The transformation of the global system and its implications for Africa

Public Lecture, University of South Africa, College of Law
Delivered on 10th March 2011

Professor Dani Wadada Nabudere

Transformation of the global system by Dani Nabudere

Introductory Remarks
The global capitalist crisis that occurred in 2007-8 has changed the way we shall relate to the future. Mass democratic pressures such as those we are witnessing in the Arab World are already indicative of the way countries will try to cope with problems of equality in economics and freedoms in political life. The economic meltdown that occurred is deep and it is amazing that when the crisis struck the majority of mainstream economists did not see its magnitude and its long-term implications. Indeed, some economists at first viewed the meltdown as purely an American phenomenon. It was, they argued, a ‘sub-prime mortgage crisis.’ Others who saw deeper elements in the crisis called it a ‘credit crunch,’ but soon realised that it was not a ‘credit crunch’ related only to the ‘sub-prime’ mortgage crisis, but a ‘financial crisis’ as well. Even with this broadened understanding, the crisis was still regarded as mainly a US problem and not a global one.

By the beginning of 2009, some political leaders in the G 20 countries and economists, including ‘monetarist economists,’ realised that the crisis was a multifaceted one and that at bottom; it was a ‘global economic crisis.’ Already from mid-September 2008, the effects begun to be felt globally as US leaders begun to talk of an eminent ‘recession.’ In early October 2008, I was one of the few observers who predicted the seriousness of the widening crisis. I wrote three short articles for a local Uganda Sunday newspaper called The Sunday Monitor in which I warned that what we were witnessing was not just a ‘financial crisis’ nor an ‘economic crisis’ but a ‘global capitalist economic crisis’ and that the crisis was a terminal one for capitalism. This is what I wrote:

“The present ‘financial’ crisis afflicting the global economy should not be seen from the narrow focus of the credit crunch and its relationship to the subprime mortgage crisis in the Western countries, especially the US. The crisis goes to the very foundations of the global capitalist system and it should be analysed from that angle. What is at the core of the crisis is the over-extension of credit on a narrow material production base. This is in a situation in which money has become increasingly detached from its material base of a money commodity that can measure its value such as gold. But this is not just a monetary phenomenon. It has its roots in the ‘real economy’ of which it is part.”

I was able to comment quickly and assess the magnitude of what was happening because I had in the 1980s done a serious study of money and credit which resulted in the publication of one major work: The Rise and Fall of Money Capital [1990] and its shorter version: The Crash of International Finance [1989] following the ‘Bloody Monday’ crisis of October 1987. In writing these volumes, I studied all the works of Karl Marx dealing with Capital and Money as well as the work of the then only serious bourgeois economist who appeared to understand money, Maynard Keynes, who had tried to grapple with the consequences of the ‘industrial cycle’ in the interwar period and how to manage it. In those works, we demonstrated how capital in the form of finance capital had lost its productive power and how it had increasingly resorted to ‘financiering’ and the ‘making money out of money without production,’ which later became the dominant factor behind the 2008 economic ‘meltdown.’

It is clear now that despite the attempts to fight the recession and achieve some amount of economic recovery, the economies of major developed countries such as the US, Britain and most EU countries as well as Japan are still fragile and unstable. Germany has done much better because of its reliance on the Chinese recovery by supplying it with capital goods. What is characteristic of all countries of the world is the growing inequality, poverty and the galloping food prices for the majority of their populations. The crises that we are witnessing in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa have been sparked off by the food crisis, which is only one aspect of the deep inequality in the world. The crisis of capitalism at its core can be traced at the level of distribution in the food crisis in the mid-2008s, which turned out to be linked to the speculations in the global commodities markets.

