Will the secular trend withstand crisis?

Whereas religious adherence has seemingly declined in the US, resulting in the nonreligious becoming the fastest growing demographic, I don’t think that such a trend is irreversible. In fact I think that economic hardship and extreme weather events will spur a return to religiosity. In the lacuna between anxiety about the present and uncertainty about the future, the longing for a god to save humanity from hardship will likely grow in tandem to fear and suffering.

In some cases people will be praying for rain and in others they will pray for the rains to stop. Some will likely pray for financial support whilst enriching their religious leaders who profit from their misery.

On the determined pursuit of suffering

Shantideva, an 8th Century Buddhist monastic, in commenting upon the constancy of human suffering stated:

For beings long to free themselves from misery,
But misery itself they follow and pursue.
They long for joy, but in their ignorance
Destroy it, as they would their foe.

I am reminded of the continued applicability of his insights by the myriad contradictions around us. Consider the nations that are beset by climate catastrophes, while presently doubling their efforts to extract coal and oil from the Earth. Further, there are societies where democratic institutions are upheld as the bedrock of human freedom, whilst policy makers busy themselves eroding their foundations in order to usher in authoritarianism.

Sadly, such contradictions do not only exist on the level of the state, but also manifest themselves in our personal lives where many people act in a manner contrary to professed ideals and dismiss the apparent contradictions. In each of these instances, as Shantideva said people pursue misery with predictable results.

Polyculturalism

Polyculturalism-a conceptualization of culture that, rather than examine cultures as discrete social historical phenomena, instead focuses on the extent of their imbrication, that is the varying ways in which cultures and histories are inextricable, interweaved. It contrasts with multiculturalism, which often regards cultures as discrete entities.

This theory is elaborated upon at length in Vijay Prashad’s book Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting.

Extremist violence in the US: A brief discussion of its cultural bases

Some people have myopically suggested that right-wing violence extremism in the US are consequences of Donald Trump’s rhetoric. In truth, the former has been born of many cultural forces. Below I note some of these, along with some brief remarks.

White supremacist ideologies are a part of the US’s cultural heritage
It is important to recall that the United States is a settler colony that established its territorial basis via warfare and the subjugation of Native American populations. It also established its economy via the exploitation of enslaved Africans. Both of these processes necessitated the formulation of cultural instruments wherein these processes could be achieved with maximum effect. Such instruments consisted of laws, economic institutions, technologies, and processes of socialization focused on both sustaining and optimizing oppression. What is most important here is that the inception of these processes—colonization and slavery—has only been counterbalanced by their maintenance by ongoing acts of violence and oppression. Hence, as John Henrik Clarke has told us, “History is a current event.”

The normalization of violence as a political instrument
While the above entails this, it is important to remember that political violence is not alien to the United States. Not only did this country fight a Civil War that resulted in close to a million deaths, but that state and private entities have also used violence against labor activism, civil rights activism, anti-war activism, police reform activism, and so on are testament to political violence’s recurring place in American public life. Hence, violence is an indelible part of the US’s social fabric. Acts of political violence are therefore not aberrant, but germane to the expression of power in the American political system. Do recall that the US is one of the most violent countries on Earth, so much so that it exports violence abroad in the forms war, military coups, and assassinations.

The dislocations of deindustrialization and globalization
The processes of economic transformation of the late 20th Century have produced profound contradictions in American life that have contributed towards the exacerbation of pre-existing challenges. Consider that the Civil Rights Movement sought to achieve the structural assimilation of African Americans and other racialized and oppressed groups within the dominant political economy of US society. In a context of economic expansion and prosperity, such demands might appear feasible. How do such demands appear in contexts of economic contraction or dislocation, as has been the case for much of the last fifty years? Hence, the processes of deindustrialization and globalization have not only destabilized the US’s working classes, but have also contributed greatly to a cultural malaise which pervades this society best described by Jacob H. Carruthers as “fundamental alienation”. The resulting dislocations have created or expanded interstices wherein a variety of ideologies—some atomistic, some reactionary, but all based on alienation to varying degrees—might thrive and flourish.

A willingness of politicians to capitalize upon these social tensions for short-term gains
The American political system, much like its economic system, is driven by the inescapable myopia of short-term thinking. Just as corporations act on the basis of achieving profits in the short-term. American politicians strive towards the goal of electoral victories, which also are short-term aspirations. Such actions necessarily wed them to the political currents of the day. Whether these currents are corrosive to the society is secondary to their utilitarian expediency. Hence, the courting of reactionary movements and ideologies is seen as a necessary end, which also serves to facilitate the increased normalization of extremist rhetoric in American political life.

