A Neat Inversion

As an American visiting South Africa I was struck by the near ubiquity of domestic servants among white South Africans. Households that are in all other ways decidedly middle class have at least one and often two or three domestic servants. This bespeaks the enormous inequality of wealth that prevails in that country, one of the most unequal in the world. It is, of course, incompatible with a healthy, just society, and it goes hand in hand with another striking phenomenon there: the prevalence of security systems, razor wire, electric fences, etc. protecting nearly every white home (and those of wealthy blacks, Indians, and coloreds too).

System-wide, it is not a pretty scenario: extreme poverty creating a huge pool of people desperate to be nannies and gardeners. On the level of the individual household, though, the matter is more complicated. Sometimes these workers practically become part of the family. Is it wrong to hire them and thereby participate in the capitalist system of privilege and exploitation? Or is it one’s duty as a privileged person to offer employment to impoverished people who are desperate for it? In South Africa, as in many countries with a high degree of wealth inequality, many people consider it a social obligation to hire servants if you can afford them – even if you don’t really need to. It is incumbent upon a person of means to take care of the less fortunate.

The same debate applies more generally, to the realm of philanthropy, charity, and any work that directly benefits the less fortunate without changing the system. A leftist critique of these goes something like this: “Sure, treating the domestic help well, giving to charity, housing the homeless, even walking an old lady across the street… these are all nice, but they do nothing to change the exploitative, ecocidal system of global capitalism. On the contrary, charity, philanthropy, and individual acts of kindness only perpetuate that system. Here’s how:

(1) By ameliorating some of its worst consequences, they make capitalism all the more palatable.

(2) They divert altruistic energy toward relatively innocuous goals instead of toward addressing the systemic foundations of injustice.

(3) They appease the conscience and make one’s own complicity more acceptable.

(4) They generate a codependent relationship with the needy, in which the charitable enterprise depends for its survival on the very conditions it ostensibly seeks to address.

It occurs to me that the above critique invites a precise inversion, which might go like this: “All of your social and political activism, your focus on the big picture, the system, etc. is an escape from dealing with the immediate needs of the people right in front of your face. It diverts energy away from your human responsibilities, enabling you to be an unforgiving, callous person, an inattentive parent, a bad neighbor, absolving yourself of responsibility in those realms because, after all, you are busy doing the Big Important Things. It is just an ideological cover for your failure to look after your brother.” Here is the inversion of the radical’s critique, point by point:

(1) By heartlessly failing to respond to the worst effects of capitalism, it makes capitalism intolerable, thereby justifying radicalism’s own premises.

(2) Political radicalism diverts altruistic energy toward idealistic, unattainable goals, instead of toward meeting real and present human needs.

(3) It allows the radical to absolve himself of guilt over failing to take care of his fellows, with the excuse that, after all, I’m working on changing the system.

(4) It generates a codependent relationship with the oppressors: their persecution validates the worldview of the radical, whose identity depends on the very institutions he seeks to overthrow.

To these four I would like to add a fifth critique (and its inversion) that applies more to the level of NGOs and development aid, but also indirectly to the mentality of the rescuer in general.

(5) Charity subsumes local self-sufficiency, local cultures of reciprocity and mutual aid, cultural traditions and identity, and so on under the “helper’s” worldview that says in effect, “I know what you need better than you do, and can provide it better than you can.” It is an instrument of colonization and hegemony that disrespects and disempowers the very people it purports to help.

(5) Radical political ideologies are themselves born in the context of, and in reaction to, the dominant culture, and are still the creatures of that culture. They take the aspirations and desires of the oppressed and feed them through an ideological filter devised by an intellectual elite. Operating by them, one risks imposing a subtle form of colonization and hegemony over the very people one purports to liberate.

Reading the radical critique and its inversion, I agree with both sides! What might be a synthesis of these poles?

First, much of the difference between these two positions stems from one’s assumptions about whether deep systemic change is even possible. When I think of the person paying his servants well, giving to charity, and fulfilling the obligations of wealth as prescribed by bourgeois morality, I am reminded of the ancient Chinese ideal of the Confucian gentleman, discharging the duties of his station with humanity and integrity. Confucian thought, as I understand it, does not question the earthly order in which there will always be the emperor, the nobles, the officials, the gentlefolk, and so on down the line to the beggars; therefore, it is for each person to seek the most enlightened enactment of his or her role. As such, Confucianism, like similar medieval philosophies, could be said to be an enabling ideology of feudalism: the social order is ordained by heaven.

