Apartheid: Past, Present and Future

February 11, 2012

COP17 is history. But how will it be remembered and understood? Some hoped that its legacy would be truth and reconciliation. But as the dust of growing deserts settles, it is looking more and more like global apartheid.

These are fighting words. After so many made unimaginable sacrifices to overcome the South African apartheid regime, allegations that apartheid is not over, or has returned, cannot be made lightly. But they cannot be ignored either. Ten years ago, none less than South African president Thabo Mbeki was bold to call for everyone to “confront the social behavior that has pity neither for beautiful nature nor for human beings. This social behavior has produced and entrenches a global system of apartheid.” In light of the uncanny but undeniable persistence of this word, we must ask, what is apartheid, and how has it metastasized onto the world stage?

Apartheid is most commonly understood as a state and system of separation; a theory and practice of exclusion and inclusion on the basis of segregation. But apartheid is not only a regime. Within and behind the physical infrastructure of walls, police, courts and prisons, a metaphysical infrastructure is also lurking. Breyten Breytenbach understood apartheid as something much more profound than the central policy of the South African state. While in prison, he wrote that “the ideology of Apartheid is only an aberration – a stillness – of what is potentially present in all humankind.” (p339) It is this profound understanding of the roots of apartheid that we need to have if we are to overcome it once and for all.

The Anatomy of Global Apartheid

There are many forms of global apartheid. While not all are enforced with the same physical infrastructure, all are joined at the roots in a world system. If nothing else, the fact that apartheid can serve as a popular rhetorical device to explain the central dynamics of the modern world is an indication of the degree to which apartheid has not only a past, but a very real present and future.

There is a geopolitical apartheid, in which the majority of humanity has a grossly small number of representatives in all international political, economic and legal organizations, and in which the global minority decides the fate of the planet. Its walls, courts and police are international borders, multinational institutions and armies.

There is the global apartheid between rich and poor, now growing by leaps and bounds every moment. Inequality is ancient; almost 2000 years ago Plutarch remarked that “an imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” But if the ailment is old, today it has spread to entirely new proportions. At the beginning of the 21st century, the richest 1% of the population owned more wealth than the poorest 95%. Only ten years later, even this inequality has accelerated, and 0.5% own well over one third of all the wealth in the world. This inequality is not inevitable or incidental – it is the statistically provable result of the growth of the capitalist world system of social production and private accumulation. Its infrastructure is in every city and country in the world, from private security guards to the money in our wallets. But capitalism builds upon ancient foundations…

Patriarchy predates capitalism, but capitalism has taken patriarchy to new heights. The global apartheid between male and female, where the better half of humanity, which produces 100% of the world’s children, does the vast majority of the housework and carework that is rarely if ever even calculated, let alone compensated. But even in the man’s world of economic statistics, women do 60% of the world’s work, grow 70% of the world’s food, but earn only 10% of the world’s income and own only 1% of the world’s property. (Ho, p355) The infrastructure of patriarchy is built not only in laws and customs, but in the hearts and minds of men and women everywhere.

Finally, rearing its head in recent decades is what is quickly coming to be known as climate apartheid. Climate apartheid is poised to overtake all the others in extremity and significance in the coming century. In this apartheid, the global majorities who have done the least to contribute to climate change will be forced to suffer the most catastrophic consequences. We can see the infrastructure of climate apartheid taking shape on international borders and climate refugee camps, in rising oceans and expanding deserts, and in the growing wars over scarce resources.

And at the root of all these forms of apartheid, I believe, is the most fundamental apartheid of all, between humanity and nature. Here, nature is a slave, a resource to be consumed at human discretion, possessing no value independent of human labor, not deserving of respect except as a means to human fulfillment. This apartheid more than any other is built deep inside of us, in the way we see the world and in the way we understand ourselves as separate from it. In the anatomy of global apartheid, I believe that this is the stem cell, the primal apartheid from which all others grow.

In search of a political project…

Thus apartheid is not just a specter of the past. The ghosts of apartheid present and future haunt the whole world. They are in some ways invisible but always present, shape-shifting yet ageless, mysterious to some but very much material to most. The deadly combination and synthesis of all these apartheids was demonstrated at COP17 in Durban, where rich politicians, mostly men, representing the global minority, prefigured the future of global capitalist governance in the era of climate catastrophe.

Our times require a political project capable of confronting this global system of apartheid, from its morbid symptoms to its deepest roots. Particularly in the case of climate apartheid, this political project must be capable of ensuring victory, since the alternative is catastrophe on an unimaginable scale. This project must be capable of uniting billions of people in a common struggle to strike at the roots of the system which holds both humanity and nature hostage. There is nothing more urgent today than the search for this kind of political project.

Rights of Nature?

One emerging political project today is the struggle to recognize the rights of nature. Already enshrined in several constitutions in Latin America, millions are mobilizing behind the project of giving rights to nature. This is a project of great importance, which has both captured the imagination of the grassroots and is also slowly being developed at the level of state power. But for these reasons especially, we must continue to ask questions. Is the project of giving rights to nature the one which will best guide us in our world historic task of overcoming all forms of apartheid?

Some have described the idea of the rights of nature as a “Galileo moment.” In this moment, we suddenly realize the true center of gravitation – nature — the ultimate source of all life and livelihood. Some believe that this project, if carried through, is the best way to overcome the apartheid between humanity and nature. Others have asked, however, and we should not ignore them: “do we need father state to give mother earth rights?”