This is why the financial crisis was also a reflection of the energy and food crisis occurring at that time, because oil and food products such as oil, wheat, rice and other commodities had been subjected to speculative trading, which acted as ‘hedges’ against risk in backing up highly leveraged paper financial instruments such as ‘future contracts,’ derivatives and Collateralised Debt Obligations or CDOs. The British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, among the world leaders, was the only one who saw this connection when he brought up the issue in the World Bank meeting called to address the food crisis in 2008. The real problem underlying currency instability and commodity price volatilities was that the dollar, which acts as a global reserve currency, was not backed by any solid money commodities such as gold or silver and this is because these money-commodities could no longer fulfil those functions, which they were supposed to do under capitalism. This is what led to the food commodities coming into the picture as ‘hedges’ to back up ‘future contracts’ and derivatives expressed in US dollars and held by banks.

The number of speculative future contracts for wheat, which made commitments to buy or sell a given volume of wheat at a certain future date at a predetermined price, for instance, had quadrupled over the previous five years (2003-2008). What made matters worse was the fact that speculation had become especially active by exploiting the record low inventories in the existing agricultural commodities. In the past 25 years, most countries had gradually abandoned the policy of stocking grains and other agricultural commodities, which acted as food security stocks. With the food market being in turmoil, there were no food cushions to absorb the impact of any sudden disruption in their ability to import grains.

During the first three months of 2008, international nominal prices of all major food commodities reached their highest levels for fifty years. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation-FAO reported that food price indices had risen, on the average, by 8% in 2006 compared with the previous year. In 2007, the food index rose by 24% compared with 2006 and in the first three months of 2008, it rose by 53% compared with 2007. This sudden surge was led by increases in vegetable oils, which on the average increased by 97%, followed by grains with an increase of 87%, dairy products with 58% and rice with 46%. This trend has continued since 2007-2008 and what we are witnessing in the streets of Tunisia, Cairo and Tripoli is partly a reflection of this capitalist crisis.

The Tunisian origin of the Arab Revolutions
The events in Arab world and especially, in Egypt, which has been dubbed the ‘Youth Revolution’, were very much ignited by these developments, which included the development of the ‘Face Book’ social networks. These networks are the products of technological changes that have occurred in the capitalist world and which are highly connected with the global economic situation discussed above. This is because of the role the electronic media, especially the mobile telephony, Face Book, Twitter and other social networks have played in these events. These revolts have challenged the rights of dictators who have ruled their countries for decades under ‘emergency’ conditions in order to prevent their citizens enjoying their freedoms, including the right to employment.

The conditions of desperation that global capitalism has created in Arab world as well as in many other parts of the global South were behind the uprising in Tunisia. It will be recalled that Mohamed Bouzizi was an unemployed young man who was trying to sell some vegetables on the street to earn a living given the high rates of unemployment in that country. Bouzizi was arrested and beaten up by the police for daring to earn a living on the streets and refusing to pay a bribe to be let free. This, in the eyes of the population, symbolised the ‘heartlessness’ of a State that had lost all human contact with its citizens. Instead of empathising with Bouzizi’s plight, Bouzizi was instead harassed on several occasions by agents of the State, assaulted, humiliated and prevented from attempting to engage in some income generating activity on which he and his family could depend. It was out of the desperation of this harassment that Bouzizi in an act of defiance set himself on fire and killed himself.

This act of bravery triggered off demonstrations on the part of his family in Sidi Bouzid, which were joined by hundreds of supporters in solidarity in defiance of the ‘heartless’ State, which called on them to disperse. It is this act of defiance on the part of the people and in empathy with Bouzizi’s action that spread like wild fire in the whole country and finally brought down the 23-year corrupt, authoritarian, pro-Western, and crony capitalist regime of Zine Al-Abadine Ben Ali and his family from power. But before his downfall, Ben Ali and his regime had been lauded and held out to be a successful. He was hailed as a wealthy head of a fast-growing and ‘most-competitive’ economy in Africa even when the population were suffering under the burdens of repression.

