In Praise of Ethiopian revolutionary Ethiopianity and modernity. By Teodros Kiros (Ph.D)

June 29th, 2015 Print Print Email Email

Gone are the days when descending from Ethiopian Airlines one had to look down at Shanty towns, when famished golden grass in spite of the golden glitter looked miserable, when paved roads where a rarity, when donkeys and dogs fought for visibility, when certain Ethiopians had to change their names to be accepted as part of Ethiopian normalcy, when there were only Two Universities for the entire nation and, when Tigrean and Eritrean students were systematically denied entry to the two universities and entitlements of all kinds had to be preserved for the elite of the Amharas, when Ethiopians were being forced to worship Haile Selassie, a human emperor.

Gone also are the days when Ethiopians hesitated to discuss politics on the phone, when mothers had to discourage their children from returning to Ethiopia afraid that the Derg will eat them up alive, when Ethiopian nationalities from all walks of life could not dance, sing or exhibit their cultural life styles freely and confidently and build a new mosaic of revolutionary diversity and multiculturalism, the very content of revolutionary Ethiopianity.

Revolutionary Ethiopianity and Ethiopian modernity has changed all the above signs of backwardness in the material zone of being. The new zones of being have new colors of Ethiopianity.

Now, when Ethiopian airlines descends in Ethiopia, one can see high rises, highways, a plethora of schools and universities for all Ethiopians. New dances, new songs and new vocabularies of Ethiopianity are now just beginning to emerge.

Beginnings are not ends. They are merely potentialities, which await actualities by the vibrant participation of new national consciousness forged by the activities of Ethiopians who have voted the regime in power to stay in power provided that in order to stay in power, it must mend its ways, not by shrinking political space but confidently expanding it and allowing genuine participation of oppositions who are guided by the people’s agenda, which is the eradication of poverty, the control of corruption, the guarantee of living wages and the birth of a new moral economy-mediated by a developmental state.

These changes are rough outlines of a new revolutionary Ethiopia which has only opened not flood gates but only narrow corridors which could expand into huge spaces under conditions of peace not war; peaceful marches for change and not a mixture of inept violence and non-violence; not playing Amharas against Tirgreans but enlightening Amharas and Tigreans to trust and respect one another; not falsely emboldening Amhras and angering Tigreans but encouraging both to build on the foundations of the last twenty-one years of peace and prosperity and objectively recognize the modest achievements of the regime in power.

The regime in power needs a new moral economy. This new moral economy must cultivate New Ethiopians who can operate the moral machinery of revolutionary modernity.

Let us begin with generosity. Generosity is a virtue. The generous person is willing to give without receiving, or is willing to give without the deliberate intent of receiving anything, or that the receiving is only an accident, and not an intentional act. The generous person then gives a particular good A to person B; and person B does not simply receive A as a matter of course. B receives A with a profound respect of the giver, and even plans, if she can, to one day reciprocate not in the same way, but in some way. The reciprocity need not be of equal goods. A and B need not be two equal goods, in which equality is measured by money. What makes the act morally compelling is the desire to reciprocate, and not the quantity of the reciprocity.

One of the economic forms of the New Moral Economy, as illustrated above, is a vision of the self as generous, and generosity itself does not require a calculated practice of reciprocity but simply the desire and the commitment to give when one can, and sometimes to give A to B, although A has to sacrifice good C for the sake of giving A to B, even when one cannot, and perhaps should not, and yet the generous gives nevertheless. One of the central pillars of NME as an economic form is the cultivation of an Ethiopian self willing and capable of acting generously in the relational moral regime of giving and receiving, or simply giving without receiving, or receiving with a profound sense of gratitude and respect. The celebrated moral features of NME are generosity, justice, uprightness, tolerance and loving patience. Indeed, these are demanding virtues that capitalism, as the dominant economic form cannot support, no matter how diligently it tries. Adam Smith, the world famous economist, but who was also a moral philosopher, argued that unless capitalism is restrained by morality, as a limiting condition of greed and superfluity, it would eat itself up. To that effect, he developed an elaborate moral theory comprising of what he called “moral sentiments” to control the excesses of the market. He proposed compassion and sociality as two powerful moral sentiments that could regulate the excesses of the market. The moral sentiment, he thought, could counter the purely instrumental features of the capitalist economic form. Of course, to this day, his warning of an inevitable doom has yet to be heeded, and capitalism itself continues to marvel its resiliency to create crises and immediately correct them, thereby proving its “naturalness” and making it easy for its proponents to present it to the world as a God chosen economic form. Any attempt to counter it with something like NME is dismissed as a pipe dream. No body in her right mind is expected to take NME seriously. And the fact the geographical origin of NME is an African civilization, conveniently results in dismissing NME as irrelevant and wishful thinking. NME as a moral form is considerably deeper than the passing moral sentiments that the Scottish moral philosopher proposed. Generosity, justice, uprightness, tolerance, wisdom and loving patience go directly against our natural proclivity of injustice, dishonesty, intolerance, closedmindness, ignorance and hate. Generosity is a virtue. It is a virtue that is willing to give without receiving, or is willing to give without the deliberate intent of receiving anything, or that the receiving is only an accident, and not an intentional act. The generous person then gives a particular good A to person B; and person B does not simply receive A as a matter of course. B receives A with a profound respect of the giver, and even plans, if she can, to one day reciprocate not in the same way, but in some way. The reciprocity need not be of equal goods. A and B need not be two equal goods, in which equality is measured by money. What make the act morally compelling is the desire to reciprocate, and not the quantity of the reciprocity. One of the economic forms of NME, as illustrated above, is a vision of the self as generous, and generosity itself does not require a calculated practice of reciprocity but simply the desire and the commitment to give when one can, and sometimes, to give A to B, although A has to sacrifice good C for the sake of giving A to B, even when one cannot, and perhaps should not, and yet the generous gives nevertheless.