What if, more than an enabling philosophy, it is also a description of reality? What if there is some kind of karmic necessity for every possible life situation to coexist on earth, so that the karmic path of each person, and the human drama generally, might unfold toward its completion? I hesitate to consign a tradition as rich and nuanced as Confucianism to a ready category (an enabler of feudalism) defined within Western political thought. I think there is more to the Confucian view – and by extension, the inversion of the radical critique outlined above – than meets the eye.

The Confucian view I have described would seem profoundly conservative in its political implications: the worldly order enjoys a divine mandate: God has made some into blue-bloods and others into beggars. Who are we to interfere in the divine order of things? However, inherent in the idea that the present order has been necessary for the human drama to play out is an evolutive implication: that once it has played out, the present order becomes no longer necessary. It holds the potential for a turning of the age, and indeed that concept lurks within traditional Chinese thought as the millenarian ideal of the Tai Ping, or great peace. Radical social change was inescapably part of such ideals: witness for example the call for egalitarian land reform in the Zhouli (a Confucian classic) and in the writings of the Confucian/Taoist sage Mencius.

What these classics say to me is that humanity and compassion on the level of personal interactions between the privileged and the oppressed, between the fortunate and the unfortunate, need not be separate from, nor opposed to, actions to change the system of oppression.

The two positions I’ve described each harbor hidden assumptions about the nature of change that set them into irreconcilable opposition. The radical critique gives the system primacy over the individuals that make it up, and concludes that change must originate on the system level. The opposing position gives primacy to the base level and doesn’t recognize that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In truth, the system arises from the totality of its constituents, and then conditions its constituents to perpetuate the system. System and constituents form a unified whole. That means that disruption at any level is equally revolutionary.

Perhaps we could look at acts of direct human-level compassion as complements to, not substitutes for, action on a social or political level. I can offer two reasons why. For one thing, they come from the same place: a desire to serve the well-being of something beyond the separate self. What we practice on a personal level conditions us to act from the same place generally. To choose care for another over self-interest, for example to sacrifice comfort and security to serve an aging parent or disabled child for years and years, takes a kind of courage, trust, and fortitude – no different than the courage required to confront injustice, the trust required to make peace, or the fortitude required to persevere in the face of political setbacks.

Secondly, consider what lies at the foundation of the system of oppression. In South Africa, a man from the townships told me that the reason his people acquiesce so readily to the economic status quo is that, after five hundred years of colonialism, they have almost no self-esteem or independent identity left. They hardly dare believe they deserve better. No longer embracing ubuntu, the young generation in particular fills the void left by the destruction of their traditional story of the people (my words not his) with consumerism, individualism, and all the rest. They, like most people living in civilization, have been infected by the Story of Separation, within which our economic system, our exploitative relationship to nature, our deterrence-based criminal justice system, agricultural system, medical practices, and so forth make sense.

One of the main themes I’ve explored in my recent work is that any act that disrupts or contravenes the Story of Separation is also a political act. Any act of forgiveness, generosity, courageous service, or unconditional love violates the basic assumptions of the world-view that underpins our civilization. After all, what kind of life experience generates the fear, the insecurity, the desire to dominate and control that motivate our politics, economy, criminal punishment system, and so on? By offering people exceptions to this kind of life experience, we erode the foundation of our system.

This includes interactions with people on lower (or higher) socioeconomic positions. If the relationship is one of genuine dignity and respect (as opposed to patronizing “help”), it weakens the psychological and narrative foundations of the system, contrary to the radical’s critique. Imagine yourself as a desperately poor slum-dweller. What will be your experience of the world, your view of yourself and human nature, if you are consistently treated with coldness, dehumanization, and contempt (whether patronizing or cruel)? You will probably internalize this treatment, becoming resentfully docile, or exploding out in violent reaction to it. If we want a different result, we must create different conditions.