But this very ‘competitive’ economy was a monopoly of French interests for it was also true that France alone accounted for 72.5% of the country’s imports and 75% of its exports to the European Union. This was this kind of ‘success’ that the Western world praised and held out to the people of Tunisia as the basis of their existence. In fact, the economy was a dependent economy on the interests of the European and American monopolies and their local cronies, which required an iron-fisted regime to maintain. It constituted the bedrock of inequality between the very opulent and rich class and the impoverished, poor classes agonising against high levels of the unemployment and political repression. This included many jobless university graduates such as Bouzizi who were the victims of a lop-sided economy producing high-priced necessities of life, which the majority of the population could not afford. This was the capitalism that the Tunisian people knew and not the imagined capitalist world of ‘successes’ of a few cronies who run the Tunisian neo-colonial State. The revolt was an attempt by the people of Tunisia to reconstruct a state that had feelings for its people and not one that was merely instrumental in oppressing them.

The real capitalist success
Yet it can also be said that what was happening in Tunisia and what later took place in Egypt was the success of capitalism in creating the real conditions that were now being resisted and also in producing individuals and new institutions that were taking a lead in the resistance to a decayed capitalism. The Arab revolutions have been referred to as ‘Face Book’ revolutions because of their use of rapid communication systems that the Face Book as a social organising network enabled the people to interface and act as one body. The Face Book is a product of capitalism and an extension of the electronic media that Marshall McLuhan analysed in the 1960s.

We can now recall the work of McLuhan in which he predicted that the visual, individualistic print culture that characterised the early period of capitalism would be brought to an end by what he called "electronic interdependence" in which the electronic media would replace the visual media with an aural/oral culture. In this new age, McLuhan predicted, humankind will move from individualism and fragmentation to a collective identity, with a "tribal base." McLuhan called this emerging social organization the ‘global village,’ but this village was to be a product of capitalist ‘economic globalisation,’ which McLuhan and the world had as yet seen in the 1960s. ‘Economic globalisation, as we now know it, dawned on us in the 1980s.

However, McLuhan's most widely known work was: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man which he wrote in 1964. This work was a pioneering study in media theory in which he proposed that the media and not the content they carried should be the focus of study as ‘the medium of the message.’ McLuhan's argued that a medium affected the society in which it played a role not by the content delivered over it, but by the characteristics of the medium itself. He used the light bulb to demonstrate the new concept he was trying to develop. According to him, a light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programmes, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, it enables people to create spaces during night time that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness. He described the light bulb as a medium without any content but that it created an environment by its mere presence. He further postulated that content had little effect on society in that it did not matter whether television broadcast children's shows or violent programmes. In either case, the effect of television on society would be identical. He noted that all media had characteristics that engaged the viewer in different ways; for instance, a passage in a book could be reread at will, but a movie had to be screened again in its entirety to study any individual part of it.

In the first part of Understanding Media, McLuhan also argued that different media invite different degrees of participation on the part of a person who chooses to consume a medium. Some media, like the movies, were "hot"—that is, they enhance one single sense in this case a vision in such a manner that a person does not need to exert much effort in filling in the details of a movie image. McLuhan contrasted this with "cool" TV, which he claimed required more effort on the part of the viewer to determine meaning, and comics, which due to their minimal presentation of visual detail required a high degree of effort to fill in details that the cartoonist may have intended to portray. A movie was thus said by McLuhan to be "hot", intensifying one single sense "high definition", demanding a viewer's attention, and a comic book was said to be "cool" and "low definition", requiring much more conscious participation by the reader to extract value from it. McLuhan described the term "cool media" as emerging from jazz and popular music and, in this context, it is used to mean "detached." For McLuhan, these two concepts ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ were not binary opposites but could co-exist on a continuum: they could be more correctly measured on a scale rather than seen as dichotomous.

