Black Consciousness: An Individualist Critique

“Black Consciousness is an attitude of the mind and a way of life, the most positive call to emanate from the black world for a long time. Its essence is...

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“Black Consciousness is an attitude of the mind and a way of life, the most positive call to emanate from the black world for a long time. Its essence is the realisation by the black man of the need to rally together with his brothers around the cause of their oppressor — the blackness of their skin — and to operate as a group to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude”.

This is a definition of black consciousness if ever there was one, at least as it was understood by Biko, who is seen as the father of the ideology in South Africa. The essence of Black consciousness as Biko describes it for us above is the realization by the individual of the necessity to rally together with his kin around the cause of their oppressor. Now, it does not take a Hegelian to see that what Biko describes here is a ‘reactionary’ ideology, one not stemming from the internal operations of the individual but rather from external forces, from the internal operations of other individuals, namely the oppressor.

Now this raises a pertinent question, is such a consciousness tenable in the long run? Even prior to that, perhaps a more pressing one is whether such a consciousness, as a guiding principle of social identity, is tenable as such. Can it be that the philosophy that informs the identity of an individual, has as its central premise an element outside the individual herself? This question is important because we can see how racial identity is characterized by this comparison, and we have seen the degenerative effects of it. I posit that racial identity on a principled basis is simply unsound, the effects of it are just another example of its unsound nature in principle.

The quote is ironic. It states that the most positive call to emanate from the ‘black’ world is one premised on a realization of victimhood. You are oppressed, your skin colour is your social identity, and organize as a collective on this basis to liberate yourselves. This is a philosophy that is developed from the perspective of a comparison from the onset, one that puts its subject in victimhood (oppression) and grounds their identity in this victimhood, not in shared values, tradition or cultural practices but in skin colour. This is the very same basis the ‘oppressor’ operates on, with the ‘oppressor’ being no victim in their equally unsound skin colour based social philosophy. This conceptualization of social existence from a state of victimhood and oppression paralyses the subject of the philosophy, restricting them to constant comparison, an existence premised on the dialectical nature of the oppressor/oppressed relationship.

The philosophy or consciousness as its proponents would argue is therefore unsound on the very same basis that no social identity, that is sound, is conceptualized from the external or through comparison. It is an inward-outward exercise instead of an outward-inward one. An identity comes from within, not without. Thus, one premised on comparison or more aptly, founded in the historicist tradition of man being an object of history that is acted upon by events that are predetermined through some infinite cycle instead of being a subject with a will that shapes history instead, is unsound on principle. This is proven by actual social identities that exist in society that are stronger than mere skin colour or being oppressed, in South Africa these identities are represented by the various nations we have whose mere variety shows an identity more than mere skin colour.

The proponents of such a social identity therefore will always need an oppressor. It’s a dialectical relationship that Fanon elucidates beautifully in Pitfalls of National Consciousness from Wretched of the Earth. In Biko’s time there was one, in a state that violated fundamental individual rights as well as the Rule of Law. In the modern constitutional democratic era, one fails to find such a state apparatus, at least as is represented in the text of the constitution. What government does, through its policies which are premised on ‘fair’ racial discrimination (BEE, EE and AA) is a scourge on our constitutional order. Although it should be stated, the constitution itself as the founding document upon which the Republic finds its existence does not permit such an action, it in fact actively discourages it. Yet in pursuit of a positive understanding of redress, one which requires positive state action, government has done what is not permitted, what is unconstitutional and the continued existence of these policies in our constitutional era, will be a terrible blight on what should be the blossoming of a true constitutional order.

In the modern day those who claim to be the ‘true’ proponents of the ideology have their enemy as White Monopoly Capital or some form collective oppressor that is ‘whiteness’. The trend is still the same, the collective understanding of one’s existence in society as illustrated in the quote “and to operate as a group to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude”, ascribes collective victimhood and collective guilt at a metaphysical level, collective black oppression contrasted with the collective enemy that is whiteness, or WMC. The philosophy’s effects are simply unsound, blackness is perpetually innocent whilst whiteness is perpetually guilty, not on any normal determination of guilt and innocence but based on skin colour alone. Its effects as a theory of justice leave a lot to be desired.

An identity stems from an individual and their exercise of said identity then becomes the social identity. Philosophically the essence of man; life, liberty and property, conceptually, come prior to society thus their source is the individual, they in fact give effect to society.  From an analysis standpoint, methodological individualism reveals to us that even in the act of describing collective identities, one is ascribing individual identity to large swathes of people who may identify in varied ways, seeing as they are fully functional individuals themselves. The basis of analysis after the fact and that of action in the present, cosmologically, is always the individual.

An identity theorized and conceptualized from without said individual is bound to be ill equipped in guiding its subject to traverse the constant hardships of life. This is proven by any viable social identity being premised on shared values and cultural norms and an exercise in self-determination; not a position of victimhood which intrinsically assumes comparison. A social identity, a collective phenomenon, finds expression through the individual exercising theirs, not through an imposition of the ‘collective’ on the individual. It is a phenomenon of spontaneous order, a social construct yes, thus implying it is a manifestation of human action but not the creation or design of a singular individual through imposition on the rest.

Those who claim an identity of victimhood on skin colour I believe to be misguided. I believe man to be made up more than his circumstances and skin colour. Maybe I am just an idealist though. I believed when they said lady justice was blind, men throughout the times have uncovered her blindfolds for a myriad of reasons, skin colour being one of the shallowest in my opinion.

Being an advocate of liberty though, I subscribe to a live and let live worldview. I can’t stop people from identifying as they please, what should not be permitted though, is for the state and government to permit any identity outside of the ‘individual’. The state discriminating on racial grounds amounts to an arbitrary discrimination that cannot be permitted in a state that has the Rule of Law as its foundational value. Above that, I hope I have illustrated that identity is a function of agency and having one that is a ‘reaction’ in that it is a function of the agency of others or depends on them, actually undermines the project it seeks to champion; self-determination.

To the triad of be-ing; Mind, Matter and Soul. Whose manifestation is impossible without liberty.

The Eloquent Peasant.

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  1. The burden of collective black victimhood - Thought Leader Reply

    […] one of my intellectual sparring partners Zakhele Mthembu argues: “It does not take a Hegelian to see that what Biko describes here is a ‘reactionary’ […]

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