Literary Obsession ~ Chapter Four



“Ubuntu” describes a magical childhood I never had and still seek.    It is a word in the Bantu languages recent thinkers have made into a name for the treasures of pre-colonial African culture.    Mfuniswela Bhengu, who heads a Foundation for Economic Humanism and represents Cape Town in South Africa’s parliament, has written about ubuntu.   In three books he has summarized its history and philosophy.    Reading in Bhengu’s books the missing pages of my life, I learn that in the times of ubuntu and still today where ubuntu is practiced there are no old age homes and no lonely seniors because the members of each extended family care for their own; for the same reason there are no orphans.    “There are always arms outstretched waiting to receive relatives in distress; foster parents who eagerly snatch up orphaned children;” brothers and sisters galore to rally around the ailing or crippled worker;  equally as many available to provide granny and grandpa with food, clothing, and shelter; big crowds at weddings because everyone in the community is invited – but they do not come empty handed but with beer and food as well as gifts for the bridal couple, and they join in the dancing and singing;  while a widow, according to custom, moves in with her deceased husband’s eldest brother; and thus ubuntu is experienced daily as a living reality by children, by teenagers, and by adults.    Such marvels of convivial practice are produced by myths –like conceiving the family as consisting of the ancestors, the living, and the unborn– and indeed by a whole cultural matrix, for  Ubuntu is an ancient universal philosophy, a collective respect for human dignity, the potential for being human, the art of being human, valuing the good of the community above self-interest, being honest and trustworthy, fairness to all, compassion, the element of godliness in a human being, the spiritual foundation of African societies.      Ubuntu begins when grandparents participate in birthing,  and are first to hold the newborn, because since she or he is considered a villager who has just arrived from a  journey that started in the land of the ancestors,  the newborn is most at home with the elderly.  No one is born on this earth without a  reason, a special purpose,  and the old help the young  to remember and claim their purpose in life in a supportive village atmosphere based on trust where no one has to hide anything.   Mfuniswela Bhenghu writes :   “Throughout children’s life in the village there is a strong message that they belong to a community of people who value them almost beyond anything else.”  “Community grows in an atmosphere in which people can drop their masks.”   If you are a Karl Polanyi or a Marcel Mauss, you will take this singing of praise for ubuntu; and similar praise that could be  sung for ways of life of indigenous peoples of the Americas, Asia, early Europe, the early Middle East, Australia, and the Pacific Islands;   as evidence that the extreme individualism of the cultural structures of the global economy is an aberration in the history of the species, which tends to destroy even its own conditions of possibility; and as evidence that in the  future, if humanity has a future, humanity will regress toward its norm, rediscovering ubuntu.    Agreeing with Polanyi and Mauss, I take ubuntu in particular and community (Tonnnies´ Gemeinschaft) in general to be the key missing ingredient in social democracy, for lack of which social democracy fell and neoliberalism rose.

When I search my memories to find –if I can—my own experiences in daily life of ubuntu –or something  like it—my thoughts drift toward watermelon and softball under a tall eucalyptus tree with crowds of Berardos young and old, the extended Italian-American family of Tony and Margaret, my foster parents for a summer when my mother did not send me to the mountain home but to a home in a semi-rural suburb of Los Angeles; where Tony lined us kids up every morning to assign the work for the day before driving to his own work in the city; where I learned to be a rough carpenter nailing down the floorboards of the bigger house the Berardos were building on the same lot.   Margaret hugged me more than my real mother did; she told me of her earlier life at Disney Studios making drawings for “Snow White;”  she shared her Catholic faith;  she once put a bandage on my hammered finger that I kept there for years, gluing it back whenever it fell off until at last it wore to shreds.

