On capitalism – Aaron

November 10th, 2015

The notion that money is a potential means to happiness, not happiness itself is one I’ve found resonating with me more and more of late. Perhaps it is because I’ve found some of my favourite moments, during my twenty-two years of life, not just during my time here in Chilanga, have little to do with the capitalist system. Or so I think. At least on the surface, I’m able to draw few links between enjoying the natural world, with all it has to offer, and the capitalist system that steams ahead, a force that is seemingly unstoppable.
Perhaps it is because I’ve been learning increasingly disturbing and downright upsetting consequences our current predominant global economic system. These are found within texts such as Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, and less directly, fictional creations such as David Egger’s The Circle, to draw upon two recent examples that I’ve explored. This is a system not only responsible for the degradation of our only Earth, but is also driving often driving social injustice, on a global scale.
If I place myself in my own shoes prior to my first experience in the Chilanga region – back in June of 2014, I was here for 5 weeks as a student engaged in an experiential learning course – I can recall some of these thoughts beginning to percolate in my mind. Undoubtedly, this will undoubtedly be a familiar anecdote to many. Picture me, a middle-class university student, in the latter half of a liberal arts undergrad – I studied history and development studies. In the past few years, I have been introduced to notions of socialism, community-driven development, colonialism, and neoliberalism. I’ve been learning how to take a critical eye to everything “mainstream” – particularly the news – and I garner a significant portion of my world news from equal parts Daily Show and Colbert Report.
When the second semester of my third year gets underway, I begin sniffing around for an opportunity to really experience “community development”. I jump at the opportunity presented by Praxis Malawi, seeing not only as a chance to both apply various aspects of my studies, but perhaps even more importantly a prime experience to garner important learnings about a Global South context, myself, and all else in between. As I learn more about Malawi and the community of Chilanga, I begin making connections – or disconnections – between happiness and wealth. I can hear myself now, upon my return: “You know, a lot of people don’t have a whole lot, but they’re happy. They have their families, many have their health, and they’re happy.”
Tokenizing. Romanticized. Othering. The observations I based such assumptions on were few and far between; indeed, they were likely little more than a product of my recent educational revelations. Some sort of perverted connection made between a low GDP per capita and “a simple life”, a life filled with tending to one’s fields and spending large amounts of time with family and friends. This was an early, if misguided, affirmation of this notion that money is not a necessary prerequisite for happiness.
But what can I learn if I look deeper? If I cast that very same critical perspective that I shed upon headline news stories, and turn it towards what is taking place in the rural community of Chilanga, what conclusions might I come to? When a stranger ask me to buy him a beer in a bar, instead of simply shaking my head and forgetting about it, what can I garner? What does it mean that people wish to be a part of this community campus, but insist upon being paid for the work they do? In many ways I am still figuring this out. My thoughts have led me, however, down several interesting avenues.
Certainly, given my undergraduate learnings, and the blend of papers and presentations I dedicated myself to (which, as an aside, seem utterly difficult to remember now), I cannot help but think of the historical precedence that may have played a part in shaping what I’ve experienced in Chilanga. Certainly, we can look at the current state of affairs in a nation such as Malawi – albeit an arbitrarily-formed land mass – and we can find the shadows of colonialism, and its close partner in crime, capitalism, looming large. The latter of these two isms played an indescribably central role in the colonial project. Granted, in a country like Malawi, natural resources are significantly less abundant than the areas known today as Nigeria, Ghana, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. All the same, we see that the extraction of natural resources, and the creation of exotic playgrounds for European colonialists began a process of social stratification and corruption that resonates to this day. As time goes on, we can find the former Malawian elites, most of whom were schooled in British institutions, leading lives, primed to claim positions of power following independence which came in 1964, and to extract all they could from their population.
The example of the country’s first President, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, is one that is ripe for this subject. Dr. Banda was born in Malawi in 1898 – at the time it was known as Nyasaland – and spent his early adulthood in the colony. Yet, in the decades leading up to 1958, Banda spent his time in American schools and British hospitals, his grasp on the daily life of the average oppressed Malawian becoming a distant memory. He was summoned back to his homeland by the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) in 1958, as he was perceived as a someone who could be made out to be a figurehead of the independence movement. Indeed, the young nationalists of the NAC needed Banda in order to sway the support of the aging traditional leaders in the colony. With the NAC pushing him to the forefront, Banda came to occupy an autocratic, an unintentional yet calamitous consequence. Indeed, in Freirian terms, Banda had lived among his oppressors, and had come to occupy that very same trope. And in a freshly born nation, one utterly ravaged by the colonial project, Banda was able to impose his will, in large part through violence and terror. Yet, a consistent undertone to it all was his cunning ability to push forward national economic developments on the back of capitalist deception. To put it simply, he sacrificed democracy and human rights for economic gains – both national and personal.
When discussing the current situation in Malawi with a local business owner, a young man and friend who runs his own small grocery store, I, as many who have studied development would, took the angle that the colonial project plays as much as a role as any other factor. He presented an interesting comparison. He said that Malawi’s independence came too quickly. The process began in the late 1950s, and by 1964, at least in title, the nation was born. He compared Malawi’s process of liberation to that of South Africa, a country he has the opportunity to visit from time to time. There, one can find skyscrapers and malls, something scarce in Malawi. In part, he attributed this to the time it took for independence to be gained, stating that this laborious process allowed Europeans – eventually caucasian South Africans – to lay their roots. Of course, I brought up the shocking and unforgettable human rights violations that took place under the apartheid system – these were far more ubiquitous than those perpetrated under Banda’s 29 year reign. My friend responded that this struggle was worth it. One need not look any further than the economic state of affairs in Cape Town or Johannesburg. Perhaps, had the situation in Malawi unfolded differently, the colonial puppet that Banda was at the outset of his time at the head of the new nation would have been ousted by those young nationalists as they sought to fulfil what they had set out to create.
Confusing as this was, it was indeed a revelation. It was a shocking reminder that one cannot simply pass judgement on another context, and that not all of what was learned in the classroom translates to reality. Walking away from the conversation, however, I was also reminded to take on another practice. It is critical to triangulate information such as this, and to find other takes on such subjects. But I digress.