This question implies several others. It forces us to confront some fundamental aspects of how we think about nature, and our relationship to it. For instance: Can we give rights to a river? We might remember that this is the same river which Heraclitus told us we cannot stand in twice (and Xeno retorted that we cannot even stand in it even once!). This points to a deep epistemological problem in the concept of rights for nature — the way we think about rights and the way that rights themselves think. We must acknowledge that the political project of human rights, many decades after its international establishment and acceptance, is still more an aspiration than a reality. Does expanding rights to nature overcome this problem, or only compound it? Who grants rights, and who arbitrates between nature’s rights and human rights? Without a constitution guaranteeing nature’s rights, would nature no longer have them?

These questions lead us toward a deeper understanding of nature. They point, inevitably and perhaps uncomfortably, toward something metaphysical — towards nature’s intrinsic value; a value which exists independently of humanity and whatever rights we may or may not grant and enforce. To understand nature as something with intrinsic value is ultimately very different from understanding it as something that should be protected because it has rights. Rights, after all, are granted. Thus rights do not go the full way to a real Galileo moment, because humanity and its right-granting ability remain at the center of the universe. The real Galileo moment, which is still to come, for most of us anyway, is when we realize that that which is inherent and intrinsic cannot be granted.

Maybe instead of building a political project which is founded on a paternalistic relationship to nature, we might evolve a kind of politics founded on a devotion to nature. After all, humans have a nature too! In this light, we might develop a project to struggle to overcome this oldest of apartheids, not because we want to help or protect nature, but because human liberation and the recognition of the intrinsic value of nature are one and the same political project. Seen from this perspective, rights for nature are not an enemy or an obstacle, but they are a limited project, anchored to the same anthropocentric world-view which got us into this mess. The world needs a wider horizon.

The Emerging Alternative

Breytenbach continued his reflections on apartheid with reference to the ancient Greeks: “Man suffers because of his separation from the boundless, Anaximander said. If there is a life force, Apartheid goes against it. Surely what we live towards is a greater, even metaphysical, integration, however hazardous and dangerous.” (p74) This is the deep existential nature of the struggle against all forms of apartheid, which at its deepest root is the alienation of humanity from nature. The political project of our times is to overcome this original apartheid, to strive towards an integration of all forms of separation, however hazardous and dangerous the path may be. If the kingdom of apartheid is within us all, ultimately it must be overcome here as well as on the barricades of state and capital.

This is how I understand ecosocialism, as a political project aimed at overcoming all forms of apartheid by transforming them at their origin, in the rupture between humanity and nature. Ecosocialism suggests a more profound transformation of social relations, a more profound transvaluation of values, than previously considered in most socialist thought. The ideal of ecosocialism is nothing less than a Copernican revolution in economics, politics and culture. At the heart of the revolution is a change in our ideas of value. Value moves from something external to life, to something that cannot by any means be separated from life.

Ecosocialism is a name for the only revolution in a long history of many others (feudal, monarchist, bourgeoisie, industrial, capitalist, socialist, etc) which insists on not separating value from life. Previous systems have been organized around exploiting this separation. The most essential promise of ecosocialism is to end this alienation. Before, value was in power, in royalty, in money, in commodities, in exploitation, in profit, or in production. Humanity has revolved around these perversions of value for thousands of years. The promise of ecosocialism is to reverse this — to put life in the center, for the rest of the world to revolve around. As it was in the beginning, so must we struggle for it to begin again.

Through the theory shines the terrain of struggle: Ecosocialism is not something that can be achieved through making militant demands of father state. It is something that definitely gets into metaphysical territory. But we need not go off the deep end; the struggle remains materially grounded, and is prefigured all over the world in people’s movements to reclaim the commons. As Itwari Devi of the Chipko movement in India says, “our power is nature’s power.” (Mies and Shiva, p250)

The future of thought and action remains obscure, emerging in the course of events. But in order to frame our strategic and tactical thinking when fighting campaigns for political, economic and ecological justice, it is necessary to understand just how profound the necessary transformation must be. We are in uncharted waters, politically, economically, ecologically, and existentially. It comes with the territory that we must risk much. “People cannot discover new lands,” wrote Andre Gide, “until they have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” This is the empirical basis upon which we are now justified in staking metaphysical claims, in defense of and devotion to the nature of which we are a part. But this doesn’t mean that we can or should abandon science. “Only when science proceeds from nature is it true science,” the young Marx knew. When we acknowledge that nature has intrinsic value, we approach a science that includes metaphysics, and we approach the dissolution of yet another kind of apartheid; the one which separates science from spirit.

We are working towards a political project that challenges every form of apartheid, not only externally, but deep inside each of us. This is the lofty project of ecosocialism which is now emerging on the global horizon; “far off, yet rising; indefinite yet vital, a terrain to be mapped, explored, and brought into existence.”

Are we asking too much? “If you have built castles in the air,” Henry David Thoreau counseled, “your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.” This is the work and the political project of Ecosocialist Horizons – to facilitate the construction and coordination of foundations for a global and local ecosocialist struggle, against all forms of apartheid, past, present and future. Stay tuned!

Ecofeminism, by Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, Zed Books, London and New Jersey, 1993
Wicked Theory, Naked Practice, by Fred Ho, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 2009
The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, by Breyten Breytenbach, Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 1963

COP 17 South AfricaThis post is part of a series. A delegation from Ecosocialist Horizons is in Durban, South Africa, bringing you reports from the United Nations conference on climate change, known as COP 17.