Although McLuhan did not say so, his analysis was part of a wider understanding of what the capitalist industrial organisation had achieved in the process of its contradictory development. As we know human labour and technology were the basis of capitalist development. They are counterpoised as necessary opposites in Marx’s schema of ‘living’ labour (of living human labour) and ‘dead’ labour (existing in the form of machinery) being prerequisites of capitalist industrial production. In the process of production, technology and machinery tend to extend the workers’ physical senses and the functions of their bodies (e.g. the eye and the hand). Sequentially, this extension first leads to segmentation and alienation of the individual and hence to his/her feeling a traumatic experience of change in the use of these senses and bodily functions. In short, the traumatic experience creates what McLuhan called a “self-amputation” of the physical senses. This process enables the ruling classes to destabilise and manipulate the working classes as well as exploiting the gender qualities of women by creating new forms of dependence.

But as technology does so, it also impacts on the body to find a new bodily and sensual balance and equilibrium or new rations in order to cope in the new environment. This demand, which occurred with the over-production of commodities caused by technological development, led to the need on the part of individual workers to adjust to new economic and political conditions. Historically this occurred during the Great Depression in the 1930s and the period leading to the Second World War. A process of ‘industrialisation of culture’ took place in which, according to Brian Milani, there was a ‘growing role of culture in the economy.’ This resulted in ‘new bureaucracies of mental labour’ who handled vast amounts of information flows ‘necessary to organise mass production and distribution and increasingly complex political systems.’ In so doing, this ‘industrialisation of culture’ accomplished a ‘depersonalisation’ and ‘objectification’ of bourgeois class rule by creating new forms of organisation in which labour could be absorbed profitably [Milani, 2000:22].

Even then, this transformative process had the effect of extending the working individuals’ minds and nervous systems (or consciousness), which had different implications than the extension of their muscles and bodies. This was because the period of the intense use of physical labour was no longer necessary with increased technological development for industrial deployment. Therefore the new technological processes tended to integrate rather than segment the workers’ sensual balance and this is what enabled them to handle immense flows of information necessary for ever expended production and distribution of commodities-forcing the integration of economic and politics as a new ‘culture’ under ‘integrated’ monopoly conditions under which ‘scientific management’ became a precondition. Fordism and Taylorism were the expression of this development, which created new conditions for the exploitation of labour under new conditions.

In terms of the evolution of electronic media in this period, McLuhan suggested that the very speed of electronic change tended to force the individual to forsake processing of reality in analytical, sequential ways. Instead it enabled a processing that acted ‘mythically’ using all the senses all at once, like hunter gatherers. This state of mind, he pointed out, emphasised ‘field consciousness,’ which in turn encouraged identity to be derived directly from the mind rather than from the contents of the mind. Such a healthy, balanced relationship to the information explosion, which such media brought about, tended to encourage individuals to go beyond processing innumerable bits of information towards seeing and feeling the patterns of the flow of knowledge and reality in their contexts.

This development made individuals to move away from the domination of visual senses towards an emphasis on touching and hearing, which were more inclusive and integrative forms of perception anchored in sensing than simply thinking. This brought about a situation of better balanced relationship between mind and body in which the mind became centred in the whole human organism not only in our heads ala Descartes. This development had epistemological implications in the way individuals created and used knowledge and information tending towards a transdisciplinary framework. This balanced perception had a fundamentally transformative impact on the individual who increasingly became a more holistic individual who was able to combine real individual autonomy with cooperation with others, say in forming trade unions in defence of their collective interests. Such individual was anchored both internally and externally rendering him/herself flexible and accommodative of others. Such individual, in the words of McLuhan, rendered oneself with a ‘psychic mobility,’ in that he/she became less self-preoccupied, more sensitive to social context and environment, and more amenable to service. This development implied a human spiritual transformation towards Ubuntu. This is what emerges from McLuhan’s analysis and can be seen in the current electronic media developments.

This is why although his ideas had undergone a decline since the 1960s; his work is currently undergoing a revival. Wired magazine and various Internet-oriented publications have adopted McLuhan as the patron saint of the digital age. McLuhan's phrases such as the "global village" and the "medium is the message" have provided support for those commentators who view McLuhan as the oracle of the digital era. During the past decade, more than a dozen new books and countless articles have been published focusing on McLuhan’s contribution.

