Philosophy in Practice | Cape Town


QA 8. (Oct 08) Practising philosophy in trying times

QA 8. (Oct 08) Practising philosophy in trying times

  • Posted by Helen Douglas
  • On October 12, 2008
  • banking crisis, Chris Nicholson, Mbeki, politics, South Africa

It’s become terribly unfashionable to be “judgemental”, but the fact of the matter is that life calls for judgement, all the time. So we should learn to do it well. For me, this is the purpose of philosophical practice: to study and understand what’s going on in the world and in oneself, in order to respond appropriately and skilfully. In short, to learn to judge wisely. Our current “interesting times” are ripe for philosophical enquiry.

Here in South Africa, the national executive of the African National Congress (ANC) last month “recalled” state president Thabo Mbeki after high court judge Chris Nicholson found him responsible for political interference in the national prosecuting authority. We now face a continuing circus of power plays by leading members of the party and government. What are we supposed to think? What’s really going on? Who and what are we to believe, or trust? Judgement is called for.

When everything is up in the air and you can’t find your feet or your head, stop. Withdraw from the fray. Take a breath; gather yourself. Notice and set aside the mental blinders of past identifications, partisanship and habit. Remember what matters. Begin again, fresh.

In the political realm, power matters. In a democracy, the source of that power is always we the people, citizens descended from generations who organised and struggled so that we might live together better. This power we delegate to the state to provide various public goods. No matter what popular cynicism would have us believe, politics is not, at heart, a dirty business – when state and private agents abuse that power to serve their own interests, it is precisely a corruption. Our responsibility is to hold them accountable or repossess our power.

In South Africa, what matters is poverty, inequality, unemployment and other insults to human dignity. Everyone knows that; just see how all the circus performers need to identify themselves (and cudgel their opponents) with “ANC tradition”, which means, at heart, popular participatory democracy. The circus is not the only show in town. I don’t know what’s really going on, but there are still good people at work, trying to be effective in difficult conditions. My advice? Don’t listen to what anyone says – pay attention to what they do and have done. Think. Judge wisely.

Elsewhere, reckless behaviour in the United States has sent the world banking system into a tailspin, which is being fed by investor panic, fed in turn by constant reports of panicking investors. This crisis is not a natural disaster. It’s the inevitable consequence of a corrupt exchange system based on narrow self-interest and irrational crowd behaviour. Trying to be first in the pack is how these guys got so wealthy in the first place. And it is their “risk aversion” (more correctly, “responsibility aversion”) and herd mentality that has helped put so many developing economies in jeopardy. Let’s all calm down. Panic won’t profit thee and me. Stop. Take a breath. Think.

© 2008

P.S. Judge Nicholson’s ruling in Zuma v the NDPP is a fine example of principled and thoughtful legal judgment, but it’s been lost in all the frenzy. That’s a mistake. Carefully and clearly argued, it is a rich resource that deserves public debate. If you missed the full broadcast last month, check it out here.




