to their ability. Marx’s ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’ was essentially a critique of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s earlier work in a book, ‘Philosophy of Poverty’ in which Proudhon expounded on his beliefs on utopia – a world without government and where no one was subjected to any one’s rule or authority.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was the first acknowledged philosopher who propounded anarchist beliefs and promoted a utopian world. Proudhon argued, amongst others, that to be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated at, regulated, docketed, indoctrinated, preached at, by men who have neither right nor the knowledge not the virtue…”. One of the nexii (connections) between Proudhon and Marx was the texture of their arguments around (private) property as the root of all evil in society, and that it is the basis of exploitation of the weak by the strong, the abuse of the poor by those who own things and hire others to work for them to make a living. To Proudhon private property was robbery whereas to Marx property was the beginning of the decay of society.

In ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’ Marx found Proudhon’s views limited in that they did not proceed to give an intellectual formula on how to bring about a revolution. Marx found existing philosophical treatises to be toothless and therefore he argued, inter alia, that philosophers have hitherto interpreted the world in different ways, but never changed the world. He proceeded to advance a thesis of dialectical materialism as the formula to change the world from where it was to where it should be – a classless society after the proletariats (the workers) had overthrown the bourgeoisie (the landlords). This thesis became the classic teaching material in the days of the Cold War, during which most Afrikan revolutionaries imbibed the teachings without understanding them and labeled their political movements scientific socialist.

Maybe we should start by unravelling our own Philosophy of Poverty. For some reason, Afrikan leaders after independence have bought into the pornography of poverty as a way of life when dealing with the rest of the world, especially the developed world. Whereas other countries that were colonized before, like we were, use their political power to emancipate themselves, we in Afrika use our freedom and political independence as begging baskets by crying poverty. Ghana and Malaysia attained political independence from Great Britain in the same year 1957, and Malaysia‘s level of development was no better than that of Ghana. Fifty years later Malaysia is a rising giant in Asia whereas Ghana has gone backwards. In 1961, Kenya had a per capita economy larger than South Korea! Where are they now in relation to their levels of development? When Singapore became independent in 1965 it was a typical third world country, with no natural resources. Today Singapore is a first world country relying on itself for development and there is general prosperity for the majority of its citizens. Where is the problem with Afrikan states?

In Namibia we are in the mode of a Philosophy of Poverty. All of us shout poverty and guilt-trip the rest of the world to come to our rescue. It is therefore important that we unpack a bit more deliberately our own Philosophy of Poverty. Our self-understanding as Namibians is very poor – it is based upon selfhoods that have been fed to us by political entrepreneurs, who themselves do not understand who they are and where they come from. I remember reading an autobiography of a struggle hero who begins his own book by stating that his life started in the liberation struggle in a neighbouring country. This after he left his homestead at the age of 18. This fellow has no appreciation that he was inspired to be and become by his parents, grandparents and others around him. This fellow has no memory of his childhood dreams. This suggests a very bankrupt understanding of what life is and where it commences. Life starts at conception, not upon obtaining a party membership card. We do not even remember that the whole notion of a Namibia is a creation of European adventurism, and that our own development as Afrikans has been intercepted by the colonial invasion, which left us bereft of our own self-definition, never mind a proper self-understanding, self-affirmation and self-direction.

Throughout our existence as a nation over the last twenty-five years we have talked about fighting, alleviating, reducing, combating and now eradicating poverty. Now we have a fully fledged Ministry for Poverty Eradication with a full Cabinet Minister, two Deputy Ministers, a Permanent Secretary and advisors. Yet it would appear as if we are not clear about what poverty is and how different our poverty is compared to other countries, even poorer ones compared to us, in terms of available resources and types of infrastructure. Then there is deep poverty in so-called developed countries of the world. Yet these poorer and richer countries do not have state personnel dedicated to eradicating poverty. What are we saying to, first ourselves, secondly to the rest of the world and thirdly to those who will find the world where we shall have left it?

