Social responsibility of intellectuals in building counter-hegemonies


In this keynote speech that Professor Issa Shivji gave at the launch of African Humanities Programme books at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on 1 February 2019, he calls on the African intelligentsia to construct a counter-hegemonic project in the face of new nationalisms. 

Intellectuals pride themselves as producers of knowledge. They are also articulators of ideologies, a role they do not normally acknowledge. Respectable universities worth the name call themselves sites of knowledge production. I say “respectable” because these days many neo-liberalised universities have abandoned the role of knowledge production in favour of packaging disparate information and branding their “products” (students) to make them saleable on the market.  That is a story for another day. Today I don’t want to talk about packaging factories.  Today I want to address those intellectuals who still consider themselves producers of knowledge rather than assembly line supervisors of packaging industries. 

In a capitalist society divided into classes you have broadly two types of intellectuals. There are those who produce rationalisations, justifications and mystifications to maintain and reproduce the status quo of inequality and inequity in favour of capital. These are the producers and purveyors of what we call hegemonic ideologies. Then there are those who question and challenge dominant knowledge and try to demystify and debunk hegemonic forms of knowledge and ideologies. Some go further to produce and articulate alternative forms of knowledge and ideologies to propel the struggle of the ruled, the oppressed and the downtrodden. They are involved in constructing counter-hegemonies. Thus there is a battle of ideas. One of the foremost sites of the battle of ideas is the University. Battle of ideas precedes battle at the barricades.

Hegemony by definition means acceptance of an ideology voluntarily, by consent as opposed to, by coercion. It was Gramsci’s great insight that the bourgeoisie rule by mobilising consent through its ideological apparatuses, both in the state (for example, courts) but – and this is important to note – also in civil society, for example, institutions of education, media, civil society organisations, art, literature etc. The wheels of ideological apparatuses are always churning. They generate and refurbish hegemonic ideologies and make it the “common sense” of the time. During normal times, therefore, the coercion of the bourgeois state does not appear on the surface. It is there – but always in the background. This is the case in normal times. What happens in times of crisis – in times when the underlying capitalist system itself is in the crisis of reproducing itself? It is the crisis that interests me most because, I believe, we are currently in such a crisis of the global imperialist-capitalist system. I will not go into the details of the economics of the crisis because I want to focus more on its ideological expressions. 

Today we are witnessing an upsurge of fascism, narrow nationalisms and parochialism (for short, I will call them “new nationalisms”) both in the Centres (the global North) and in the Peripheries (the global South).  In the North, rightist parties and formations wave the flag of racism and nationalism against immigrants. Given the electoral victories of the right in recent times, even mainstream centre and centre-left parties, fearing the erosion of their electoral base, buy into the anti-immigrant rhetoric. Brexit is one such example; the other is Trump’s laughable but tragic Mexican wall project. 

In the South, there is a rise of demagogic and populist leaders who wave the flag of narrow ethnic, racist, religious and parochial patriotism.  Modi of India, Duterte of Philippines and Bolsonaro of Brazil, well illustrate populist and demagogic languages. Modi waves the flag of Hindutva, which is nothing but an assertion of Hindu supremacy. Inevitably this unleashes street violence against minorities – Muslims, Christians and Dalits. Bolsonaro deploys his populist slogans against Blacks, women and LGBT communities. In Latin America, another Bolsonaro is in the making. This is the gentleman called Juan Guaido who has “democratically” declared himself the president of Venezuela. He is supported by the “champions of democracy” in America and Europe and recognised, among others, by the only “democracy” in the Middle East – Israel. [Please note the term “democracy” and all its derivatives here are in inverted commas.]

I would suggest that the upsurge of “new nationalisms” is a backlash to neo-liberalism gone wild. Ironically, neo-liberalism itself paved the path for the rise of “new nationalisms”.  Neo-liberal ideologies did not have a long staying power but for some four decades of its rule it caused havoc. Market and monetarism were its mantra. Neo-liberalism attacked bourgeois liberalism in the Centres and assaulted post-colonial, radical and progressive nationalism in the Peripheries. Socially, it rested on individuation as opposed to bourgeois individualism. The best description of individuation comes from Margaret Thatcher who rhetorically exclaimed: “Society, what society! There is no such thing as society!” There are only disparate individuals. Bourgeois individuals stood for rights and obligations. Neo-liberal individuates don’t stand for anything – except for self-enrichment and aggrandizement. They will sell their rights and trample on others’ rights so long as they can “move on”.  And “obligation” has no place in their utterly self-centred mindsets.  

On the economic level, neo-liberalism is based on the endless creation of fictitious commodities and their privatisation. So public goods – education, health, water, energy and air are commodified and owned; so also flora and fauna, mountains, rivers and forests; bio resources and genetically modified life organisms become private property to be owned and traded for profit. Even languages and cultural practices get patented and owned. (Recently Walt Disney took out a patent on the Kiswahili phrase: Hakuna Matata!)Debt, including sovereign debt, becomes a commodity and is traded. Financial oligarchies offer cheap credit – so every one from individuals through households to states borrow heavily becoming indebted. Debt slavery has become a new kind of slavery. We all exist in debt to financial sharks, literally and figuratively.

Descartes’ famous saying, “I think therefore I am” becomes “I am indebted therefore I am”. Underlying it all is rampant primitive accumulation by a small financial oligarchy overshadowing “accumulation by expansion” in the productive sphere. Financialisation becomes the name of the game. Fictitious economy takes leave of real economy and begins to believe in self-regulation and self-reproduction. When the hiatus between the real and fictitious economy becomes unsustainable, the bubble bursts like the 2007-2008 prime mortgage crisis in the United States that spread like wild fire to other countries. But the state pumps in trillions of dollars to save financial institutions, which duly resume their nefarious transactions. The outcome of the crisis is further concentration of wealth and power in fewer hands.

Inequality, unemployment, poverty, despair and hopelessness rise as wealth concentrates in a small minority. Angry masses become cannon fodder on which rising fascist and right-wing feed. In the absence of a feasible alternative, this is the way the masses hit back at neo-liberal excesses. 

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