Posted on behalf of Nozizwe: Dear Helen It's Nozizwe here. I would like to respond, even though I feel I may have misunderstood your article, which is attached. My take on the matter is that you are right in saying that good judgement is critical. I agree with you that the judgement handed down by Judge Nicholson was a good one. I am not sure I see what's going on as a circus. What I see is a contestation within the ruling party, the ANC for leadership. There was a conference in Polokwane that allowed members of the ANC to exercise their democratic right within the Party to choose their leaders. We saw Thabo Mbeki lose power within the Party structures and processes. The reason to have him removed from government was resisted by the ANC NEC, although there was a strong call for it in May when the Alliance held a summit. The issue raised in the decision of the Maritzburg High Court related to political interference by our former President in matters that the judiciary is meant to deal with. The President of the ANC, Jacob Zuma had been saying this all along that there was a political plot to have him removed. The High Court said there was political interference. The ANC took the decision to have Thabo Mbeki removed as President of the Republic after a very long and painful discussion. It was not an impulsive decision. It was based on a series of events that showed that Thabo Mbeki did not recognise the democratic decisions taken at the ANC conference in Polokwane and that he seemed hell-bent to remain in power. Some members of the ANC related stories of personal hurt at the hands of Thabo Mbeki over the years. You will remember that one of the issues that shook our country was when Thabo Mbeki accused Ramaphosa, Sexwale and Phosa of plotting to have him removed. There is the issue of HIV/Aids denialism that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. There was the issue of the energy crisis. Thabo Mbeki ignored advice and basic science and some of his policy decisions have come back to haunt us. The shortages in health care and education and the issue of crime are some of these issues which experienced major strain as a result of the neoliberal macro-economic policies adopted in the late 1990's by Thabo Mbeki's government. The arms deal is another example. We spent money on weapons we did not need. South Africans were silent. The recent action taken by Mosioua Lekota is another example of this. It has nothing to do with the issues Lekota has put forward, as these are issues that are normally handled internally within the Party and as he puts it, no-one is suppressed within the Party to raise these issues. Lekota and company went public after they had made a decision to form a party and to contest elections. There is nothing wrong with this, forming a party and contesting elections. That is his democratic right. What is wrong is an attempt to hide his intentions and cause confusion. The issues you raise of fighting poverty, crime, ill-health and illiteracy are top on the agenda of the ANC. Indeed these issues were debated at the ANC Policy Conference and resolutions of the 52nd Conference in Polokwane attest to this. Since Polokwane the ANC has been working hard in NEC subcommittees looking at how we implement the conference resolutions. One example of this is the policy discussions on Health and Education. We launched the ANC campaign on education and health. The health policy proposals are looking at National Health Insurance to make health accessible to all, regardless of the ability to pay. We are looking at the health infrastructre and the problem of skills shortage both in education and health. Teams have been established and are reporting on what we must do to improve in the critical areas of Human Resources for Health. Next week the ANC has called an Alliance Summit on the Economy. All these are steps to ensure that we respond appropriately to the problems you raise. Under the new leadership in the ANC I feel there is more openness to fresh ideas and to ensuring broad public participation. Your ideas matter. We need you to get involved, to share your ideas. The world is faced with a huge financial crisis. We need South Africans to come together and say how we are going to work together to solve these problems and to mitigate the negative impact, especially on the poor. Despair is the last thing we need. I would like to get your views on these matters. Nozizwe PS I do not mind if you post my reply. I welcome deliberation on the issues you have raised.
Posted on behalf of Valeria: Helen, thank you for that. Yesterday I read an article about the stampede in India which killed hundreds of people. And the reason is panicking. Reacting without taking a breath. Not that I find panicking THE issue, the issue is unthoughtful attitudes, just using our past conditionings to decide the present and future. Not that I find panicking THE issue, the issue is unthoughtful attitudes, just using our past conditionings to decide the present and future. We must find the best strategy to put more weight on the "good" side, to judge wisely and act wisely. HOW? As the say goes in my country, the Left is not able to unite even in prison! I cannot help enjoying myself when I see the news on TV about American people's inability to buy a car beyond their means (or a 1000 dollars jacket for that matter, I saw a lady complaining...). I wish the whole financial / accumulation logic would crumble, but I wish compassionately that not so many poor people get into serious trouble for that. But inability to buy new cars? Wonderful! Public transportation may have a chance!!!! (but I doubt it...) And who am I, who did not "struggle" in SA, to comment on that circus? I have so many other circuses to live (Brazil is a nice one as well).
