These are not ordinary times. Nor are they extraordinary ones. It is the time of the now. A time in which swirling, conflictual currents bump up against each other; in which a virus has unleashed scenes of death across the globe; a time of racial fissures, conspiracy theories … and of mass demonstrations of solidarity with Black Lives Matter.
This is a time in which we also witness mass movements against authoritarian regimes and then demonstrations in which right-wing political forces make loud their own demands about freedom. In such a swirl one might well ask a question posed in another era by the Caribbean radical intellectual CLR James. In The Gathering Forces, a draft document scripted in 1967, 23 years after the dropping of the atomic bomb by the United States on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, he writes: “The human consciousness asks these questions … What exactly is this all about … has it always been so, and, if not, when and how did such a state of affairs take place?” So, today we ask, how did this current state of affairs come to pass?
It is safe to say that Covid-19 has fundamentally shifted the normal axis of our lives. But, this is historically what viruses that become pandemics do. After all, it was the viruses of smallpox, measles and influenza that were crucial in the defeat of the indigenous resistance to European colonialism in the Americas. The apocryphal story still circulates in Mexico of how the Aztec army — on the verge of militarily defeating the Spanish invaders, driving them from what is now Mexico City — began to die when an outbreak of smallpox took hold, whereas the Spaniards lived, on account of immunity. The spectacle of the Spanish living while sections of the Aztec army died from this virus played a significant role in demoralising the indigenous army.
A global pandemic lives through infection. A virus is a package of genetic material which operates as a parasite. Attaching itself to the human body, it strips its complex biological make-up to bare life. It is neither a spectre nor sign. It thrives on infection and death, leaving profound consequences in its wake. In the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, in which a third of the world’s population was infected, it has been estimated that over 20-million people died, and that the virus was one crucial factor in generating the “Great Depression”.
A time of the now opens up all the currents and facets of life, the forms and practices of bare life. Put another way, in such a time we go back to what matters or what we think matters. The time of the now flushes out ideas and ideologies, puts on display all the contradictions of human life — our fragility and the deep structural flaws of the societies we have constructed. As dead bodies pile up in make-shift morgues, the arguments that sustain the presumed exceptionality of any human society are exposed.
And in this, the current pandemic acts relentlessly; illuminating the racial fissures of societies such as the US, where black people die not because of what is euphemistically termed “underlying conditions”, but on account of what such a phrase obscures — namely, the causal, structural factors that create these conditions. Such is the overarching frame in which the Black Lives Matter Movement has shaken the world.
In a context of mandatory lockdowns, the implications of George Floyd’s dying words: “I can’t breathe,” have been differently interpreted. For Floyd, with the racist police on his neck, that gasping utterance was a statement about black life in the US, whereas for other sections of the population, “I can’t breath” spoke rather to the “suffocating” conditions of lockdown itself, and to the experience of facing a pandemic as something outside of their historical zone. Indicated in this split is how the lives of African Americans run on parallel but different tracks from that of white America.
Viruses thrive on infection, and once born they are active and live because the human is a social species. Thus, to fight the virus outside of a vaccine has meant breaking the chain of infection. In this time of the now, one feature we have witnessed is how this medical necessity has run up against a foundational feature of neo-liberalism — individualism.
As an idea and set of practices, individualism is an outgrowth of 17th and 18th century European historical processes. The conventional argument is that individual rights and the political vocabulary of rights emerged from the 18th century American and French revolutions. In the American case, however, it is crucial to note that America was a settler colony at the time, and part of a wave of such colonies which included South Africa. The conception of rights which emerged in the American Revolution was linked to political liberty and therefore exclusive to those who were considered worthy of such rights.
In 1764, Stephen Hopkins, a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, wrote a famous pamphlet, The Rights of the Colonies Examined, in which he argued that liberty was about forms of government and the ability of one to possess property. But who could possess property at that time? Did this not mean that whiteness and masculinity became the figures in which rights were reposed?
The preoccupation of this kind of liberty, founded on and through rights to own property and forms of government, has been called “possessive individualism”. The late political theorist CB Macpherson noted that the possessive quality of the individual means that he/she is “essentially the proprietor of his own capacities owing nothing to society for them”.
It is this idea of rights — of a kind of freedom in which freedom is about the right to own — which facilitated both racial slavery and settler colonialism. In such practices, right is a function of possession. This is why slave planters could argue, as many did, that they had a natural right to own slaves, and how the 16th century Spanish thinker Francisco de Vitoria could justify conquering the indigenous people of what we now call Latin America on the basis of them being in his words “barbarian slaves by nature”.