When first learning of the opportunity to partake in a learning experience in Malawi, I did what many would do in such a situation. I jumped online, typed “Malawi” into Google, and selected the Wikipedia link that appeared. What I read focused greatly upon the things lacking in the country: a low GDP per capita, high levels of disease, strained food systems, the like. Upon reflection, I believe I can now determine what drove me to pursuing this opportunity. Of course, this was a chance to gain experience, put theory into practice, have an adventure, and grow personally. There was also an aspect of exploring what I perceived to be an unknown – a nation I thought to be unblemished by the trappings of the capitalist system. Malawi is a country where almost three quarters of the country’s residents lived outside of urban centres, many of whom rely on subsistence agriculture. In my mind, this meant that these individuals were living their lives outside of the mainstream economic system, supplying themselves and their families with food bought with the sweat of their brows. A novel concept to me at the time. I found myself imagining leading such a life – albeit it in a Canadian setting – and feeling nostalgic for a life I’ve never known.
While many in this Global South context do lead such livelihoods, it is inaccurate to describe them as living and operating outside of the capitalist system. Indeed, it is alive and well in this setting. In fact, it seems to permeate countless aspects of life here. From a plethora of newspaper articles concerning IMF ratings and “Cashgate” hearings, to overheard discussions about the rate of inadequate and failing electricity services, and finally to the fluctuating prices of maize throughout the year. It is no doubt that due to my identity as an obvious outsider draws attention, as my identity and that of other non-Malawians are inextricably linked to high levels of financial capital. “When people see a white person walking through town, they see money,” my friend has said to me many times.
In this capitalistic quagmire, I’ve often found myself paralyzed, unable to act for fear of encountering the lumbering free market system at any moment. It can be incredibly demoralizing when attempting to enact positive, citizen-driven and asset-based community development – an approach that attempts to contrast decades of neoliberal and neocolonial “development”, and one that seeks to diminish or eliminate the need for outside capital – when, seemingly, all work has become monetized.
Yet, I should not say all work, for I’ve witnessed volunteerism poking its head through the shroud of capitalism that cloaks much of the area I’ve found myself in. I’ve had the distinct privilege of working with a group of women who have firmly dedicated themselves to volunteer work – albeit, the end goal being the harvesting of produce for sale. In many instances, it is women who are at the forefront of these non-profit efforts. They are the primary members of savings and micro-loan groups; they perform the vast majority of the area’s care labour; they, to put it simply, will sometimes perform work without the expectation of monetary compensation.