Hi Nozizwe, The leadership contest is certainly being presented in the media as a circus (with Julius Malema perhaps as the chief clown - it would be interesting to interpret the symbolic role he's playing - or being played - but never mind), which is confusing a lot of people. At worst, it's presented as if two factions of variously untrustworthy and unsatisfactory politicians grouped around Mbeki and Zuma are duking it out to belly up to the gravy. Are there two sides, two factions? Seems unlikely to me - at the very least, it's ridiculously simplistic. What does seem likely to me is that whatever groupings there are will contain opportunists looking out for themselves. Fact of life. But the true critical contest is for the use of power - will it be used for self-advantage or for social development? That's what matters, the prize we want to keep our eyes on, but the media seem incapable of presenting it. And so many people have lost faith, for the reasons you list, but how much is because of the way political activity has been removed to the state? My column was going to be called "Tao and politics", because it seems to me that Taoist texts have a lot of good practical advice about how to do politics well (ethically) in times of uproar - mostly by staying low key and working behind the scenes to bring good results. I expect this is happening, but I feel like a reverse conspiracy theorist - you know, "just because there's no evidence proves that they're really good!" Practically, I think Nicholson was dead right about the arms deal: stop the selective prosecutions, call a presidential commission of enquiry. We keep getting told that internal investigations have cleared everyone. Well, make it public! We need to know. And if there are national security reasons for secrecy, there are also national security reasons for transparency. I know all of this is complicated and conditions are very tough, but it also could be a turning point, back to the promise of 1994 - not with that sense of heady miraculous faith, but with due seriousness and diligence. Like the man said: telling no lies, making no easy promises.
Thanks for that, Helen. I don't have much to say about the particulars of the circus (and I'm sorry, Nozizwe, but I confess that it looks like one to me, too), except to quote Joseph Campbell: "All politics is aggression". As long as we believe it's possible to further our own interests at the expense of others', politicians will continue to writhe in the same gutter with corporate giants, sports organisations, The Left, The Right, The Centre, and all of us who stand with our noses glued to the window of the Mercedes dealership. But I find philosophical discourse much more interesting, enduring, and relevant than politics. And what struck me most in your piece was your support of "judgementalness". I would argue that life calls, not for judgement, but for discrimination——the difference being, in my mind, an absence of the confirmation-or-condemnation designations that typically accompany judgement. In other words, yes: it's definitely important that we're able to tell shit from shinola. But when we forget that shit can make our gardens grow, and that shinola can blind us to fundamental human values … you see my point. That said, the South African Concise Oxford Dictionary does offer a value-free definition of "judgement": "the ability to make considered decisions or form sensible opinions". Going by that definition, I agree with you 100 percent. But in common parlance, most people tend to lean more toward the dictionary's secondary definition of "judgemental": "having an excessively critical point of view". (Granted, "discrimination" also has its evil twin.) For most of us, the word "judgement" provokes fear. Somebody is sure to fall on the wrong side of it, and I don't want it to be me. Therefore, it'll have to be someone else, who is just as unlikely to take the judgement lying down. All of us are judging this here as right and good, versus that there as wrong and bad. From there, it's a short hop to going out and killing others in defence of that viewpoint (vide Julius Malema). Certainly, going to war over one's beliefs is an extreme case. But once you posit a value, its logic ought to hold all the way to its extremes——no? Otherwise, we're stuck with arguing about degrees of right/wrong etc. The whole good/bad construction is notoriously shifty to begin with; but once you start parsing it in terms of permissible degrees, your only fallback is to claim objectivity for your personal tolerance level. From there, it's anybody's game. So in summary, I would say that yes, absolutely: it's crucial that we're able to distinguish that which causes harm from that which promotes dignity and compassionate activity. And I would also say, with equal emphasis, that we can trust ourselves to recognise and stop unnecessary suffering without having to egg ourselves on with notions of good vs. evil. It's entirely possible to interrupt harmful activities without having to judge their perpetrators as wrong and bad. Our tendency to proclaim ourselves right at the expense of those who, of necessity, must then be wrong, and who consequently feel obliged to make their point ever more forcefully—this strikes me as the genesis of the South African circus, Hurricane Subprime, war, and all the other ways we humans create suffering for ourselves and each other. It's the the radical separation of my interests from yours, I believe, that is the real source of what we're pleased to judge as "evil".
Jennifer, Everything I've said would argue against Campbell's equating politics with aggression. I don't believe that political action is only about furthering one's own interests. Or would you say Mandela is not political? Thanks, as always, for your engagement.
On behalf of Bernard: Your advice and sense of understanding the world around us is, in my view, an accurate assessment of opportunist behavior based on competing values that drive people and their beliefs. Well written, well done I think it is very easy to get caught up in the noise of the events and miss the reason why we are here now and where we should be going. We should try to collectively find discuss and advocate values that are sustainable for every person and our blue planet. I believe if we question our collective and individual intentions and evaluate these outcomes against our shared values that the group wishes to uphold. We may then re-consider or modify our proposed actions to stay in line with our collective values. I agree executive level actions or intended actions need to be questioned against opportunistic values, even though they meet the overall goal of upholding an agreed collective set of values. Single actions may however fail to uphold the values that have been subscribed to. We are all by nature opportunists and only learn later that we can only prosper in a country if we take social responsibility for the greater good of society. Is it perhaps harmful to society if we surround ourselves with people that think the same - as we