In 2001, Posner published a book on: Public Intellectuals: A Study in Decline. He defined these individuals as modern intellectuals who are academics but who respond to "market forces" in their non-academic role as commentators on society. Posner further elaborated his definition of "public intellectual" by using a multitiered definition of regarding ‘public intellectuals’ as "academics writing outside their field" or "writing for a general audience." He contended that because the modern university places such a great emphasis on specialization, which heavily favours depth versus breadth of knowledge, very few academics are trained, or inclined, to play the role of ‘public intellectuals.’ For him, this narrow training and socialisation process, especially in the United States, explains "why so many of the most distinguished academic public intellectuals active in the second half of the twentieth century were foreigners.”

Using Posner's terminology, McLuhan was a ‘public intellectual’ whose legacy was twofold: First, his emphasis that mass communication has altered our perception of 20th-century life, and secondly, his belief that the content of communication is dictated by its form and not content. According to another scholar, "McLuhan's efforts instilled an urgent awareness of the media environment as a basic force in shaping the modern sensibility." Thus although McLuhan was depicted by his critics as an academic rebel who did not follow an orthodox outlook or doctrine in his writings, his role as a ‘public intellectual’ operating outside the academic compartmentalisation has rendered his work invaluable to the understanding of current developments such as those in the Arab countries.

Thus while the mass media most prominent in McLuhan’s time incorporated a one-to-many broadcasting model, he understood that ultimately it was still up to each audience member to control their intake of that media, and to contextualize it in a way that made sense in their own world view. This is what the social networks such as the Face Books, Blogs and the mobile phones have done to empower the individual into active politics. The Face Book and other forms of the social networks have simply extends this natural capability that media in general have acquired. This social media explicitly takes the one-to-many model and makes it a many-to-many model of communication. The content of social environments is the same as the content regardless of their location. What is important is what you choose to pay attention to and how you make sense of it in your life. This is the significance of McLuhan’s work in explaining the current developments, that capitalism has made possible and hence its ‘success’ in creating conditions for its own demise.

The Egyptian Youth Revolution
The developments that arose out of Tunisia and were passed on to Cairo are of tremendous human significance because they point to the way towards a more humanistic future. They manifest the role of an emergent holistic individual seeking not just identity but a new beingness. It is true that we must not regard these developments as a consequence of the communication revolution per se. But at the same time, the communication revolution has been important in mobilising people outside the traditional structures such as religion, political parties and social organisations oriented towards a particular political agenda. What social networking had done is to mobilise everyone everywhere to act, think, relate and bring about change in a more direct way in a desired general direction. Social networking has raised the acquired social consciousness and turned it into a mass revolutionary action.

Of course the material conditions in which this has arisen is fundamental to the process, as we have noted in the case of Tunisia. But the current moment calls for a heightened consciousness which is necessary for the emergence of a new society. This is why the spiritual aspect is of uttermost importance to emphasise at this moment. The Face Book and other social media alone could not have raised and maintained the ‘will to power’ of the masses without the non-stop global cable TV networks such as Al-Jazeera, CNN, and BBC and their ‘Breaking News’ every few hours. These public media supplemented the social network, especially when the latter had been disconnected by the dictators. These 24-hour global news networks, the products of a decaying capitalism, were part and parcel of this exposure of the inequities and indignities of the global capitalist economic and political order that the people struggled to dismantle.

