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The threat of nihilism and the politics of conversion

By Paul T. Shipale
I concur with the views expressed by our Founding President, Dr Sam Nujoma as he was reported in an interview with the weekly Southern Times to have called on Parliament to formulate laws 'to enable the government to redistribute the land to the landless' but doing it 'the Namibian way' in order 'to empower the masses of our people'. His Excellency the Founding President also called on the African youth to be ready at all times to defend the gains of our revolution against the forces of imperialism with their aggressive militaristic foreign policies.

To corroborate what the Founding President said, in a paper titled 'Democracy Matters Are Frightening in Our Time', theAfricanAmerican Dr Cornel West, director of Afro- American Studies at Princeton, said that one of the prevailing dogmas of our time is aggressive militarism, of which the new American policy of preemptive strike against potential enemies is but an extension.

This new doctrine of U.S. foreign policy goes far beyond the American former doctrine of preventive war. It green-lights political elites to sacrifice U.S. soldiers in adventurous crusades and posits military might as salvific in a world in which he who has the most and biggest weapons is the most moral and masculine, hence worthy of policing others. In practice, this dogma takes the form of unilateral intervention, colonial invasion, and armed occupation abroad. It has fuelled a foreign policy that shuns multilateral cooperation of nations and undermines international structures of deliberation. Dr West argued that, fashioned out of the cowboy mythology of the American frontier fantasy, the dogma of aggressive militarism guarantees a perennial resorting to the immoral and base manner of settling conflict.

Dr West asserts that no democracy can flourish against the corruptions of plutocratic, imperial forces-or withstand the temptations of militarism in the face of terrorist hate-without a citizenry girded by these three moral pillars of Socratic questioning, prophetic witness, and tragicomic hope. That democratic fervour is found in the beacon calls most urgently and poignantly in the prophetic and powerful voices of the long black freedom struggle-from the democratic eloquence of Frederick Douglass to the soaring civic sermons of Martin Luther King Jr., in the wrenching artistic honesty of James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, and in the expressive force and improvisatory genius of the blues/jazz tradition, all forged in the night side of America and defying the demeaning strictures of white supremacy as well as in the Pan Africanist views of our Founding Fathers and our Founding President, Dr Nujoma, is following in this patriotic tradition when he condemned the dogma of aggressive militarism and warned the youth to be vigilant at all times.

On another hand, in eight brief but powerful essays, Cornel West also delivered innovative analyses of racial dilemmas.

The scholar, theologian, and activist who has been acclaimed as one of the most eloquent voices in the racial debate in America bridged the gulf between black and white America in a work of enormous resonance and moral authority. West took on the questions of politics, economics, ethics, and spirituality and addressed the crisis in black leadership. West observes that discussions about the plight of those at the bottom of the social ladder-tend to divide into two camps. On the one hand, there are those who highlight the structural constraints on the life chances of black people. On the other hand, there are those who stress the behavioral impediments on black upward mobility. West asserts that unfortunately these two camps have nearly suffocated the crucial debate that should be taking place about the most basic issue now facing blacks: the nihilistic threat to its very existence and argues that this threat is not simply a matter of relative economic deprivation and political powerlessness- though economic wellbeing and political clout are requisites for meaningful black progress. It is primarily a question of speaking to the profound sense of psychological depression, personal worthlessness, and social despair so widespread in black communities.

The proper starting point for the crucial debate about the prospects for Africans at home and in the Diaspora, according to West, is an examination of the nihilism that increasingly pervades their communities.

Nihilism is to be understood here not as a philosophic doctrine that there are no rational grounds for legitimate standards or authority; it is, far more, the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.

The frightening result is a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition toward the world. Life without meaning, hope, and love breeds a cold-hearted, mean-spirited outlook that destroys both the individual and others. For as long as hope remains and meaning is preserved, the possibility of overcoming deprivation stays alive.

The self-fulfilling prophecy of the nihilistic threat is that without hope there can be no future and that without meaning there can be no struggle.

Similarly, if we have to contextualize what West said, especially with the recently tabled budget, the liberal structuralists fail to grapple with the threat of nihilism. Their focus on structural constraints relates almost exclusively to the economy and politics but show no understanding of the structural character of our societies.

Yet, people, especially degraded people, are also hungry for identity, for meaning, and self-worth. The failure by liberals to talk honestly about the realm of meanings and values leaves the existential and psychological realities of black people in the lurch when they neglect the battered identities and the question of self-worth rampant in blacks.

West also posits that the conservative behaviourists highlight the few instances in which blacks ascend to the top, as if such success is available to all blacks, regardless of circumstances.

Viewed from this angle, if we look at it in our context, one can also conclude that those among us, who don't believe in economic empowerment, as if the struggle for independence was a destination and not just a critical point of departure, are wrong. Economic empowerment is not simply a moral initiative to redress the wrongs of the past. It is a pragmatic growth strategy that aims to realise the country's full economic potential while helping to bring the black majority into the economic mainstream. It is essentially a growth strategy, targeting the economy's weakest point: inequality.

No economy can grow by excluding any part of its people, as such; this strategy is an important policy instrument aimed at broadening the economic base of the country - and through this, at stimulating further economic growth and creating employment.

Because of a few who have climbed the ladder, West says, such a vulgar rendition of Horatio Alger in blackface may serve as a source of inspiration to some-a kind of model for those already on the right track.

But it cannot serve as a substitute for serious historical and social analysis of the predicaments of and prospects for all black people, especially the grossly disadvantaged ones.