Now that I am old I feel again the ubuntu spirit when I visit the Horowitzes in Buenos Aires, a city that can give the impression of  being inhabited by hordes of strangers, individuals living in concrete buildings along asphalt streets in environments bearing no resemblance to the grasslands and wooded hills where the human body evolved, as the commercial form of their social interactions bears no resemblance to a clan or a tribe.   But inside their fourth floor flat are:  thirteen grandchildren doing a sleepover with grandma and grandpa;  one heart-shaped homemade sign declaring Abram to be the world’s best grandpa;  thirteen small heart signs each inscribed with the name of a grandchild; a dual calendar telling what day it is both by modern reckoning and by the ancient Jewish reckoning.    Friday evenings the table holds a full glass of Kosher wine blessed by skull-capped Abram chanting instructions for keeping the Sabbath in Hebrew, a language he and Sara learned in the Hebrew School of this neighborhood where they were born, where they live, where they expect to die; studying alongside the other little Jews wanting to turn thirteen and be bar mitzvah (“son of the commandments”) and the little Jewesses wanting to be twelve and bat mitzvah (“daughter of the commandments.”)    Sara and Abram are full-fledged moderns, she a distinguished professor at the University of Buenos Aires, he the owner of a small textile business; and yet they are still members of a tribe, of a close-knit family in a close-knit community where it is impossible to be destitute, impossible to be an abandoned child, impossible to be abandoned in old age.    I offer the Berardos and the Horowitzes as evidence for Mfuniswela Bhengu’s thesis that ubuntu can be read as the global philosophy for humankind, as an acceptable proposal for defining what it means to be human (in the Bantu languages ubuntu means “human”); applicable everywhere while yielding Africa pride of place as the site of the origins of humanity where the first ancestors of all of us lived no matter where we their distant grandchildren may be living now;  as the place where our bodies and feelings evolved;  where our deep emotions were programmed into our souls.     My heartfelt question about ubuntu is “How can I get more of it?” because I feel  I had too little;  because my family is too small;  because the bonds that bind it are too loose;  because I fear I may spend my old age like my mother, alone in a hospital bed with only one regular visitor (myself);  but beyond bemoaning my personal fate, which is the fate of millions, billions, I realize my old age insecurity –like my father’s unemployment, his sexism, his racism, his insanity—poses cosmic issues;  the disenchantment of the world and the rise of individualism are phenomena whose causes must be understood by historical analysis and whose cures require a Game Plan.     Now  I will proceed to work on the causal analysis of the decline of ubuntu and on my methodology of cultural action;  hoping that nobody will commit the fallacy of pseudo-deducing that because I long for the security of a world where the members of extended families care for one another, therefore I  believe modernity to be all-bad and pre-modernity all-good;    hoping to hinge Freire-style the charms of ubuntu to green paths of life, to  caminos verdes,  to sustainability for our human species as well as for our plant and animal companions so dependent on us to preserve their and our habitat here on this small blue planet    tucked away in a remote little corner of the Milky Way.