To be sure, when the now renamed April 6th Youth Movement took shape in Tahrir Square in Cairo it did so as a demand for freedom, dignity, and equality. According to Francis Kornegay, writing in a new magazine in Johannesburg [2011], although this outbreak of anger appeared a spontaneous ‘Face Book’ phenomenon, in fact the outburst had been at least five years in preparation on the basis of a new generation pan-Arab youth collaborating between Tunisia and Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood seems to have played a role in this respect and the Friday Prayers were also an element in this mobilisation, but by no means the inspirers of the new movement. Indeed, Kornegay argues that this uprising may have signalled the death-knell of jihadism and its sectarian agenda, “which actually converges with the region’s conservative authoritarian status-quo.” In the case of Egypt, there had been a “bottom-up” revolution very much assisted by the new social networking, but which partly vested its faith in “military guardianship.” Kornegay further argues that Tahrir was ‘essentially bourgeois ruction.’

Nevertheless, he also argues that this kind of analysis may be ‘mere squabbling’ because the real impact of the revolt went far beyond such descriptions. Khadija Sharife writing in the same magazine argues that the mass youth-fuelled revolt cut across class, gender, religious and age divides, which had profound impact on Egyptian, Middle East and African sub-regions. This is why in order to prevent the ‘contagion’ from spreading, the elite army officers, capitalists and the remnants of the old political order-working together with their international backers and controllers-will seeks to exercise hegemony over the pace, direction, form and content of the revolutionary process.

But it is necessary to analyse and try to understand in a transdisciplinary manner this ‘revolutionary process’ if we are not to lose sight of these very important developments. These developments are already being felt even in the African continent as a whole. They are also defining the policies of major powers such as the United States in dealing with these countries, especially in their relationship with Israel. If indeed the uprisings- although youth-fuelled- did in fact “cut across class, gender, religion and age, then we have to try to understand what it was that the revolts were about. Indeed calling the Egyptian uprising ‘bourgeois ruction’ as Kornegay tries to do may indeed turn out to be so much ‘squabbling’ as he himself admits.

In order to understand the force behind these revolts, let us again recall the origins of the revolt in Tunisia and the reasons behind them. As we have seen, the revolts arose as an expression of solidarity in empathy with Bouzizi and his family in the way the agents of the State had treated Bouzizi. There are several elements from which we can draw a kind of résumé of his revolt: unemployment, lack of food and other necessities of life, lack of opportunities of advancement, corruption on the part of the State officials, brutality of the police and other security agencies, demand for dignity, demand for equality, demand for citizenship, lack of empathy for the sufferings of the masses of the people by the State, capitalist cronyism, kleptocracy on the part of the ruling family, authoritarianism and dictatorial governance.

If the elements in this résumé are put together, analysed and synthesised, it becomes clear that these concerns and demands of the people are qualitative in nature rather than quantitative. This can be illustrated by an incident, which occurred during the Tahrir square demonstrations when the then president Hosni Mubarak tried to calm down the tempers of the demonstrators by increasing the salaries of public workers by fifty percent. The gesture was rebuffed and laughed at by the crowd who responded by stating that what they were demonstrating against was his despotic rule and not salaries and that in any case the majority of them were unemployed to deserve such an increase! They retorted that what they were demanding was his immediate departure and towards this demand they declared one Friday in February to be his “Day of Departure.” They were demanding, they retorted, ‘freedom,’ ‘dignity,’ and ‘equality.’ These were all qualitative demands.

As we have indicated above, and arising from Marshall McLuhan’s analysis, there was a spiritual transformation in this emerging ‘holistic individuals’ who together with others were united in empathy and solidarity in these demands. McLuhan argued that the very speed of electronic change, which was occurring during his time but which had become speedier and speedier with the passage of time, tended to force the individual to forsake processing of reality in analytic, sequential way. This was essential, he added, in order to take the process ‘mythically’ all at once using all our senses. In this situation, the state of mind, tended to emphasises ‘field consciousness,’ which in turn encouraged identity to be derived from the mind rather than from the contents of the mind. Such a healthy, balanced relationship to the information explosion, which such media brought about, encouraged holistic individuals to go beyond the mere processing of innumerable bits of information towards seeing and feeling. Such a healthy balance of mind and body also tried to identify the patterns of the flow of knowledge and reality in their contexts.