Recent experiences have offered me further insight into what role capitalism plays within Malawian society. As I’ve written about in previous blog posts, I leave wedding-related celebrations – be they engagement parties, bridal showers, or the weddings themselves – with many confusing scenes playing over in my head. Money is thrown to the ground, gifts for the future or recently-married couple. It has become apparent to me, however, that this process is not merely an act of support or giving. It is also an opportunity for friends and family members to demonstrate their own affluence. Those who repeatedly take the stage, and somewhat carelessly throw money into the collection pot are showing to all those in attendance that they have money to spare.
Herein lies a reality of the cultural trappings of what I have in part observed and learned. This is something that has been confirmed through conversations with certain individuals. One’s status in Malawi, or perhaps it is particularly pronounced in the region where I find myself, is intricately linked with one’s personal wealth. Individuals are often defined by their “worth”, and demonstrations of one’s financial standing permeates a number of different features of society.
Is this any different from the realities I’ve known in my life? Or is it merely more apparent due to the critical reflection I so often practice in this context?
If I think back to my time in university, I can imagine a time during which one’s financial standing is rarely discussed openly, but still one that plays a large role, particularly within the social sphere. I recall hearing peers (and even myself) embodying the part of the “broke student”, a factor that forced their hands in giving up social experiences – be they at the campus pub, at a local restaurant, or in the decisions surrounding graduation trips. It was rarely as flaunted as it may be here in Kasungu – students who might have had a bit more in their bank accounts wouldn’t drive around in flashy cars and wear overtly expensive clothes everywhere they went.
Yet, something in these two differing realities remains constant. Despite the challenges many I would face if asked to draw comparisons between the towns of Antigonish and Kasungu, we can find one alarming undertone. The capitalist system – mindset, even – is ever-present amongst, I would say, the vast majority of both populations. It it the driver in how individuals perceive others. It fuels consumer-centric livelihoods. It can take precedence over cooperation and ecological consciousness.

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I cannot say with any conviction that I operate outside of these realities. I can say, however, that I disagree with this perspective. I feel it is unfair to pass judgement on individuals when it is based upon their financial standing. If one did feel the need to exercise any judgement at all, would it not be more just if it was the result of one’s comportment and interactions with others, their surroundings, and themselves?
Now, I’ll descend from my soapbox, but I hope to remain on the same subject. Another romanticized notion I arrived in Chilanga with in June of 2014 surrounded cooperation. I believed that a cooperative spirit would be ubiquitous, fostered by the daily hardships faced by so many individuals, particularly in the rural context within which I found myself then, and where I find myself now. I can now see that this preconception was born out of a needs-centric mindset. In other words, I was fixated on all this community might be lacking, as opposed to what they possessed.
I can say with a degree of confidence that cooperation is not exactly prevalent. This is not to say that this communitarian spirit is nowhere to be found; indeed, there are many examples of people working together, and drawing together the assets they possess to maintain or improve their livelihoods. Yet, one thing has been brought to my attention that is, if I am honest, very discouraging. Several people have described to me the idea that certain individuals do not wish to see their neighbours or even friends succeed, particularly as it relates to their financial standing. To my outsider’s view, this points towards a perception of a zero-sum capitalist system.
I might offer a perspective on what I have observed of the civic sphere in the Kasungu district of Malawi. It is often recognized as a district “lagging behind” others found in Malawi, to use a tried and true needs-based term. With this perceived reality, Kasungu is also home to many different NGOs, INGOs, and governmental aid organizations. One should not be surprised to see convoys of US or UK Aid vehicles speeding down the main highway, nor to stroll past groups of locals sporting CARE Malawi or Plan Parenthood t-shirts. Despite these large numbers of active groups, however, there are unfortunately many others who have ceased their activities in the region.
I don’t wish to chastise these groups for leaving – I too will depart from the Chilanga community in May 2016. What’s more troublesome, from my albeit unexperienced perspective, is that these groups seem to create a competitive market in what is meant to be a communal and cooperative field. The phenomenon brings up many challenging questions. Do individuals who engage in various activities within the civic sector do so to improve their own lives, or do they do so in the hopes of improving their communities at large? Is one of those options “better” than the other? Moreover, due to the finite (although differing) budgets of these projects and initiatives, is there in fact only so much financial benefit to go around? Should financial benefit be the primary form of development? At times, I wonder whether development is merely synonymous with economic development, or even economic growth.