It should be noted that this “extremist rhetoric” is not anathema to the political ethos of the US, as again, we are speaking of a settler-colony born of enslavement which has institutionalized the application of coercive control as a means of sustaining its social order. Thus, we are already dealing with an extreme reality, one however that in other moments, the rhetoric of politicians might seek to conceal rather than acknowledge or champion.

The pervasive alienation of American culture
Alienation in this milieu acts as a cultural foundation of violence and is expressed in many facets of American culture. The culture of mass-consumption, which promises eternal happiness if only we would spend, tune-in, or act to satiate the insatiable stream of artificial desires constantly foisted upon us is not the source of pervasive alienation in this country, but it is an expression of it. We live within a society that works laboriously to deny people’s consciousness of who they are and of the nature of reality. We are told by entertainers to be happy while climate change imperils our survival as a species, to watch the latest sporting event while African people’s lives continue to be destroyed by the US’s criminal justice system, to binge watch our favorite television shows while women and children are sexually assaulted and families destroyed in detention centers for undocumented immigrants, and to camp out for Black Friday sales while tens of millions lack health care, millions are unemployed, and hundreds of thousands are homeless.

Further, we are told that our idiosyncratic identities are the highest expressions of ourselves and thus should form the basis of personal and political existence. Yet we live in a society wherein systems of oppression cannot be critically analyzed or dismembered on such a conceptual basis. Malcolm X was clear that his personal identity as a Muslim, though spiritually meaningful, was not sufficient to inform either African people’s struggle for sovereignty or the destruction of imperialist/white supremacist systems. He acknowledge that his spirituality provided a social ethic for the transformation of the humanity of African people, but that it was not expressive of the totality of the political and economic transformation that African people or the world needed.

Herein, we confront the inevitable finitude or limitations of personal identity and the politicization of such identities in a world where systems of power have been forged on the basis of capitalism and white supremacy. In such a context, the fetishization of personal identities, the obsessive and incessant mining of signifiers of idiosyncratic novelty are too bases of alienation, as they cannot “cure what ails us,” which in this case are the bases of fundamental alienation.

In closing, though the current American president has been seen as the epicenter of America’s extremism of late, we would do well to remember that he has merely re-articulated and re-presented such tendencies. He has been an important signifier of our times and the more pervasive social unraveling characteristic of it. The cultural vectors of such disintegration will not dissipate with a change in the presidency, nor will the alienation that is at the heart of US society be undone by any actions of the electorate. These challenges, along with their specific manifestations born of capitalism and white supremacy, will not be satisfied by a retreat into ideologies that enshrine the idiosyncratic or the ever-fashionable politics of atomization which seek to divide African people against themselves on the flimsy bases of nationality, ethnicity, gender, or social class. A more expansive vision is needed accompanied by a set of commitments to the transformation of reality, but most importantly, one must apprehend as clearly as possible the present reality and its inescapable moorings to the past.

Traversing “cultural worlds”

I just made my third visit to an Afro-Asian fusion class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison via Zoom. Today I participated on a panel of absolutely wonderful folks who were discussing a range of things including healing, movement, transformation, and so on. It was a very rich and empowering discussion.
 
For my part I discussed our family’s farm work, Vijay Prashad’s thesis of “polyculturalism”, the synergies of African and Asian philosophies and movement practices in my own life, and the implications of Afro-Asian knowledges in how we understand social transformation. To the latter point, I offered examples from the Tao Te Ching and the Odù Ifá which explicates the power of our personal striving for good character as a means to transform both society and the world.
 
One of the questions that was posed queried our relationship to the kind of Afro-Asian synergies which are a central topic in the course. I shared that in my youth there were two books that I read that had a transformative impact on my consciousness–The Art of War by Sun Tzu and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The former gave me a framework to engage the world. The latter helped me to understand the state of our people and compelled me to think about my role in changing it. Such synergies continue to the present day, in ways that are conscious and unconscious.
 
Three final points. A day or so ago I wrote that “People will get lost in Asia on their way to Africa.” To be sure, I am troubled by the efforts of some to present many Asian knowledges as African. Resonance and affinity are not necessarily reliant upon heredity. This means that simply because we feel a connection to a particular cultural tradition does not mean that it necessarily derives from our own ancestral tradition. Furthermore, one can participate in the cultures of others without needing to lay claim to them and to justify such claims through fabricated tales of origins.
 
Secondly, while I am critical of the fact that many of us have a profound paucity of knowledge with regards to our history and culture as Africans, I also know that this is not due to our own actions. We live in a world where Africanness has been devalued and Africans dehumanized. I see such a finitude of knowledge and the racialization of African people as contributing to the aforementioned quandary. Clearly we enrich and empower ourselves when we more fully understand ourselves as Africans.
 