This development had also epistemological implications in the way the holistic individuals created and used knowledge and information. The creation and using of such information was towards wholeness rather than segmentation. Such a development had a fundamentally a transformative impact on the individual who now increasingly becomes more of a holistic individual who combines real individual autonomy with the need to cooperate with others. Such individual is anchored both internally and externally rendering his/her self flexible and accommodative of others. The new individual becomes less self-preoccupied, more sensitive to social context and environment, and more amenable to service to others. As we concluded above, this development implies a human spiritual transformation towards Ubuntu-the African philosophy of recognising others as part of one self.

The Implications for Africa
But what do all these developments suggest for Africa if indeed the transformation of the capitalist individual leads to a spiritual transformation of such individual to Ubuntu, which the Umuntu believes in? It is clear that despite the fragmentation and marginalisation that modernity has imposed on the people of Africa, elements of Ubuntu still exist in the African societies through their languages, cultures and knowledge systems. Ubuntu seeks a restoration of balance in relations between individuals inter se and between individuals and nature. In the new situation in which the holistic individuals now find themselves united in solidarity-no longer alienated and isolated, they find Abantu in existence with elements of Ubuntu still with them. The holistic individuals find themselves already embedded in the culture of Ubuntu in a new form, which McLuhan’s analysis seems to suggest. Such new environment requires that in order to fit in the new combined human environment of interconnectedness and wholeness, such new combined individuals have to make their rules of a restorative society on an on-going basis.

Already academic researchers are beginning to examine this new situation by exploring the parallels between online social networking and the practices of ‘tribal’ societies that McLuhan envisaged. In the collective profile-surfing essential for ‘face booking,’ ‘My spacing’ and ‘New life’ in which they try to engage in “friending,” they begin to see the resurgence of ancient patterns of oral communication. Lance Strate, a communications professor at Fordham University and devoted ‘MySpacer’ has argued that “Orality, which is characteristic of African communication, is the basis of all human experience.” He is convinced that the popularity of social networks stems from their appeal to deep-seated, prehistoric patterns of human communication and points out that humans evolved with speech and not with writing. This is in fact what we have called Afrikology [Nabudere, 2011].

Indeed. the growth of social networks — and the Internet as a whole — stem largely from an outpouring of expression that often feels more like “talking” rather than writing. Such activities as blog posting, comments writing, homemade videos and, lately, an outpouring of epigrammatic one-liners broadcast using services like Twitter and Face Book status updates point to such a new culture based on oral ‘tribal’ communication. Irwin Chen has observed: “If you examine the Web through the lens of Orality, you cannot help but see it everywhere.” Irwin Chen is a design instructor at Parsons University who is developing a new course to explore the emergence of oral culture online. He argues that “Orality is participatory, interactive, communal and focused on the present. The Web is all of these things.”

This validates the work of an early student of electronic Orality, Walter J. Ong, who was a professor at St. Louis University and student of Marshall McLuhan. He is the one who coined the term “Secondary Orality” in 1982 to describe the tendency of electronic media to echo the cadences of earlier oral cultures. The work of Walter Ong, who died in 2003, seems especially prescient in light of the social-networking phenomenon that is taking place and which points towards Ubuntu as a culture of the future. “Oral communication,” according to him, “unites people in groups.” In other words, oral culture means more than just talking. It implies subtler, and perhaps more important — social dynamics at work of coalescing.

Another scholar has noted: “In tribal cultures, your identity is completely wrapped up in the question of how people know you.” He adds: “When you look at Face Book, you can see the same pattern at work: people projecting their identities by demonstrating their relationships to each other.” According to him, “You define yourself in terms of who your friends are.” In ‘tribal’ societies, he adds, people routinely give each other jewellery, weapons, and ritual objects to cement their social ties.” Similarly on Face Book, people accomplish the same thing by trading symbolic sock monkeys, disco balls and hula girls. “It’s reminiscent of how people exchange gifts in tribal cultures,” says Dr. Strate, whose ‘MySpace’ page lists his 1,335 “friends” along with his academic credentials and his predilection for “Battlestar Galactica.” These are comparisons which are ‘virtual’ and need to be ‘actualized’ through Ubuntu and holistic living in real communities. There are big differences between real oral cultures and the virtual kind. In tribal societies, forging social bonds is a matter of survival; on the Internet, far less so, although there is an element of the search for spiritual survival.