  1. Thank you for this, Charles.
    I’ve been struggling with this. If I’m honest, when a call to create something beautiful comes at an individual level, I often hesitate to follow it, claiming justification in a system level focus. Likewise, when a call to create something beautiful comes at a system level, I often hesitate to follow it, claiming justification in an individual level focus.
    Recently I was in LA at a Marianne Williamson lecture. She spoke about how she had ran for political office because after many years of focusing on shifting humanity by working on enlightening the souls of individuals, she recognised it wasn’t enough. For her, Ghandi and MLK Jr were not political activists, they were spiritual activists – and their work was to enlighten the soul of society (directly). Her belief is that a focus on BOTH was necessary. This inspired me and brought my attention back to a systemic level where my heart is often called, but I typically ignore. However, there has been some still wriggling doubt as her decision struck me as inspired, but philosophically I couldn’t see how or why.
    This really nailed it down for me:
    “System and constituents form a unified whole. That means that disruption at any level is equally revolutionary.”
    I had considered the system as the whole that emerged FROM its constituents. I hadn’t considered the system and its constituents to be equal parts of the whole. Now that you point it out, it is clear and obvious for me.
    I think each of the arguments you laid out are likely often used as an excuse for inaction. (They are for me anyway.) They are false rationalisations for what really is fear to put my head above the habitual or social pulpit and follow my heart’s truth.
    With this new clarity, my fear will have less places to hide.
    Thank you.

  2. I see the problem better with your insights. In practice I think we have to be patient and not rush in with our outside solutions, especially where the poor feel part of he family. Hopefully the people there will come to see it better and solve it all.

  3. I’d like to add something here. The old story has been pretty consistently ignoring and underplaying the contribution of women. Of course it’s called HIStory. One of the reasons that I want to connect with Charles’ work is that he is the first man I have EVER heard saying that the unpaid work his ex-wife does (raising their child) is equal in value and importance to the paid work he does (touring, public speaking, writing). I am 52 years old. It’s been a long wait to hear a man acknowledge the truth of that, from his heart, as I saw Charles do. As more and more men feel the truth of that, new stories are bound to emerge and resonate. The small actions will begin to be acknowledged as vital and important.
    Women’s contributions to the story are overwhelmingly at that very local level. The focus has never been placed there. We don’t really have much understanding of the influence of those “small” actions. We are taught to focus on the Big Story, which is almost exclusively a male story.
    Even some amazing women’s stories soon become all about men. Myths like Eve’s defiance of authority in the garden of eden became a story about man’s exile from paradise; Mary’s miraculous conception became a story about her son. In a different kind of story, Ghandi said he learned everything from his wife. His name and face are known all over the world and she remains invisible. This has something to do with the higher value the old stories place on boys and men. And that our currenty patterns teach men not to listen to women.
    This is funny but true: when my son was a teenager, if I shouted his name (e.g. to call him for his dinner) he didn’t hear me. If I lowered my voice and shouted in a mock man’s voice, he heard every time!

  4. South Africa’s martyred “father of black consciousness” is Steve Biko who was killed in 1977 while being held without charge in police custody. He wrote about what he called a problem of black “inferiority complex” produced by hundreds of years of white subjugation. He also defined a certain “superiority complex” evident even among the best whites in his context: his would be allies in the struggle against apartheid. Although welcoming their resources, Steve argued that blacks should not rely on the leadership of white liberals and should instead pursue a self reliant path to free themselves. It reminds me of the feminist movement in the 1970s when women chose to caucus among themselves leaving some men feeling “left out” if otherwise supportive. In retrospective, it’s easy to see now how Biko was right and the white liberals were wrong. Its harder for us to accept how these principles might apply today to North Americans who want to lead the changes needed to address the problems we’ve generated. Biko’s writings are best collected in a book called I WRITE WHAT I LIKE (Univ of Chicago) where his thinking about ‘superiority complex’ is outlined in an essay called “Black Souls in White Skins?”

  5. I really liked this: “…any act that disrupts or contravenes the Story of Separation is also a political act. Any act of forgiveness, generosity, courageous service, or unconditional love violates the basic assumptions of the world-view that underpins our civilization.” Every act of ordinary human decency resonates somewhere in the universe whether anyone notices it or not. Also, there is no true contradiction between the systemic and the individual. The former specializes in processes seen from afar objectively, the latter how they are experienced internally. Each infers and requires the existence of the other to make any sense at all. I’ve seen people as diverse as Fredric Jameson and Ken Wilber make the same point and it works for me.

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