Thirdly, as Prashad has argued, we live in a polycultural milieu. Given this, we are increasingly impacted by seemingly disparate cultural traditions that reflect rich commonalities across “cultural worlds”, practices which may also appear to be our own due to our proximity to them. Such forms of entangled cultural practice are also at play in terms of what I have been observing and critiquing.

Culture and Freedom: The imperative of Re-Africanization

I often say that of all our strivings the most consequential are the reclamation of our culture and the restoration of sovereignty. Here I am not presenting these as de-linked or sequential processes, but rather as processes which are inextricably linked and concurrent. As Dr. Jacob H. Carruthers has written, “The process of Africanization and transformation cannot be separated neatly into two stages-they overlap. To transform the world according to an African-centered worldview means establishing a new African culture and a new African world civilization.” In fact, it is our culture that provides the basis for our efforts to actualize sovereignty. Here I will offer a brief summary of its significance.

Before preceding, it is necessary to define culture. Culture consists of the totality of human thought and action. It entails our concepts and behavior. It includes our creations, be they physical or non-physical. As such, culture includes abstract notions such as “freedom”. It also is the process that we execute in its pursuit. In fact, culture, in its totality, determines the very parameters of both concept and process. Below I offer three areas wherein African culture is both valuable and important in our live.

First, culture is the basis of identity. It tells us who we are and who we must be. Given that culture is the product of peoples, that is a culturally distinct collective, it is the sum of their traditions, and expresses their worldview. Our culture, African culture, grounds us in an understanding of who we are as African individuals and orients us towards our people, their past and future. Thus, it must be noted that identity within the traditional context was not solely an individual matter, but rather found its basis within the group’s consciousness and experience. Naming traditions, rites-of-passage, and other processes served as anchors of such a collectively-oriented identity. Often the individual would be given a name (or names) that would serve as anchors of this identity. Divinatory rituals might be used to reveal their unique destiny, which was never solely concerned with them as singular entities, but rather their purpose within the larger community.

Herein, only one’s own culture is capable of fulfilling such a role, as only one’s own culture can anchor one’s identity within the collective experience of their people, thus providing the framework wherein their own individual expression emerges. To base one’s identity on alien paradigms is to be culturally mis-oriented, which in the African worldview represents one’s estrangement from the ancestors, the community, and ultimately oneself.

Second, as Dr. Marimba Ani has noted “culture carries rules for thinking”, thus culture is the basis of consciousness. This means that all modes of thinking, all modes of conceiving reality are essentially based in culture. To be African and to be estranged from your culture is to navigate the world with an alien worldview. This means that not only do we perceive the world through a lens that is ultimately alien to us, this framework constrains what we see and what we do. Thus no people can truly free themselves on the basis of an alien worldview. They can create political and economic changes, but those changes merely serve to concretize systems based on the conceptual and social traditions of other peoples, rather than their own. The fruits of such labor is impoverished as it never allows them to draw fully and deeply from the “deep well” of African thought and to create a world based on the wisdom of our ancestors.

Third, culture is the foundation upon which all social organization exists. Thus when we look at the social systems that have been devised to maximize the misery of African people, whether it is the system of de-education and mis-education which serves to nullify our capacity to attain a critical consciousness, or the system of coercive control which surveils, represses, detains, and executes African people, or the system of capitalism which has enshrined avarice as  the highest expression of human striving and has based its accumulation on incessant violence for centuries we must recognize that all of these are reflections of a worldview, one which is both alien and antithetical to African life–and in truth to all life.

When we embrace our culture we are then able to draw upon our traditions for models of excellence. Such knowledge enables us to glean the insights of African people regarding such challenges as the socialization of African youth into healthy standards of adulthood, or to understand the dynamics of social life in the traditional society that strove to negate alienation and to implement these knowledges as the basis for a restored sense of community, or to draw upon African models of economic development–models that at their best prioritized human flourishing above profit.

Therefore, when we are advocating for re-Africanization or sankɔfa, that is the reclamation of our culture, we are insisting on the reconceptualization of identity from the atomistic individual and the coercive hyperrelativism associated with it, to a more expansive sense of the self, one that finds its basis within the best of one’s traditions, one that derives its purpose from such communal concerns. We are also seeking to free our minds from the “conceptual incarceration” of oppressive and alien paradigms. Just as the maroons provided an audacious example of struggle during the era of enslavement, it should be noted that their resistance was grounded upon a rejection of the European worldview and any notions of legitimacy wherein they could only exist as chattel.  In seeking to actualize their sovereignty, and in ensuring the survival of their culture they demonstrate of power of minds decoupled from the locus of European control. Finally, when we cease to gaze upon European (and other) institutions as universal or optimal models for African people, we are able to draw upon and apply the wisdom of our ancestors to our efforts to actualize a future based on the best of who we are, upon our image and interests as a people.