Then there’s the question of who really counts as a “friend.” In tribal societies, people develop bonds through direct, ongoing face-to-face contact. The Web eliminates that need for physical proximity, enabling people to declare friendships on the basis of otherwise flimsy connections. There are deep differences between real ‘tribal’ networking and modern ‘social networks’ in that sense. With social networks, there’s a fascination with intimacy because it simulates face-to-face communication. But there’s also this fundamental distance of distance which makes it safe for people to connect through weak ties where they can have the appearance of a connection because it’s safe. Therefore, while ‘tribal’ networking and cultures typically engage in highly formalized rituals; modern social networks seem to encourage a level of casualness and familiarity that would be unthinkable in traditional oral cultures.

Therefore new holistic societies can only learn something from ‘tribal’ societies, but cannot live them. To construct a new society they need to proceed by writing or making rules as they go on but with the fundamental lesson that this must recognize human interconnectedness and beingness in Ubuntu. According to Dr. Strate the sheer popularity of social networking seems to suggest that for many people, these social networking environments strike a deep, perhaps even primal chord inside them to which they want to link. According to him such yearnings “fulfil our need to be recognized as human beings, and as members of a community.” He adds, “We all want to be told: You exist.” In fact Dr Strate should have put it in a proper Ubuntu way: “I exist, because you exist.” This is the way to go.

What then can we say the people in Tahrir Square were demanding when they talked of a new democracy that respects their human dignity and equality? Can it not be surmised that what they really demanded was a state that has a feeling and empathy for their needs and concerns. Can we say that perhaps they were demanding a new State that has feelings like a human being, which moreover can demonstrate its feelings for the people rather than through dictates? Can we say that such a State is possible because by its very nature a State monopolises all means of violence, which it has invariably used against its citizens without any feelings for those citizens. In short, a modern State (especially the post-colonial State) brutalises its citizens and at the same time claims to represent them, which is a contradiction in terms.

Perhaps if such a new State that has feelings for its citizens is impossible to imagine, then what the demonstrators really demanded was that they themselves should constitute a ‘State’ or ‘Community’ in which the functions of the State are assumed by the individuals themselves. This happened in the ‘tribal’ societies, but also in the polis in Athens. Is this perhaps what Marx meant when he predicted the ‘withering away of the state?’ But Marx regarded such a situation as leading to ‘communism’ in which there was equality for everyone. Is this perhaps the kind of ‘communal’ society that is imagined by the social networks? If so how can it be actualised beyond the ‘virtual’ “Communities” that the social networks have created? This is perhaps the task that is implied by the current revolutions.

Marshall McLuhan aptly observes in his book, Laws of Media that as the information that constitutes our environment is perpetually in flux, so there is need to be flexible and not anchored in fixed concepts. He advocated the adopting of ancient skills which can enable us to navigate through an ever uncharted and unchartable milieu. Therefore, our "uncharted and unchartable" world that is before us seems to sum up our new opportunities. But in order to arrive at our uncharted future we need to take the following considerations into account. We must be able to:

  • perceive the complexity of the environments with which we have to deal;
  • focus appropriately on the critical factors that influence complex relationships;
  • resolve the tension between intention and emergence of reality.
These ideas are derived from Social Networking whose objective is to move towards a new world driven by Ubuntu philosophy. We can try them out as we go on so long as we do not stop asking questions.

Sudan Sensitisation Project (SSP)

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Antumi Toasijé

Antumi Toasijé
Doctor en Historia, Cultura y Pensamiento