will not challenge our actions and thus miss opportunities that allow us to shift our values to those of the collective as time goes by? What I am trying to say is that while actions do tell us about the individual’s or group’s achievement, they may only show the results and not how the result was achieved. Is the goal more important? Or how we get there? Perhaps real trust should only be gained by actions and rhetoric that demonstrate consistency to the agreed collective set of values especially in situations of dilemma. Should we perhaps define better processes that help to reduce the risk of value shift? On the question of the uncertain markets: does profit itself add value? For example, a run on a currency (Warren Buffet). If one buys large amounts of currency slowly, sells quickly and buys again quickly when a reserve bank promises to peg the currency against another, is this an example of adding value? Another example is carry trade, where one borrows at low interest rate and invests in higher interest rate. Or betting on future prices? Should profit have a moral value benefit for the greater society and if so how would one define it? These are some of my thoughts, Helen. I hope there are not too many typos. Greetings, Bernard
David Africa
Helen, Thank you for a much needed and welcome freshness in approach to the challenges we are experiencing and facing at the moment. It seems to me that the current political battles are mostly (fortunately not exclusively) about personality, concentration of power and the rush for dominance, and in the latter respect not even in the positive ideological sense. I listen to Nozizwe's argument and must agree with her on the reasons advanced for Mbeki's removal as president, but it seems to me that two issues need to be interrogated here- firstly the problems with Mbeki she outlines did not suddenly appear after the Nicholson judgement (strange that we're talking about the concept in the light of the judge's judgement) and are sufficient cause without the Nicholson judgement to have removed anyone from the presidency. If her reasoning stands we should have been rid of Mbeki immediately after Polokwane. Secondly, the Nicholson judgement has not been subjected to any appeals. having studied it in some depth it sounds like a well-reasoned finding, but it is certainly only the first finding in what is sure to be a lengthy legal battle. Given the support Zuma has received from within the alliance for his multiple court processes and appeals, to which he is entitled, I find this sudden rush to judgement on the part of the ANC rather strange. So much for letting the law take its course But let us get back to the issue you raise - the one of judgement. I have to agree with you that the times demand this more so now than in a very long time. It is required because it seems that the political dynamic in the country is driven not by those who deliberate and make judicious decisions but at least partly by those who shoot from the hip...and here I include Malema in the same (youthful) league as Terror Lekota. As much as the ANC leadership tries to convince us in words that they are in control of the situation, the reality seems very different to me. The evident chaos in developing a response to Terror's move (long foreseen the leadership claims) is indicative of this. Judgement requires deliberation, being judicious in deciding and an ability to map some possible outcomes to one's decisions. It seems the ANC was totally unprepared for this move. Again, judgement is required to interrogate the claims of those like Terror who now talk about 'the return of Vlakplaas' and the 'ANC using the methods of PW Botha" or for that matter "the ANC rejecting the Freedom Charter". Can anyone engaged in serious and judicious deliberation really come to these conclusions? Have we forgotten what Vlakplaas and PW Botha really meant to the people of this country? And can we support these claims of Terror's if we behave with deliberation and judiciously? I think not. It seems to me that Terror is hoping to catch a ride on the 'shoot-from-the-hip' bus and rely on the lack of judgement so prevalent in the political class today in order to kickstart his new political party.
interesting that even with your article discussing the need to breath, take some time to discern, to wisely "judge", to "discriminate", to see the trees AND the forest, to avoid just repeating our own arguments, we do it all the same.
LOL. But I think what is also being expressed is people who have tried to think through what's happening, and then don't have any way to be heard, anyone to check it out with. I've never had such a response before. What does it mean that a funny little blog becomes an avenue for personal expression? Looks like judgement, discrimination and discernment also need community and conversation to live and be productive.
Posted on behalf of Peter Raabe: The economic fiasco in the US has many of my students wondering about what went wrong in the wonderful world of free enterprise. I tell them, in a nutshell: The problem with any free market capitalist economy is that the invisible hand is always connected to the arms of greedy people. Cheers, Peter
Posted on behalf of Robert Walsh: thanx for your good thoughts here, Helen. I agree with your idea that things like "the financial crisis" and "chaos in the credit markets" and "depressions" and "repressions" and other such circumlocutions must be seen as an objectifying perspective on what is ultimately and primarily a very personal phenomenon originating in personal individuals whose values are simply screwed up, led astray by a culture and a social consciousness in which these corrupt values are entrenched, leading the deluded to value profit over the personal, and thus remaining consumers stuck in a materialistic mire where what one has is viewed as more important than who that person is as a person. For the many common, everyday persons, is there a way out of the labyrinth of delusion that has developed and been perpetuated over the ages by the few men and women who have wielded and do wield socio-political power, whose sense of well-being is dependent on dominating and controlling others, a thirst for power and domination which has culminated in our present personal, interpersonal, social, cultural, political, and armed conflicts? I hope so....

Leave Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.