After spending 2,5 weeks somewhat ineffectively slaving away at my essays. I had fully completed 2 of the 4 I had to hand in, one of which I was a bit proud of, which is rare for me. Both having finished an essay in time and being proud of it. With NYE approaching it was time to spend time with friends, and lavish myself on the luxurious debauchery which western society so readily supplies to those in want. While my fellow countrymen burnt up close to 70 million fireworks in the night sky, I enjoyed some healthy love & inebriation.
However blessed I am to be studying at a university, there are little words that can express properly the awe I felt to be able to hold my 4 month old niece in my arms. To share joy, laughter and tears with my family and friends.
Still reeling from the debaucherous onslaught I met Akwasie and Bob on the bus to London. Akwasie is an Asante from Ghana, who came to Holland as a refugee. Bob a rastaman who has hung up his smoking boots.
After exchanging some true history, that of lived people, with power relations stripped away. They got to talking about faith. My sceptical mind was doubtful of their claims of different dimensions. I did not deny them, I merely stated what I thought was more likely.
Afterwards we were sharing stories of miracles and dreams. After telling them stories of several dreams and good fortunes I had experienced in my life, they convinced me that I should believe.
So here I now stand in front of you a believer. I believe, the exact nature of what I believe in is unknown. However I believe, that if I ask for help and show gratitude, I am more likely to receive help and notice the shape it takes. Not a dogma but a psychological help. A rational choice.
Part of what pushed me over the edge of irrationality (as some might call it), was the incredibly pleasant experience of meeting strangers on the bus, opening my eyes to see and be seen, and then experience that sparkle of lively connection.
Is that what Amanda Palmer is talking about?
I am not proposing we throw all rational beliefs aside, although we will need to get rid of some now deemed rational. I do propose we start realizing that the world we live in is the world we commonly create. Some of the old thought structures and knowledge structures function to reproduce specific type of people and social realities. Ways of living that are woefully inadequate for the challenges facing us.
The halls of my institution are populated with deeply cynical people. You would think an institution brimming with idealism, would similarly be brimming with optimism. Perhaps the undergraduates are different, but generally the postgraduates have received a healthy dose of pessimism to counter their idealism, resulting in what some hesitantly call realism.
Of course most of these people persist, so they must share some kind of belief in the efficacy of studying the world. To take it back specifically to my field of social anthropology of development, most of my professors (and classmates) believe however flawed development might be it can be done better in the future.
Interestingly text after text I read, implies or states outright that its better to deliver development than to be developed. The latest version of this in a text describing the development community in Nepal, where development equals ‘bikas’, a concept of metropolitan achievement as opposed to the idealized village life. Villagers often long not for the bounties of development (school, hospitals) but aspire to become one of the salaried staff of a development agency.
So it is that many of my classmates will end up delivering development to global ‘villagers’ aspiring to be deliverers of development themselves. No doubt this delivery, will be done more sustainably, more participatorily, etc. than before when we came as bearers of civilization to the savages of the world. The essential project will not change however. To bring as many people under the doubtful aegis of capitalist inclusion. Where each has the right to wage private war for economic success.
Am I the ultimate idealist or the ultimate pessimist? An old friend came to visit me, and showed me this letter:
I wish to be swayed by the optimism in this letter or the optimism in this book by Steven Pinker “The better angels of our nature” which states that violence has been steadily declining. Luckily I am. Sometimes.
Sometimes I feel the world is merrily skipping to paradise while whistling sunny tunes. Sometimes I feel we are wrestling ourselves over the edge of an abyss in such a gut-wrenching way that not even the spectacularity of our catastrophic demise will make a dent of impression upon the stars which gaze down unperturbed, whose path along the skies often makes my small worries subside.
But having to defend my psychological state with facts and figures somehow feels awkwardly wrong. When I question development, I don’t say I am against epidemiological diseases slowly being wiped out or the level of violence going down. I simply don’t think that our economic system deserves all the credit for this. And that it is possible to improve upon it.
To the cynics, I feel your pain, we are forced into a system we did not create, and in the race to succeed, it seems we have a choice. Fail and fall destitute, or succeed and reproduce the structures you detest in slightly different ways.
The funny thing is, is that I feel that positivity is the only chance for change we have. I guess that makes me the grimmest of optimists alive. However I feel this change lies mainly in connecting what we treasure most with those structures that produce it.
So while it is nice that the Gates foundation has helped to eradicate Polio among other diseases (more than nice for those healthy people that otherwise would suffer it). It does not justify more money flowing out of Africa than into it. Nor does it justify the poor healthcare system in the US, the richest nation in the world. It also doesn’t justify aid, when this aid prevents local government structures to be strengthened.
That the global middle class is growing, doesn’t justify growing inequality. It also doesn’t solve climate change. That the world becomes richer, doesn’t mean it becomes happier.
Now I hope that my cynical nature prevents me from presenting a false picture of a happy human life without pain or an easy road towards it. Nor do I wish to deny the billions of people living in poverty a way out of their poverty. I just doubt that the capitalist neoliberal project is the best way forward for achieving this.
What we treasure most? Everybody should have a say in this. I could venture an answer, something along the lines of safety, security, food, shelter, love. Nothing too imaginative.
We could employ a great deal more imagination though in the way we envision a way to these things. Democracy in its current form is less than 100 years old. The human race in its current form is several hundred thousand years old, and still evolving. Do we really believe the world today is the last station for our societal structures?
As I said earlier, I believe the world is shaped by our common actions and beliefs. So either we let our cynicism drive us towards an early end or dystopian future, or we harness the strength of imagination and togetherness to create a future we want. One decided by all, not by the few.