In his 1893 doctoral dissertation at the University of Paris Emile Durkheim offers a causal analysis of the decline of all traditional societies organized by clan and tribe;  in other words organized by sanctifying reciprocal obligations of mutual aid among members of extended families (he calls them societés segmentées).  While population densities remain low, Durkheim theorizes, societés segmentées can meet their material needs, but when populations increase kinship-organized societies inevitably decline.   Supporting a large population requires what is now called “development,” which in Durkheim’s time was called “division of labor,” or alternatively “civilization;”  “division” because millions of workers each one dedicated to a specialized task exchange goods through markets;  “civilization” because markets require law and order.    Durkheim echoes Adam Smith who wrote a century earlier, for the starting point of Smith’s analysis is the size of the annual fund possessed by a society to supply its wants and conveniences during a year, while the main cause that determines the size of that fund is the division of labor.  Book One of Smith’s Wealth of Nations is an argument explaining why the people Smith identifies as “savages” are poor,  while those he calls “civilized”  –primarily his fellow citizens in Scotland and England in the 18th century—are rich, starting with the claim that the “savage” is a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none who tries to do everything for himself, while civilization dawns with division of labor, in  which each does what he (I do not correct Smith’s pronouns because I believe his meaning as well as his grammar is sexist) does best; at first bartering with neighbors to supply his needs and later –more efficiently—selling his products for money and buying the goods to supply his needs with money; and because when everybody develops a specialty in what they do best production is incomparably greater it follows, says Smith, that even the common workman among the civilized enjoys incomparably more of the wants and conveniences of life than even the king among the savages, because the cause of wealth is division of labor, while the institution that makes possible the division of labor is the exchange of products in the market, while the legal rules that make possible the functioning of  markets are the rules of property (making each the owner of what he brings to market) and the rules of contract (organizing buying and selling); the very same rules that constitute what Smith calls “natural liberty,” whose observance is, in Smith’s terminology, “civilization.”   Reading the rest of The Wealth of Nations we learn that Smith overstates his case in Book One when he makes the division of labor almost the only cause of wealth, for he goes on to give equal weight to the accumulation of capital, for  –he says– without a capitalist advancing the worker his means of subsistence (in the form of wages) during the time when the product is not yet ready to be sold, there can be no production; nor can there be investments in what Smith calls “improvements” of productive techniques without accumulation of capital.     Smith and his friends can explain the decline of ubuntu values as a consequence of  learning that  emerging from poverty  requires less caring and sharing and more accumulation, less warm personal bonding and more cold commercial transactions; but Walter Rodney and his friends explain history differently:  Europe seized what Rodney calls a “temporary military advantage” to conquer and to colonize Africa and to  impose on it educational systems and religions designed to favor European interests.   If with Rodney we decide to attribute some major part of the decline of good traditional values, in Africa at least, to the military conquest of one culture by another, then to complete the causal analysis we should explain the military superiority of Europe, and I know no better explanation than the one given by Adam Smith in Book Five of The Wealth of Nations: the accumulation of capital, for the same capital that when invested in industry produces wealth,  when invested  in fleets and armies produces power; so therefore, says Smith, the nations he calls “opulent” overawe the poor nations.      For Marx, since a culture grows from its material base, it withers and dies when cheap goods from the modern sectors make its mode of production uncompetitive.   For me, the basic cause is the basic modern cultural structure.    Our basic cultural structure, our civil law, our normative framework for the division of labor, is what Durkheim analyzes as a demographic necessity and names “organic solidarity;”   it is what Adam Smith calls “natural liberty.”    It is the legal and moral framework of a market economy, and therefore of the accumulation of capital that made possible what Rodney calls “Europe’s temporary military advantage” and the violent suppression of ubuntu.   For Marx the basic cultural structure of the modern world is what he mocks as the “Eden of the rights of man” that frames buying and selling, and therefore frames the competition where traditional craft-based societies lose out to modern industry.    The good news is that cultural action is a realistic methodology for change because insofar as cultural structures have causal force in history –I do not say they cause everything, or that they are one hundred percent of the cause of anything— cultural creativity is a force that can change history.   Since it cannot be too often repeated that the main goal of cultural action is to change cultural structures, to change the rules –in Paulo Freire’s terms to humanize both oppressors and the oppressed—and not just to change who has power (important as that is) I will again repeat the point that the systemic imperatives of the modern world-system are constraints constraining solutions to any problem whatever, this time taking my text not from Adam Smith or from Karl Marx but from John Maynard Keynes.

Reading Keynes’  General Theory drives home two crucial points:  first, the box, the iron cage; to the extent we are still in the box we must do what the system commands, even when that means not doing what ethics and ecology command; second, exclusion:  while we are in the box we  have a class of people like my father, would-be sellers of labor-power who  find no buyers, tending toward crime, alcohol, drugs, and as in his case mental illness.     Reading Keynes helps us appreciate ubuntu as an emancipatory cultural resource, for ubuntu frees us from the four sides of the iron cage:  service to others replacing Bentham’s principle of self-interest, sharing and stewardship changing the meaning of property,  culturally determined behavior complementing contracts,  responsibility reconstructing freedom.   To discussions of what Max Weber calls the “iron cage” of the “economic machine,” Keynes adds a discussion of “confidence,” starting by saying it is not fully accurate to call the “machine” profit-driven.   It would be better to say expectations of profit drive investments, but Keynes does  not believe anyone can rationally calculate the expectations of profit ten years hence from a railway, a copper mine, a patent medicine, or a sea-going vessel; and in much of practice profits are made not by predicting correctly what will happen in ten years, but by forecasting the short term psychology of the stock market, where shares in railways, mines, pharmaceuticals, and shipping are traded daily; the object being to predict the state of confidence  of thousands of investors all of whom are, like oneself, also trying to divine the state of confidence of everyone else –a process Keynes likens to a contest in a British newspaper for picking among one hundred photographs the six prettiest faces, with a prize for the entrant whose picks most closely match the average picks, where the objective is not to choose the six really prettiest, nor to give one’s sincere opinions, but to guess which six faces everyone else will judge prettiest.

