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Ubuntu for a better world January 22, 2007

Posted by Andreas in anarchism, Politics, Society, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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I attended an International Institute for Self-Management (IIS) conference about cooperates a little while ago. It was a very small gathering and I only managed to sit in on some of the morning sessions (I was supposed to be at work – don’t tell my boss!), but the overall experience was very inspiring.

There were contributions and discussions about the co-op movement and co-operative experiments in South Africa, Europe and Latin America, all within the context of globalisation. Participants came from southern Africa and further afield.

I am convinced, now more than ever, that a revitalisation and strengthening of the cooperative “mode” of human existence, both in terms of interactions between people and in terms of our relationship with the non-human world, is the only way in which humanity can survive in a just, equitable, ethical and sustainable fashion.

I say “revitalisation and strengthening”, because even our current world is fundamentally based and dependent on co-operative human behaviour. It’s just that we’re not usually conscious of the fact and are frequently actively discouraged from acknowledging it.

Think about it, our society would utterly collapse in a day if it wasn’t for the unpaid labour of billions of women (and to a much lesser degree men) who sustain our children and families and thereby continuously reproduce our very civilisation. The relationship is generally a co-operative one (between a woman and her partner and between women and all of society). Similarly, if wage slaves around the globe were to work strictly according to their job descriptions from tomorrow onwards, every factory and all of “the economy” would come to a grinding halt pretty quickly.

Without the underlying and fundamentally human co-operative spirit there could not be any sort of cohabitation in cities and communities, there would be no group sporting activities and no shared rounds of drinks at your local pub.

We are meant to believe that competition is the dominant social force in the world, that the “market” will determine who among us are the fittest and most worthy of the lion’s share of reward in terms of wealth, power and influence. We are meant to believe that because science and evolutionary theory show that that is the way nature functions, human animal function this way, too.

But not even Darwin ignored the fact that co-operation is a factor in natural evolution – some of his followers, particularly those who applied his ideas in the social arena, greatly overstated the importance of competitive behaviour.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise that co-operation is ubiquitous and vital in the natural world. Think of beehives, think of a pride of lions hunting, think of a multitude of other intricate collaborations both within and between species.

One of the things that was raised at the conference was that in South Africa there is a very long and deep-rooted co-operative tradition – that of ubuntu, the concept that a person is a person only within the context of human community.

Ubuntu encompasses such concepts as human solidarity, consensus decision-making and conflict resolution, a “willingness to sacrifice for the common good” and “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”. Very similar, in many ways, to the anarchists’ guiding principle of mutual aid.

One of the beautiful things about ubuntu is its spiritual aspect – “the idea that we’re part of a long chain of human experience, connecting us to previous and future generations”.

Appeals to ubuntu are, of course, fashionable among South African politicians and even capitalist corporations, often in the most meaning-sapping and cliched ways. Poor South Africans, however, have always practiced ubuntu and they have survived many hardships because of ubuntu.

Is it really so idealistic and unrealistic to believe that we could make the concept of ubuntu into a fundamental pillar of our society (again!), one that replaces the destructive and cursed non-ethic of destruction, dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest, devil take the hindmost? I don’t think so.

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