Ultimately we must recognize that freedom on the basis of an alien culture is unattainable. At best it represents a slight adjustment of the locus or methods of control. African freedom must be conceived upon, strove for, and actualized on the basis of an African worldview if we are to be sovereign in all domains.

Reaping the bounty of one’s own traditions

All peoples constructs their spiritual practice on the basis of their own indigenous traditions, which enables them to reap the bounty of those traditions. I suggested the following materials to a brother who expressed a desire to reclaim his own ancestral traditions. Perhaps some of you might find this list enlightening.
 
General
Marimba Ani, Let the Circle Be Unbroken
Dalian Adofo, Ancestral Voices
Dalian and Verona Adofo, Ancestral Voices (film): https://ancestralvoices.co.uk/
Akan
Kwame Gyekye, African Philosophical Thought
Igbo
Ogonna Agu, The Book of Dawn & Invocations
Kemetic (Ancient Egyptian)
Jacob H. Carruthers, Essays in Ancient Egyptian Studies
Jacob H. Carruthers, Mdw Ntr: Divine Speech
Theophile Obenga, African Philosophy: The Pharaonic Period: 2780-330 Bc
Kongo
K. Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau, Self-Healing Power and Therapy
K. Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau, African Cosmology of the Bantu-Kongo
K. Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau, Mbôngi: An African Traditional Political Institution
Fu-Kiau, K. Kia Bunseki, and A.M. Lukondo-Wamba. Kindezi: The Kongo Art of Babysitting
Mende
Adama and Naomi Doumbia, The Way of the Elders
Yoruba
Wande Abimbola, Ifa Will Mend Our Broken World
Kola Abimbola, Yoruba Culture: A Philosophical Account
Segun Gbadegesin, African Philosophy: Traditional Yoruba Philosophy and Contemporary African Realities

The African-centered critique of capitalism: Some basic considerations

It is true that capitalism must be critiqued. It is also true that it must be replaced. For African-centered scholars neither the critique of this system or the conceptualization of alternatives to it can logically draw from the culture which created capitalism in the first place.

For African-centered scholars, capitalism is merely an expression of the European worldview. The alienation, materialism, and misery that it produces are not de-linked from pre-existing traditions that produced the same–albeit with less precision.

For us, ultimately, African traditions must inform both our critique and proposals for alternatives. Whether we consider Mbongi, Ubuntu, Maat, et cetera. we have various cultural paradigms sufficient to inform our efforts to reclaim our culture and to create a more just world.

The synergy between these two goals cannot be understated. We must reclaim our culture as a matter of restoring and healing ourselves. Such knowledge enables us to transform reality up to and including that which should be our core preoccupation–the restoration of our sovereignty. Hence we are not advocating the cessation of capitalism in order to enter into a fantasy of a “more humane” Western hegemony. This is absurd. Nor are we advocating a perpetuation of our subjugation or alienation–consequences of slavery and colonialism–under either the existing or some proposed future system administered by forces opposed to African humanity. Our striving should be the solve the problem facing us fully–not only its economic or political dimensions, but the oppressive worldview that undergirds such a condition.

Dr. Jacob H. Carruthers captures this succinctly where he writes concerning the African worldview and its imperatives: “If then we accept this as a valid worldview, it is apparent that our goal for reorganizing the world must include the restoration of a harmony among the Creator, Nature and man. This is the only world that produces happiness and the fulfillment of man. This means that the negative forces opposing this way of life must be made to not exist (to phrase it in Kemite fashion). In other words, to have peace one must nullify the destroyers without corrupting ourselves.” The key to fulfilling this lies in our capacity to remember who we are and to operationalize such knowledge in both word and deed, for in order to overcome the forces of alienation it is critical that we draw fully and substantively from the deep well of African thought, and to let such wisdom as that of our ancestors to guide us into the future.

Information and wisdom

This society’s emphasis on information places value on the ephemeral, as information constantly changes. This is why there is a new study every other week debunking some previous study that debunked everything that you thought you knew.

Our ancestors, on the other hand, emphasized wisdom and its cultivation. For them also, information changed, but wisdom was an anchor from which these changes could be discerned and evaluated. Long held traditions were resistant to change, not only because of cultural inertia, but also because people had the wisdom to understand the utility, the practicality of their traditions. In this way, wisdom sought to nullify the nihilism of a potentially presentistic and information-obsessed culture.