It is absurd but it is real, for the welfare of billions really does depend on gamblers predicting how others will gamble.

Hopefully Keynes analysis of its absurdity will help more people learn to think outside the box.       Inside the box one says, “Egypt has a lack-of-confidence problem , so therefore measures must be taken to give investors confidence in Egypt,” while outside the box one adds, “True,  at this point we have no choice but to comply with the systemic imperatives of the iron cage, but we can also  think creatively about making livelihoods  less dependent on the ups and downs of stock markets,” and if we make this outside-the-box addition to our thinking we will then search for the cultural resources that  are  even now mobilizing resources to meet needs,    giving people some measure of security and happiness malgré tout, and if our eyes are open to see and our ears open to hear, we will see them and hear them, for the spirit of ubuntu is not dead;  it lives on amid the concrete canyons and ringing cash registers of modernity, and it can be enhanced.

Take ABCD, the Asset Based Community Development movement that began in a black church in an American “ghetto” or “inner city” –two synonyms for “place where nobody invests”—when the members realized they would have to revive the neighborhood or else move away.   Unable to count on private investors, on government grants, or on non-profit organizations, the members of the congregation asked, “Who can we count on?”; answering “Ourselves!”  then proceeding to list what skills, experience, property, and knowledge each could contribute to a group effort to turn the neighborhood around; thus inventing the germ of a method for “mapping” a community’s resources and so jumpstarting using the resources to meet people’s needs.   In the version of “mapping” I have used working with Catholic groups in California we call it “inventory of gifts,” listing our “gifts of the heart” (enjoying teaching children, caring for the old, tending gardens …), “gifts of the hands”  (auto repair, carpentry …), “gifts of the head”  (accounting, computers… ), “gifts of property” (a building, an orchard, a pickup truck …)… etc.    Each gift of each person is noted on a separate card; then the cards are scotch-taped on a wall.   Then we move them around, taping them together in different combinations, seeing different ways to combine gifts to start projects.

The cultural resources of Sri Lanka’s Sarvodaya Shramadana movement are steeped in ancient wisdom and local customs, its Sanskrit name meaning literally “the awakening of all through the sharing of labor”   –a phrase that exactly describes how its members begin to “awaken” a village steeped in apathy: identifying a need, such as latrines, a school building, a well, or a road, and then donating labor to meet the need; always building on –never deprecating—the value-system the villagers already have.   “Sarvodaya Shramadana” does not at first sound like “ubuntu” since one speaks Sanskrit languages, one speaks Bantu languages, but closer inspection shows they share common features:  mutual aid among bonded groups, respect for authority, prizing being more than having.   Today these old-fashioned ideals serve new key goals: they     free us from the iron cage (Weber), from systemic imperatives (Ellen Wood), from the necessity of a regime of accumulation (Grenoble School), from dependence on the state of confidence in stock markets (Keynes).  When we depend less on the system we are more free.    But although Sarvodaya and ABCD are clear small examples of norms which loosen the iron bars that now constrain solutions to any problem whatever,  to  turn the tide  we must enlist  massive movements, such as corporate social responsibility, micro-financing, and social safety nets run by governments.    For example: the corporate social responsibility of Mexico-based CEMEX, the world’s third largest manufacturer of cement (which happens to have four plants in Egypt).   CEMEX takes building social capital as a goal, thus reversing the individualism that started modernity.   I want to write clearly because this stuff is very important.    CEMEX’s desire to be responsible can surprise only economists; everyone else knows humans want meaningful lives.