First, the United Nations’ definition of poverty is neither appropriate nor helpful for us to develop a proper diagnosis of what the disease of poverty is, before we wage an informed and frontal war against it. An improper or incomplete diagnosis of the disease will lead us to find solutions or even create a whole set of different problems altogether. A close relative of mine died of diabetes complications after he stopped his treatment and went to a traditional healer who prescribed that his illness was due to an unrepaired relationship he had with his poorer brother, after which he turned to the external treatment the traditional healer prescribed. The final outcome was fatal. We need to be clear about what we are talking about. A farmer in Omaheke or Kavango with over 300 head of cattle, but does not have a bank account, is not a poor man in his context. Yet according to the UN definition he does not use more than a certain amount of dollars per day, therefore he is poor.

Second, when a society declares war against something, that something becomes the enemy of that country. The USA evolved its warfare and national intelligence strengths against its erstwhile enemy, namely, Communist Soviet Union (Russia). Thus it marshalled a lot of energy, strength and wherewithal to direct at that enemy. Not too long ago, an interesting national competition was conducted across the US to gauge US citizens’ opinion on who was the greatest American to have lived. Surprisingly Ronald Reagan, the 40th American president, won the accolade, mainly because the fall of Communism in 1989 was associated with him.

It is interesting to note that in his first inauguration speech as US president in 1981, Reagan told America that the American Government was part of the problem and therefore he was there to take the government off the backs of the American people … To distribute wealth Reagan made the government smaller, leaner and more purposeful to fighting for a better life for the American people. He preached trickle-down economics by which he meant that by making the rich richer, there would be enough crumbs falling off the dinner tables of the rich and the poor would automatically benefit by living off the crumbs. Hence his approach was billed Reaganomics.

Third, we in Namibia today ought to ask of ourselves and our leaders some vexing questions in our conversation about the war we have declared against poverty, which we all accept as fair and legitimate. In order to move in tandem with the tone of our leaders, we need to understand better what we are talking about when we invoke the language of poverty and how to reduce it. Reduce it is all we are capable of doing in our lifetime. For instance, what do we mean by poverty? Where are our priorities as a nation in this regard to either doing more with less or doing less with more, as long as certain people are kept happy and fed? We need to speak brutally honestly with one another in this regard, knowing that this is not a very pleasant subject at dinner. The risk we run by choosing expediency over the truth is that we shall all be found to have been there and did nothing when we could. This is the classic problem with systems that feed too many people while they last and fall flat in the end. This was the case with Nazism and apartheid which, at the time they were the order of the day everybody chose to be as close as possible to the rulers, but changed their names when things changed so drastically in the end. The point is that people know when things begin to go wrong, but very few have the guts to advise the leaders with honesty and discipline, not because they love the leaders less, but because they love the country more. No one can predict the future, and as one leader said, the best way to predict the future is to make it better.

We need to acknowledge that there is a contradiction between our way of life as a nation and what we wish the world, especially the international institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to think about us. We are like many Afrikan governments; the Namibian political leadership is very dissatisfied with the international standards by which Namibia’s economy is designated as an upper middle- income country. Our leadership gets irritated when Namibia is classified as such.  In other words, we would rather be considered as a least developed country so that we would qualify for international soft loans and other benefits in foreign aid language. The paradox here is that we do not act or do things as a poor country, according to those international standards.  Even within the fraternity of Afrikan countries we do not have the types of underdevelopment markers that are prevalent in other Afrikan countries. We have inherited a sound economy at the time of political independence and we had the blessing of a good leadership to maintain and build upon what was there at independence. In the last several years the country has experienced steady economic growth. We have peace and stability second to none in the region and beyond. Our quality of life is worthy of pride in spite of the many challenges that are admittedly there. What is needed now is a paradigm shift that strengthens our consciousness that we are now our own masters and that we need to use what we have, little though it is, towards the common good. A consciousness monitored by a political ideology of a better life for all, and which propels us all to do MORE with LESS. Our poverty is not with resources, but in and of our minds. We must address this in order to understand THE POVERTY OF OUR PHILOSOPHY. (To be continued)

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