The point here is not simply a historical one. Rather, it is to show how some of the central political concepts of the West were formed as narrow and exclusive, and that liberalism is not a universal political doctrine of equality, but was created as part of what Charles Mills calls the “racial contract”.
In the case of the French Revolution, the 1789 declaration of The Rights of Man and Citizen, did not include women, nor did it account for the slaves in the French colonies. In 1791, the butcher’s daughter, Olympe De Gouges, produced a pamphlet in response – The Declaration of the Rights of Women. She was guillotined in 1793 as an “unnatural woman”.
In the French colony of St Domingue (now Haiti), the initial leader of the dual Haitian Revolution, Toussaint L Ouverture, noted in a 1799 letter to a French official in the then republican government that the French Revolution was about “an escape from their arbitrary government, but they did not intend the revolution to destroy either the prejudice that debased men of colour or the slavery of the blacks”. Little wonder then that in the ceremony which inaugurated the Haitian revolution in 1791, the voudou priest Dutty Boukman and the priestess Cécile Fatiman proclaimed in their revolutionary oath that the Gods of the Blacks called for liberty.
The French Revolution was, therefore, about citizen rights against absolutist forms of government, but not for human freedom. The American case was the same because whereas Hopkins was drafting his popular pamphlet about the rights of the colonies, he was also a slave holder in the state of Rhode Island and the Plantations. So, we should place as a counter to Hopkins’ pamphlet, the numerous petitions of enslaved blacks at the time.
One of these petitions, from 1777, to the Massachusetts legislature reads in part, “the petition of a great number of blacks detained in a state of slavery … humbly showeth that your petitioners apprehend that they have in common with all other men the natural and unalienable right to that freedom which the great parent hath bestowed equally on all mankind”.
Note here that rights are not linked in any way to possession, nor to a form of government, but are about the ending of human domination. So, when in the middle of the current pandemic we witness demonstrations against the necessity of wearing a mask under the banner of individual freedom, we might ask where does this idea of freedom come from? How much of this idea is connected to a racial fantasy about individual freedom, in which whiteness is an insurance against germ theory — given that in this fantasy, blackness still equates to uncleanness, and whiteness to purity.
When we see calls by President Trump to liberate various states, such as Michigan and Virginia, we need to wonder what kind of liberation is being called for. And when in London there is a growing movement against the wearing of masks, as an infringement on British freedom, we might well ask what kind of freedom is being spoken about.
Liberal conceptions of rights are rooted in an ideological framework in which individual rights are rights against — be it the state or society. It is about a privilege to act against. And even though there have been attempts to argue that these rights should be understood within a principle of the possibilities of harm to others, the history and practices of these rights have become the cornerstone of individualism. In such practice, as one of the fathers of neo-liberalism, FA Hayek, wrote in 1949, “individualism is a theory about the life of man”.
We should note, however, that this is but one story about rights. That in the anti-colonial moment of the 20th century there were vigorous debates and attempts to transform individual rights into human rights. Here one pays attention to the work of the Lebanese diplomat and philosopher, Charles Malik who played a central role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The proclamation of human rights as distinctive from individual rights based on individual possession of self became a central claim of many anti-colonial movements . Human rights and self government became fundamental principles of 20th century anti-colonial struggles and were prominent themes of the 1955 Bandung conference (Asian-African conference ).
In the United States the black radical Malcolm X made it clear in 1965 before his murder that, “We believe that our problem is not one of civil rights but a violation of human rights. Not only are we denied the right to be a citizen in the United States we are denied the right to be a human being.”
In the international anti-apartheid struggle , the apartheid regime was labelled anti-human rights and often times those who prosecuted and advocated internationally for the end of the apartheid system were considered pro-human rights activists. At the core of this shift in language from individual to human rights was a broader conception of rights and the understanding that rights were now not to be possessed nor reposed in formal constructions of citizenship but resided in persons because they were simply human.
Steve Biko, in his argument about black consciousness, writes that a key aspect of the struggle then being waged was to “bestow upon South Africa the greatest gift possible — a more human face.” This was not about any humanisation process, but rather the introduction into radical politics — the question of the human.
Back to the now
But back to the time of the now. In the time of the now, when all things swirl, the conception of individual rights becomes exaggerated. Neo-liberalism is not only a belief in so-called free market fundamentalism, it functions in the way that all ideologies seek to do, in creating ways of living and forms of life.
Often, when we speak about capitalism and capitalist society we elide the ideas and practices through which capitalism as an order was instituted; how the idea about the virtue of commerce as a human value of good was necessary for the successful emergence of capitalism. Historically, this value was not only codified in the various works of Adam Smith, but the African slave trade and plantation slavery — something which can be discerned by a careful reading of Abbe Raynal’s A History of the Two Indies, the best selling book in Paris in the 1770s.