In the Mexican recession of 1994-5  CEMEX’s sales to   high end customers fell 50 percent, while sales to its poorest customers fell only 15 percent,   illustrating that the carriage trade is more volatile in the global casino than selling to the poor.   In Latin America and Africa the majority ekes out a living outside the profit economy, not making profits and not working for someone who does.   When for economic and social reasons CEMEX chose to concentrate on selling cement  to people who could not show a balance sheet or a pay stub,  it quickly learned that they wanted not precisely cement, but to build a do-it-yourself home one room at a time — that was their dream– and they already had an indigenous form of pooling resources to fulfill it known as a tanda; and so CEMEX  partnered with the people’s economy,  organizing self-help clubs, giving architectural advice, teaching classes on masonry, selling cement and related items on credit not to individuals but to three-person groups.  Thousands of homeless now have homes;  thousands of families who lived in one room now live in two; thousands of  idle youth now have  real work to do building an addition to the family home; most importantly:  the individualizing juggernaut of neoliberalism has been reversed: people are more connected, more bonded, more secure.

I wish the micro-credit schemes for micro- enterprises that today   mushroom everywhere, had existed back when I was ten years old to provide my father with something to break his fall into permanent unemployment.    My father could have been like the street vendor José whom I greet whenever I take a stroll downtown, always standing on the same street corner,  always having a kind word for each of the passers-by, especially for his steady customers like me,  offering a choice of a small made-in-China pack of vitamin C pills, or band-aids, or (in season) Christmas gift labels, all at one hundred pesos;  usually standing not far from another micro-entrepreneur, Eva, sitting on the sidewalk near José with a white plastic-foam thermal box containing humitas, a corn dish similar to the Mexican tamale, for sale at three for a thousand pesos;  my father could have gone to night school courses for micro entrepreneurs like the ones at the training center on Serrano Street; he could have gone to meetings with other micro entrepreneurs like the ones at the Soul of Limache Club to exchange ideas, sing songs, and listen to motivational speeches  —  not making much money but having something to do and making enough to survive if (as in Chile)  health care and education for the poor are free and housing almost free.

If you ask why  social safety nets for José and Eva are growing not unraveling,  the answer is copper:  the government owns the old mines and taxes the new mines — a point of theoretical importance highlighting  Ricardo’s thesis that  taxes on natural resources can fund public expenses without slowing business activity or causing unemployment.

I fear I appear to cheer a seven ingredient recipe for a plural economy: grassroots self-reliance, spirit, responsible big business, people’s economy, do-it-yourself, micro-enterprise, and public safety net.   My real point is broader: when you think outside the box you can see many ways to mobilize resources to meet needs:  not seven but an unlimited number.   A key goal of a plural economy is freedom from the imperative to curry market confidence at any cost.

As I see the world, the solutions to its principal problems are easy to invent but hard to explain.   As I see the causes of historic events,  the eclipse of the spirit of ubuntu was caused by the installation worldwide of the impersonal rules of a market economy and  with them the imperative to establish investor confidence and  whatever else the system may require, even when doing what the system requires conflicts with what humans and the biosphere require.   As I see the Game Plan, whatever were the causes of the causes (the causes of the installation of the present basic rules), the priority now is to loosen the constraints that make it impossible for humans to govern the system,   and the way to achieve that priority goal is to develop cultural resources to build a plural economy where no single systemic dynamic dominates the power of the people.  There are infinitely many such cultural resources.   They are the organizational capacities for meeting human needs.  Let me give another example to emphasize the point.    Aravind Eye Care does 190,000 eye surgeries a year.  Founded by the famous “Doctor V” (Venkaraswamy) it is organized as a nonprofit foundation under the laws of India.   Although Aravind has created very efficient low cost techniques,  even so the majority of its patients cannot and do not pay — but their bills are  paid neither by government nor by raising funds soliciting contributions from donors.       Driven not by profit but by the ideals of Dr. V.  –carried on today by the staff–  Aravind takes in enough money in fees from patients  who can pay to cover serving patients who cannot pay.   Aravind is another proof that ubuntu is alive in our twenty first century; humans can still be human.     We can escape Max Weber’s “iron cage.”    Let me now give an example showing how the escape can be engineered.      When a Chilean chain of hypermarkets named Jumbo offered to construct a huge retail complex in Rosario, Argentina creating jobs for 2,500 people, asking in return permanent exemption from all municipal taxes, the City Council of Rosario was not afraid to reject Jumbo’s proposal because –here is my point– Rosario already had in place multiple ways to create livelihoods for its citizens.

