The Promise of Revolutionary Humanism

Professor David Harvey counts himself as one of the human beings who believe that they can construct a better world for themselves than that which they had inherited. In this article based on his book Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, he makes some suggestions for how that might be achieved…

Illustration by Ivar Martinsson

Illustration by Ivar Martinsson

The Promise of Revolutionary Humanism by David Harvey

From time immemorial there have been human beings who have believed that they could construct, individually or collectively, a better world for themselves than that which they had inherited. Quite a lot of them also came to believe that in the course of so doing it might be possible to remake themselves as different if not better people. I count myself among those who believe in both these propositions.

The belief that we can through conscious thought and action change both the world we live in and ourselves for the better defines a humanist tradition. The secular version of this tradition overlaps with and has often been inspired by religious teachings on dignity, tolerance, compassion, love and respect for others. Humanism, both religious and secular, is a world view that measures its achievements in terms of the liberation of human potentialities, capacities and powers. It subscribes to the Aristotelian vision of the uninhibited flourishing of individuals and the construction of ‘the good life’.

There are plenty of contemporary signs that the enlightened humanist tradition is alive and well, perhaps even staging a comeback. This is the spirit that clearly animates the hordes of people employed around the world in NGOs and other charitable institutions whose mission is to improve the life chances and prospects of the less fortunate. There are even vain attempts to dress up capital itself in the humanist garb of what some corporate leaders like to call Conscious Capitalism, a species of entrepreneurial ethics that looks suspiciously like conscience laundering along with sensible proposals to improve worker efficiency by seeming to be nice to them. All the nasty things that happen are absorbed as unintentional collateral damage in an economic system motivated by the best of ethical intentions.

There are two well-known undersides to all of this. The first is that, however noble the universal sentiments expressed at the outset, it has time and again proved hard to stop the universality of humanist claims being perverted for the benefit of particular interests, factions and classes. This is the problem that has bedevilled the doctrines of human rights enshrined in a UN declaration that privileges the individual rights and private property of liberal theory at the expense of collective relations and cultural claims. This is what turns the ideals and practices of freedom into a tool of governmentality for the reproduction and perpetuation of capitalist class affluence and power.

The second problem is that the enforcement of any particular system of beliefs and rights always involves some disciplinary power, usually exercised by the state or some other institutionalised authority backed by force. The UN declaration implies state enforcement of individual human rights when the state so often is first in line violating those rights.

The difficulty with the humanist tradition in short is that it does not internalise a good understanding of its own inescapable internal contradictions, most clearly captured in the contradiction between freedom and domination. The result is that humanist leanings and sentiments often get presented these days in a somewhat off-hand and embarrassed way, except when their position is safely backed by religious doctrine and authority. The result is what Frantz Fanon characterised as ‘insipid humanitarianism’.

There is plenty of evidence of that manifest in its recent revival. The bourgeois and liberal tradition of secular humanism forms a mushy ethical base for largely ineffective moralising about the sad state of the world and the mounting of equally ineffective campaigns against the plights of chronic poverty and environmental degradation. The growth of the charitable industrial complex mainly reflects the need to increase ‘conscience laundering’ for a world’s oligarchy that is doubling its wealth and power every few years in the midst of economic stagnation. Their work has done little or nothing in aggregate to deal with human degradation and dispossession or proliferating environmental degradation. This is structurally so because anti-poverty organisations are required to do their work without ever interfering in the further accumulation of the wealth from which they derive their sustenance. If everyone who worked in an anti-poverty organisation converted overnight to an anti-wealth politics we would soon find ourselves living in a very different world.

There is, I believe, a crying need to articulate a secular revolutionary humanism that can ally with those religious-based humanisms to counter alienation in its many forms and to radically change the world from its capitalist ways. There is a strong and powerful – albeit problematic – tradition of secular revolutionary humanism both with respect to both theory and political practice. It is very different from bourgeois liberal humanism. It clearly recognises that the prospects for a happy future for most are invariably marred by the inevitability of dictating the unhappiness of some others. A dispossessed financial oligarchy which cannot any more partake of caviar and champagne lunches on their yachts moored off the Bahamas will doubtless complain at their diminished fates and fortunes in a more egalitarian world. We may, as good liberal humanists, even feel a bit sorry for them. Revolutionary humanists steel themselves against that thought.

Consider, as one example, the revolutionary humanism of someone like Frantz Fanon. Fanon was a psychiatrist working in hospitals in the midst of a bitter and violent anti-colonial war [in Algeria]. Fanon wrote in depth about the struggle for freedom and liberty on the part of colonised peoples against the colonisers. His analysis, though specific to the Algerian case, illustrates the sorts of issues that arise in any liberation struggle, including those between capital and labour. It incorporates the additional dimensions of racial, cultural and colonial oppressions and degradations giving rise to an ultra-violent revolutionary situation from which no peaceful exit seems possible.

