If one takes a good look at John Lennon’s song Working Class Hero it must dawn on you sooner or later that, just like the song Imagine, it is powerfully revolutionary. In addition to targeting the family, school, college or university (Althusser’s apparatuses where ideology is inculcated in subjects), and the class structure of society, it unabashedly promotes the best kind of anarchism. By this I mean anarchism in the philosophical sense of the unavoidably iconoclastic will to practice a mode of living that rejects the need for “government” of any kind, and to live in a manner where all can live and work together in peace, without all the hierarchies that cause pain and personal dysfunction.

I can just hear some readers exclaim: “What a dreamer!” Lennon recognised this, as Imagine testifies, but he adds immediately, “But I’m not the only one … ” Indeed, he is/was not the only one. Many people, myself included, are so sick of exploitative corporations and governments — there is hardly a distinction between them these days — that we would gladly “follow” Lennon, as he exhorts us to do in the last line of this song:

As soon as you’re born they make you feel small
By giving you no time instead of it all
Till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all
A working class hero is something to be

They hurt you at home and they hit you at school
They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool
Till you’re so fucking crazy you can’t follow their rules
A working class hero is something to be

When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can’t really function you’re so full of fear
A working class hero is something to be

Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV
And you think you’re so clever and classless and free
But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see
A working class hero is something to be

There’s room at the top they’re telling you still
But first you must learn how to smile as you kill
If you want to be like the folks on the hill

A working class hero is something to be
If you want to be a hero well just follow me…

What has led me to reflecting on this forceful song is, first, listening to Jacob Zuma appealing to South Africans to accept e-tolls, and second, watching the truly shocking documentary on the 2008 financial crisis directed by Charles Ferguson and narrated by Matt Damon, Inside Job (2010). Both were sickening to hear and see. How Zuma can expect all the South Africans who use Gauteng’s roads to cough up the additional amounts of money that e-tolls would require, is beyond me. Just as it is beyond me that the ANC is willing to sacrifice the beautiful Karoo to the fracking oil companies. Skills development and our energy needs just don’t cut it at a time when pursuing alternative energy sources should be imperative, especially when they are available to those who would develop the requisite technology to harness something like sun energy.

Not everyone has a business executive’s free fuel and/or expense account, or a government official, minister or president’s mostly free transportation (blue lights and all). Judging by the exorbitant amount of tax we pay in this country, these roads should be funded through all the forms of tax we have to fork out — PAYE, VAT, levies built into the petrol price, import tax and so on. Just this morning I paid for repairs on my partner’s car, and the amount added to the workshop bill in the shape of VAT was staggering. I would bet the proverbial farm that NOT all the tax flowing into the government’s coffers is used on truly essential things like roads (many of which are already funded by tolls).

And judging by the condition of some “national” roads, which I travelled recently, Zuma’s gratuitous remark during his e-toll apologist effort — to the effect that we should not compare ourselves to African countries like Malawi (implying, no doubt, that they are backward compared to our “magnificent” economy) — was not only in extremely poor taste, but also disingenuous: many of our roads are every bit as bad as anywhere in the world.

But I am not at all surprised — the present top echelon of ANC leaders have clearly completely forgotten what their organisation stood for while engaged in the liberation struggle. Chris Hani would be ashamed of them, given their crass materialism, their unashamed pursuit of material wealth above all, with scant regard for their people, many of who are still languishing in poverty. (Just think of Marikana.)

Our political “leaders” seem to be modelling themselves on the likes of the business executives so soundly unmasked as unscrupulously exploitative in the award-winning documentary Inside Job. The film has been described as bristling with restrained anger, which is a recommendation in my book, if one recalls that, in Plato’s anthropology, anger was regarded as a manifestation of spirit, one of the three components of the human soul (the other two being passion and reason).

And indeed, anyone who can view this film about the brazen, reckless, self-enriching (but ordinary people-destroying) actions of investment bankers in the US and NOT get angry, has no spirit in the Platonic sense (which entails its harmonious functioning in conjunction with reason and passion). The film, which has also won accolades for its thorough research of the complex intertwinement of many economic and political strands in the aetiology of a crisis which has not, to this day, run its course, exposes the “systemic corruption” of America’s economy by an out-of-control, self-serving “financial services” industry.

It is telling that nothing like this happened during the 40 years, until 1980, when the American financial industry was regulated. With exquisite pacing, the film uncovers the incremental undermining of financial-economic stability by investment banks such as Goldman-Sachs and Morgan Stanley, as their financial adventurousness, enabled by deregulation, turned into recklessness for the sake of multiplying their profits.

The whole complicated process, involving a system of CDOs (collateralised debt obligations) and CDSs (credit default swaps) cannot be reconstructed here; suffice it to say that what started with the subprime housing crisis eventually spread to the banks, when the market for CDOs collapsed — unsurprisingly, given that many people were given loans they could not repay, while banks continued speculating for profit, betting against the very CDOs they sold to investors by buying CDSs as insurance.

To cut a long story short, the lines from Lennon’s song, “There’s room at the top they’re telling you still, But first you must learn how to smile as you kill … if you want to be like the folks on the hill” seem chillingly appropriate when Matt Damon’s voice informs you that, despite the earnings of investment bank executives, as well as of people like Hank Paulsen of the Federal Reserve Bank amounting to millions every year, they got off with their earnings intact.

Ordinary Americans were not that fortunate, though. Millions of them lost their homes and ended up, if they were lucky, living in tent towns. Moreover, of the $700 billion taxpayers’ funds that George Bush Jr handed to the banks as bail-out money, millions were given to top executives as bonuses. And to date — even during Barack Obama’s presidency — none of these individuals have been prosecuted. It is truly time to “follow” John Lennon, and rid the world of cynical rulers and businessmen. It is within the democratic power of people, but what would it take for them to realise this?


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

Leave a comment