Rosario has an office of Economic Solidarity backing micro-enterprises.    It has urban agriculture and employee-owned businesses.   The Argentine national government pays for “work plans”   employing the jobless in community service.

I believe the tide is turning; the future wants more social capital, not less.    As for instance Rosario’s plural economy grounded in ethical solidarity provides leverage in negotiating with multinational capital,   in general outside-the-box thinking motivated by human and ecological values loosens the iron grip of systemic imperatives; pre-history ends;   the members of the human species become less passive victims of history and more active agents able to shape their personal lives and their collective futures.   The monoculture of the mind is past when everything old-fashioned (extended family, customary forms of cooperation and sharing, spiritual traditions) and everything futuristic (utopian visions, ecological design, democratic socialism)   had to be sacrificed (in the name of science no less!)  to alienation calling itself progress.   The laws of economics follow from certain social norms.  Since norms can be changed, it is possible to do things that according to neoliberal economics are impossible, such as reducing today´s extreme levels of social and economic inequality.

Dizzy with optimism, I fear my thinking must be shaky somewhere.       I turn back to John Maynard Keynes looking for solid logical reasoning safe from possible contamination by the quirks of my own mind.    I distinguish Keynes’ own still valid diagnoses from the well known “Keynesian” cures (which were often not policies Keynes himself would have recommended) whose failure was confirmed in 1980.    A central valid diagnosis in his General Theory is his critique  of J.B. Say and others who argue that supply creates its own demand, therefore a supply of workers creates a demand for workers, therefore unemployment if it exists at all is not natural or normal.     Keynes takes the different view that unemployment is normal,   full employment rare and transient, a view confirmed  in a recent book by Paul Krugman,  the Nobel  Economics laureate for 2008, who reports that the evidence now leaves no doubt that  in a capitalist system there really is a chronic weakness of effective demand in general and of demand for labor in particular; even if  we follow  neoliberal advice: break unions, repeal minimum wage laws, exempt investors from taxation and so on, the system is  not going to deliver sustained full employment; it is not in the cards; it is not an outcome that is going to happen while we play the game we are now playing.    I conclude that to achieve sustained full employment it is necessary to think outside the box, complementing whatever amount of employment the system can deliver at any given moment in time with additional livelihoods governed by additional logics –like the logic of micro-entrepreneurship, the logic of subsistence farming, the logic of public sector employment, the logic of social entrepreneurship, the logics of indigenous knowledge systems with their culturally determined behaviors….. I have already emphasized that the list of alternatives is endless.    Keynes’ work calls for ubuntu because it implies that to the extent that we organize livelihoods by ubuntu,  or by any logic alternative to the dominant system, we gain opportunities simultaneously to rid humanity of unemployment, with its sequels of crime, substance abuse, and mental illness;  to live in ways closer to the human norm, closer to the kinship logics that organized societés segmentées for hundreds of thousands of years; and  to free the welfare of all from its  excessive dependence on investor confidence, so that it will no longer be necessary for one group of people to expect profits in order to enable another group of people to make a living.    Bolivia provides striking models:  spending natural gas export proceeds on appropriate technologies supporting ancient quichua and aymara ways of life, using local barter scripts so poor people can sell goods and services that cannot be sold for the standard peso.