Sept 25, 2012 – The Poor & Their Illusion Of Power
60 years ago, Frantz Fanon (1925—1961) made a profound statement with the publication of Black Skin, White Masks. The intellectual revolutionary had tellingly argued that the most urgent task of the age wasn’t necessarily a definitive settlement of the race conflict, but a brutal confrontation with the challenge of the moment: reducing human suffering. naijagists.com
Today his message couldn’t be more poignant. The time has now come again for the poor to demand compassionate concessions from their masters. In short, the time has come to re-negotiate the terms of the relations between the master and his servant, for there can be no doubt that the modern world has sunk frighteningly into an abyss of appalling inequality. Perhaps it is in sub-Saharan Africa – where democracy has produced nothing but widespread deficit -’ that we most notice this social gulf.
Do not misunderstand me, however. It doesn’t appear that poverty could ever be wished away. The poor will always be with us. But it is important to consider what it means for the poor to trick themselves into an illusion of power. And to consequently sabotage their own revolutionary efforts even before they are attempted.
The poor are their own enemies; they feast on one another! Let me show you what I mean. Wars are called by the affluent but largely fought by the offspring of the ‘common’ people. Who gets killed mostly? The answer is self-evident. Who constitutes the rank and file of all military and paramilitary bodies? Again, the question answers itself.
Speaking of the last case, let me dwell only briefly on the Lagos State contraption called Kick Against Indiscipline. For poor shop-less traders scattered all over the state, the fear of these KAI tin gods is now the beginning of wisdom. The same goes for officers of the Lagos State Traffic Management Authority, except that in their case their worshippers are drivers on Lagos roads. This also calls to mind the way in which commercial bus drivers go out of their way to reserve front seats for free-riding police officers and soldiers. As ‘powerful’ people, these men and women must be courted for kingly favours.
Of this lot, however, the activities of KAI officials ‘deserve to be singled out for utter condemnation. Following a cocktail of laws lately served to Lagosians, overzealous KAI officials have now become more than a nuisance to the economic interests of fellow Lagosians in misery. There is no doubt that the KAI officer, in his miserably drab uniform and hungry mien, is no different from the indigent mother of six whose ware of tomatoes or poultry he has just kicked into the gutter. Presumably on the orders of a ‘reforming’ governor? Wise is the slave who when sent on an errand discharges himself like a freeborn.
And for the police officer or soldier: Is he not the one called in to tear-gas or shoot at people protesting legitimately against governmental or corporate iniquity? Thirty-four black South African miners in one fell swoop! Yet he lives in near penury among the same people whom his line of duty compels him to attack. His poor take-home is used as excuse for his gross corruption. Yet with two degrees, one has been without a decent income for upwards of two years, but a cowardly Nigerian state takes no notice. Because one refuses to take to arms? Meanwhile, militants are receiving fat dollar cheques just as Boko Haramists continue to inspire fear in the mind of the ‘powerful’.
Let’s look again from another angle. Gentrification. And a bulldozer driver is called into action.
Of course, he’s a poor man not a titled man of property and big business. How does he feel running that monster through the houses of people with whom he ought to feel an affinity? Does he wear a grin of infantile mischievousness while bulldozing his way through? Is he in fact Esu‘s excited errand boy? What about the motley crowd of ‘tax collectors’ unleashed on Lagos road users and traders all in the name of generating revenue and creating jobs for repulsive party thugs? As a pack of hyenas rip their prey apart from limb to limb, these agberos and tax agents squeeze the last naira out of their hapless victims. Their boss has to live large at all costs. Again, at the workplace, the poor are unable to rise beyond their primitive instinct for survival.
Consequently, rather than demand fairer wages from their master, they ruin time by bickering among themselves as each man plots to get into the boss’s good books. Althusser was dead right on ideology. It is the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.
When the poor attack one another, the truculent party manages to trick himself into the illusion that he is powerful. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Yet how are we to help the ghetto landlord realise that in the larger scheme of things, he’s really no different from his one-roomed tenant? Or the bribery-bred lowly civil servant that the extorted never gives with a prayerful heart? But let these examples suffice for the moment.
Insofar as I have this unsimple understanding of the phenomenon in question, I am surely no poor man. Earlier, I had renounced my mental membership of society’s sorely abused class, and my material movement away from the throng must now follow. Yet in speaking thus, I’m anxious not to be misunderstood or to give offence.
Like Fanon, I take the light into which I have come not as a destination but as only the beginning of a journey towards helping to bring about a more humane world. In this respect, the call must now appear long overdue for the emergence of a New Left coalition. For too long this melange of alternative traditions has allowed the Neo-Liberal lie of a so-called end of history to thrive so much that it has almost become a grand narrative. To halt this disastrous advance should be the most urgent task of our age. And Fanon has clearly shown the way.
About the author: Adedara is a postgraduate student at the University of Lagos