April 19th, 2016

Having taken a significant amount of time off since returning to this piece, recent experiences have brought it back to mind. As a result these experiences, however, my levels frustration has ebbed and flowed. One thing that causes this exasperation to spike is just how much of an impact a paradigm like capitalism can have upon communities and individuals alike. So often (and I speak here not only of Chilanga) I fear that while capitalism remains so prevalent, and while individuals allow financial well-being to be synonymous with happiness, it stands in the way of so many endeavours for a sustainable and joyous future. At the same time, I wonder if I would be writing such things if I weren’t in my current financial standing – one that is incredibly comfortable by global standards.
In recent discussions surrounding the community radio station that community members here have been working towards establishing, a great deal of concern has been expressed about the financial sustainability of this potential institution. On one particular occasion, the first suggestion put forward on this subject was to find a donor organization or individual that might be able to offer financial support for the months following my departure at the end of May. While it was discouraging to hear this at first, I saw the opportunity for some constructive conversations and activities surrounding focusing within the community, and to search for not just financial assets, but all forms of wealth that a community has.
As I’ve reflected further on this experience, however, I cannot help but wonder what it might say about how community members perceive themselves and their community, and how such perceptions might be inextricably linked to financial wealth, and indeed, the capitalist system as a whole. Without ever being able to know for certain, I wonder whether some community members might support a donor-driven approach to development due to their lack of experience with any other development paradigm.
Here, I consider Paulo Freire’s thoughts on the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed in his work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire points out that for the oppressors “money is the measure of all things… For them, to be is to have and to be the class of the “haves” (Freire, 58). In some ways, I wonder whether certain community members possess the mindset of the oppressed, and perceive donors as those who hold the keys to the sustaining of this or other community development initiatives. To return to Freire: “almost never to they realize that they too ‘know things’ they have learned in their relations with the world and with other women and men” (Freire, 63). In this regard, I sometimes feel that certain community members do not perceive themselves as able to realize the ambitions of this project without the support of a donor. They see the relatively meagre financial assets of this community and its members – perhaps failing to recognize the inherit value in the other forms of capital (such as human, social, physical, and natural capital) within their community – and believe that they must look for outside assistance in order to reach their goal. Here, I place the blame squarely on the behemoth shoulders of the capitalist ogre that harshly and suffocatingly embraces our only Earth. It propagates the mindset that Freire describes the oppressor as having: to be is to have.
I wish to pause here for a moment, as I consider just how far off the mark this might be. There are surely dozens of differing motivations at play within the lives of community members which must be considered. Please consider the above to be merely one of the possible explanations.
The subtitle of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything is particularly fitting one: “Capitalism vs. The Climate”. Indeed, I sometimes feel like, in this context, community development is being pitted against a predominant capitalistic mindset. But to fight directly against capitalism is perhaps a battle for another time. In line with an asset-based mindset, I believe that positive emotion and collaborative approach trumps negative attitudes and combative behaviours. Let us seek the positives within our world’s current paradigms.
To conclude what has been a fairly depressing piece of writing, I wish to conclude on an optimistic note. As mentioned, out of the discussion surrounding the sustainability of the community radio initiative, the opportunity arose for honest and hopefully thought-provoking dialogue to occur surrounding the differences between a needs-based way of thinking and an asset-based mindset. Over the final weeks of this fellowship, I could ask for little more than to facilitate such discussions. What comes out of such conversations will surely be productive. There are certainly no price tags on talking.

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