West emphasizes that Conservative behaviorists discuss some of these issues as if acknowledging one's obvious victimization by white supremacist practices is taboo. They tell black people to see themselves as agents, not victims. And on the surface, this is comforting advice, a nice cliché for downtrodden people. But inspirational slogans cannot substitute for substantive historical and social analysis.

While black people have never been simply victims, wallowing in self-pity and begging for white giveaways, they have been-and are-victimized.

Therefore to call on black people to be agents or to empower themselves makes sense only if we also examine the dynamics of this victimization against which their agency will, in part, be exercised, Dr West said. What is particularly naive and peculiarly vicious about the conservative behavioral outlook is that it tends to deny the lingering effect of black history- a history inseparable from though not reducible to victimization.

It is for this reason that I also applaud the budget's presentation by the Minister of Finance, when she financed the cost of eliminating social problems and addressed the plight of the rural majority, the OVC, the Veterans of the liberation struggle, the youth, and the elderly.

Indeed, government allocated N$ 270 million towards Vocational Education, N$114 million to enable more youth to access tertiary institutions, N$1,7 billion, among others, to increase the number of health facilities providing ART, N$630 million for housing, including social housing programmes, N$1,06 billion for veterans, and N$ 2,5 billion for social grants to benefit approximately 1,1 million Namibians.

However, a point of concern here is the money allocated and intended for specific projects which returns unutilized to the Fiscus building. I understand that the problems lays with the cumbersome, complicated bureaucratic and flouted tender procedures that the Ministry of Works, tasked with the implementation of some of these projects, is confronted with. It is also said that a lack of especially engineering skills required for much of the public works has partially handicapped the N$14 billion TIPEEG job creation programme which is the main reason why money returns to treasury. Notwithstanding, the ostrich stance taken by some of our leaders who believe that they are better off not to stick their heads above is disturbing as they are doing a great disservice to our people with their 0% and 3% implementation rate. It is inconceivable that money allocated to build proper facilities for our police officers is returned to treasury while they live and work under the most inhumane conditions. Why should our armed forces be housed in deplorable barracks left behind by the old dispensation more than 20 years ago?

West concluded that a major contemporary strategy for holding the nihilistic threat at bay is a direct attack on the sense of worthlessness and self-loathing in our communities, and argued that the eclipse of hope and collapse of meaning in much of our communities is linked to the structural dynamics of corporate market institutions that affect all of us. Under these circumstances, West declared, our existential angst derives from the lived experience of ontological wounds and emotional scars inflicted by white supremacist beliefs and images permeating our societies and attacking our intelligence, our abilities, our beauty, and character daily in subtle and not-sosubtle ways. The accumulated effect of the African wounds and scars suffered in a whitedominated world is a deepseated anger and a boiling sense of rage. Sadly, the combination of these has directed most of the black existential angst, rage and despair toward fellow black citizens, especially toward black women who are the most vulnerable in our societies and now lately, towards other ethnic groups. Little wonder we have such an angry society that bullies and abuses the vulnerable among us.

Given the black existential angst, rage and despair due to our inequalities, market-driven corporate enterprises, and white supremacism, then one must talk about some kind of politics of conversion. Like alcoholism and drug addiction, nihilism is a disease of the soul and there is always the possibility of relapse. But there is always a chance for conversion-a chance for people to believe that there is hope for the future and a meaning to struggle. Nihilism is not overcome by arguments or analyses; it is tamed by giving hope and care. Any disease of the soul must be conquered by a turning of one's soul which is done through one's own affirmation of one's worth. It is for this reason that I believe that the budget of our Minister of Finance reflects a love ethic that cares for the poor and the down trodden to give them a chance to believe that there is hope for the future. Nevertheless, treasury should discuss practical implementation issues and guards against what others call the 'tender-preneurs' who will try to make quick buck through the public works' procurement system to buy luxurious cars. A love ethic must be at the centre of a politics of conversion without mortgaging future generations to debt overhang and high debt services payments.

I once wrote that since the most direct form of government intervention in the economy is fiscal policy, new found African democracies were moving with speed to reorient budget policy towards irreversible cuts in the level of spending, and changes in composition in favour of pro-poor spending. In a word, these new found democracies emphasized economic liberalism underpinned by progress in privatization, state enterprise restructuring and downscaling of public expenditure along the transition to a market economy. Overall, the arguments outlined, evoked the power of Gramsci's theory of hegemony born from the basic idea that the State cannot enforce control unless by stealth or other more intellectual or capricious methods the cost of which is born by society itself.

These costs are manifested in Africa as a debt overhang and high debt services payments, as a result of borrowing contracted to meet demands of a large public sector as it was recently confirmed by our very able Minister of Finance, Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila.

Despite such doctrine, in a paper written on 18th September 2011, the late Prof Dani Wadada Nabudere, from the Marcus-Garvey Pan-Afrikan University, Mbale, Uganda, asserted that since the rich can only survive by sheltering behind the State 'bail outs', they cannot turn around and insist that the State should not shelter the 'seniors' who receive social security from their taxes. They cannot also stop the State from ploughing in funds through fiscal means to revive the economy and create jobs. In other words, the rich cannot "have their cake and eat it".

They have either to come forward and plough their hidden profits into investment to create jobs or they should simply shut up! The Minister of Finance did a great job now is time to implement the budget with the backing of all Cabinet Ministers if we don't want future generations to judge us harshly on the views we espoused, and the positions we articulated in our nation-building project.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of my employer and this newspaper and are not in any way connected to my position but merely reflect my personal opinion as a citizen.


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