If the validation in the West of commerce as a human good congealed in the racial European colonial project, then commerce today has morphed into commodification, as an imaginary constituted by power to capture human imagination and desire. Neo-liberalism is productive, generative of relationships that create ways of life. It has a specific rationality, a drive towards totalising forms of life. In this way, one form of neo-liberal rule is predicated on the so-called management of self.
Walk into any popular bookstore around the world and you will likely see a plethora of books about the self and personal achievement. What has occurred is that conceptions of the self and rights now morph into self-management. Thus within the current pandemic, individual rights are understood as taking calculated personal risks. In such a perspective there is no society, no social, just the imaginary of the brave loner (usually white) defying the odds. In neo-liberalism, there are two framing normative impulses: competitiveness and commodification. Each of these seek to saturate the self.
This saturation requires the ground of the individual self, one created for self-possession, in contrast to society (to which it owes nothing). What Covid-19 has done, in its relentless drive to live through infection, is to expose just how flawed such a basis for human living is.
But as I said, we are in the swirl of the now, and while individual rights are being asserted as spurious claims of freedom — in which the “right” to take personal risks equates on the flip-side to a right to infect others and do harm — there are other active perspectives about human life that we need to consider.
Social essential workers
Across the globe there has been an outpouring of respect and applause for people now deemed essential workers. These are not only nurses and doctors and other medical health personnel who have risked their lives to treat those infected by Covid-19, but also millions of ordinary people around the world — working in supermarkets, delivering food, cleaning city streets; those postal service workers who never stopped working, never went on lockdown; the cleaning staff who left their families at night to sanitise hospital floors, often without proper protective equipment; the meatpackers who, in doing their jobs, risked the possibility of infection; the bus drivers who took these individuals to work, and returned them home, day after day.
For the most part, these essential workers are black, brown or immigrant in many societies. For them, working is (and has been) a necessity, not just for them but also for the basic functioning of a society under medical lockdown. Some commentators have written about the altruism of this group of persons. That misses the point.
Altruism is a value in which the individual goes beyond what is regarded as self-interest. But what if there is another value, one in which an understanding of the social as the necessary foundation of a society is the driving force — as it is, I believe, for many of these so-called essential workers, invisible in normal times.
Stories about these workers abound throughout the world, and what has struck me reading and listening to some of them is that although many of these people worked because they had to, many also worked because, in spite of difficult and sometimes impossible conditions, they had an idea of the social.
As one immigrant woman cleaning a hospital put it: “I am here for patient care,” but also “to protect the doctors and nurses.” This idea of protection in the time of the pandemic is a deep recognition of the social. All these practices and ideas collide in the time of the now.
The practice of individualism, as opposed to an understanding that we are social beings and that there is a connective tissue which binds a society together, has been exposed by Covid-19. This connective tissue, however, does not mean we are all on the same ship. Racial domination, patriarchy and capitalism mean that the majority of us are in the hold of a ship, and for black folks who live in the wake of racial slavery and colonialism — we are in the bottom hold.
A historic element of radical black political thought has been a deep desire to find freedom. It has a complicated history and there is not a single definition of freedom, which is all encompassing. Yet, what we do know is that any search for freedom begins not with rights but with a recognition of the centrality of the social, as to what we are as humans.
Frantz Fanon, in the last pages of Black Skin White Masks, eloquently makes the point: “Was my freedom not given to me then in order to build the world of the You?”
This creation of a “you” is about a certain sociality, the understanding that grappling with what we are and the human condition in general requires the deepest grasp of the social. In the South African context, this idea has been posited in the notion of Ubuntu — loosely translated as “I am because we are”. But one cannot stop at this recognition, there is the necessity for us to create societies, economies, politics and radical forms of human equality, and therefore relationships in which the social is an operating principle of society.
Pandemics explode before our eyes all the so-called hidden features of our societies. Features which are not really hidden, but invisible because we place our gaze elsewhere, away from the lives of ordinary people, and in this instance ordinary black people.
Historically, we have been able to hold a virus in check through the science of vaccines, and many of us are hoping that this will happen. But again, and here is the rub, a vaccine which should have medical science working collaboratively is about to become another sign of nationalism, with a Russian vaccine now and others to follow.
Thus, a world created by racial slavery, colonialism and by great power rivalries is now exposed for the mess it is. Yet in all of this, perhaps hope resides in the voices of the ordinary black, brown and immigrant women who want to protect. Hope resides in the solidarities demonstrated by the millions who marched in over 4 000 cities across the world for Black Lives Matter. Perhaps hope resides in the fact that, in this time of the now, the radical imagination has been stirred and freedom dreams are, at least for this moment, possible.