The foundational question for Fanon is how to recover a sense of humanity on the basis of the dehumanising practices and experiences of colonial domination. ‘As soon as you and your fellow men are cut down like dogs,’ he writes in The Wretched of the Earth, ‘there is no other solution but to use every means available to re-establish your weight as a human being. You must therefore weigh as heavily as possible on your torturer’s body so that his wits, which have wandered off somewhere, can at last be restored to their human dimension.’ Revolution, for Fanon, was not simply about the transfer of power from one segment of society to another. It entailed the reconstruction of humanity.

Fanon, of course, shocks many liberal humanists with his embrace of a necessary violence and his rejection of compromise. In a divided world, where the colonial power defines the colonised as subhuman and evil by nature, compromise is impossible. ‘The theory of the “absolute evil of the colonist” is in response to the theory of the “absolute evil of the native”.’ Lacking a dialectical relation between the two, the only way to break down the difference is through violence. There is nothing mushy about such a programme. As Fanon saw clearly: at the individual level, violence is a cleansing force. It rids the colonised of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude. It emboldens them and restores their self-confidence.

I do not raise the question of violence here, any more than did Fanon, because I am or he was in favour of it. He highlighted it because the logic of human situations so often deteriorates to a point where there is no other option. Even Gandhi acknowledged that. But the option has potentially dangerous consequences. Revolutionary humanism has to offer some kind of philosophical answer to this difficulty, some solace in the face of incipient tragedies. While the ultimate humanist task may be, as Aeschylus put it 2,500 years ago, ‘to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world’, this cannot be done without confronting and dealing with the immense violence that underpins the colonial and neo-colonial order.

But is the social order of capital any different in essence from its colonial manifestations? That order has certainly sought to distance itself at home from the callous calculus of colonial violence. It had to disguise at home the far too blatant inhumanity it demonstrated abroad. ‘Over there’ things could be put out of sight and hearing. Only now, for example, is the vicious violence of the British suppression of the Mau Mau movement in Kenya in the 1960s being acknowledged in full. When capital drifts close to such inhumanity at home it typically elicits a similar response to that of the colonised. To the degree that it embraced racialised violence at home, as it did in the United States, it produced movements like the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam along with leaders like Malcolm X.

But what Marx makes so clear in Capital is the daily violence constituted in the domination of capital over labour in the marketplace and in the act of production as well as on the terrain of daily life. How easy it is to take descriptions of contemporary labour conditions in, for example, the electronics factories of Shenzhen, the clothing factories of Bangladesh or the sweatshops of Los Angeles and insert them into Marx’s classic chapter on ‘the working day’ in Capital and not notice the difference.

Oligarchic capitalist class privilege and power are taking the world in a similar direction almost everywhere. Political power backed by intensifying surveillance, policing and militarised violence is being used to attack the well-being of whole populations deemed expendable and disposable. We are daily witnessing the systematic dehumanisation of disposable people. Ruthless oligarchic power is now being exercised through a totalitarian democracy directed to immediately disrupt, fragment and suppress any coherent anti-wealth political movement (such as Occupy). The arrogance and disdain with which the affluent now view those less fortunate than themselves, even when (particularly when) vying with each other behind closed doors to prove who can be the most charitable of them all, are notable facts of our present condition.

The ‘empathy gap’ between the oligarchy and the rest is immense and increasing. The oligarchs mistake superior income for superior human worth and their economic success as evidence of their superior knowledge of the world (rather than their superior command over accounting tricks and legal niceties). They do not know how to listen to the plight of the world because they cannot and wilfully will not confront their role in the construction of that plight. They do not and cannot see their own contradictions. The billionaire Koch brothers give charitably to a university like MIT even to the point of building a beautiful day-care centre for the deserving faculty there while simultaneously lavishing untold millions in financial support for a political movement (headed by the Tea Party) that denies welfare, nutritional supplements and day care for millions living in or close to absolute poverty.

It is in a political climate such as this that the violent and unpredictable eruptions that are occurring all around the world on an episodic basis (from Turkey and Egypt to Brazil and Sweden in 2013 alone) look more and more like the prior tremors for a coming earthquake that will make the post-colonial revolutionary struggles of the 1960s look like child’s play. If there is an end to capital, then this is surely from where it will come and its immediate consequences are unlikely to prove happy for anyone. This is what Fanon so clearly teaches.

The only hope is that the mass of humanity will see the danger before the rot goes too far and the human and environmental damage becomes too great to repair. In the face of what Pope Francis rightly dubs ‘the globalisation of indifference’, the global masses must, as Fanon so neatly puts it, ‘first decide to wake up, put on their thinking caps and stop playing the irresponsible game of Sleeping Beauty’. If Sleeping Beauty awakes in time, then we might be in for a more fairytale- like ending.

David Harvey is a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology &Geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), and the author of numerous books. He has been teaching Karl Marx’s Capital for over 40 years.