As Aristotle taught, one does not become just merely by abstractly knowing what Justice is; rather, one becomes just by doing just things. The puzzling question is this: if one does not know what justice is then how can she know what just things are, so that she could choose only just things and not others? The question is not easy to answer. But an example might give us a sense of what Aristotle means, and then proceed to discuss the matter at hand, justice as one of the economic forms of NME.

It is Christmas evening and a family is gathering for a dinner and the table has been set for ten people. Among the popular dishes are five pies, and shortly before the guests arrive, one of the family members has been asked to cut the pies into exact sizes, such that no single person would feel that he has mistakenly picked one of the smallest pies, in the event that a person picked a piece and it turned out to be the smallest.
The task of the pie cutter is to observe that justice is served and that all the pies are cut evenly and fairly. This is of course an exceedingly difficult task, but justice demands it, and the just cutter must prove the worthiness of her moral action. What must this person do? That is the moral question. Well, at the minimum the person herself must be just in order to perform just action, and in this instance, justice means nothing more than cutting the pieces equally to ones best ability, and that she must do so fairly.
She must cut the pies with a moral imagination and an intuitive mathematical precision, and must pray to the transcendent to make her see justly, and that she is enabled to measure precisely. There is a spiritual dimension to the science of measurement, which could have been simply done with a measuring tape. That possibility, however convenient, is not elegant. She is not going to stand there with a tape ruler to cut pies. Rather, the expectations are two, that (1) she is going to make an effort to be precise, because her intention is to be just and (2) that her eyes are just, or that she prays that they would be. (1) and (2) are the requirements; the rest is left to moral imagination.

She cuts the pies, and it turns out that all the pieces appear to be equal, and when the guests arrived, they randomly pick the pieces, and appear to be clearly satisfied. What we have here is a display of justice in the Aristotelian sense, in which justice is defined as an activity that is guided by a measure of equality, and equality itself is manifest in the attempt at being fair to everyone, and in this example, an attempt to be fair to the guests, without their ever knowing that they are being worked on. They judge the event as illuminated by justice, and the event as uplifting. They eat, drink, converse, dance and leave.
Justice presents itself in this event, through the presence of those delicious pies, each of which was a duplicate of the other. Generalizing this to a higher level, what we can say is that any economic form must be guided with justice as an event of doing things fairly and that all the commodities that human beings should want must be distributed with such a standard, the standard of justice as fairness. Given justice as fairness, commodity A can be distributed between persons B and C in such an equitable way that B and C share commodity A by getting the same amount at any time, any place and for a good reason.
Compassion is another feature of NME; indeed, it is one of the cardinal moral forms for the new moral economy that I am theorizing here. Compassion is to moral economy as greed is to capitalism. One cannot imagine capitalism without the salient principle of greed, and similarly, one cannot imagine moral economy without the originary principle of compassion. Class, race, gender, ethnicity and groups divide the modern world. Out of these divisions it is class division that is the most decisive, as it is also the one that seems to be so natural that we cannot surmount the pain and agony that it produces. In a class-divided world, compassion is the least present because there is no compelling reason that persuades individuals to be compassionate if they are not naturally compassionate, or are inclined toward it. Of course, where compassion is not naturally present, it could be taught either by example or directly through teaching.
An example should elucidate the place of compassion in moral economy. It is summer, and exhaustingly hot. People that you encounter are hot tempered too. Everybody is on edge, including you. You happen to be a coffee lover, so there you are standing behind a long line of people to get your fix. The heat has made you really impatient, and you are ready to explode on anything around you. You are also naturally generous but not this day. Soon, before you leave the coffee shop, a homeless person smiles at you and tries to engage you in a conversation, hoping that you will understand the purpose of the conversation. Of course you understand, but you ignore him and walk by. But then something bothers you, and you come back to the coffeshop and generously give the man what he wanted. You are proud of yourself, because you have done what generosity demands, that you control your temper and perform the morally correct action. Surely, you say to yourself it was not easy, but you did it.
Now you wonder what all this means, and why you did it. It is obvious to you why you did the action. Indeed, it is because you are really a compassionate human being but also a religious person. You really have no obligation to pay attention to that person. He is not related to you, he is not an ex friend that fortune turned against, nor did you do it so as to be a hero by the media.
Your action is morally worthy only because you have internalized compassion. To you compassion comes quite naturally. It is part of your moral frame. Any repeated action becomes a habit. So compassionate action comes habitually to you. You rarely fight it. Rather, you exuberantly let it lead your way, as it eventually did on that hot and difficult day. But even on that day you conquered the temptation of doubt, and excessive self-love, by the moral force of compassion. That is why you corrected yourself, when you were briefly but powerfully tempted by forgetfulness on that hot day and returned to do the morally right thing.
Compassion is morally compelling when it is extended to a total other, which has nothing to do with our lives, other than the silent duty we have toward those who await our moral attention. It is much easier to be compassionate toward a loved one, a friend, a relative and even an acquaintance; harder is the task when the subject is a real other, such as that homeless person by the coffee shop. In order for any action to be morally worthy the motive must be pure, and the purity is measured by the quality and quantity of the compassion that is extended to any needy human being, uncontaminated by external motives, such as love, friendship, acquaintance and relation.
It is in this particular way that I am arguing that compassion serves New Moral Economy (NME). Tolerance is a crucial feature of moral economy. In fact, it could easily be argued that it is an indispensable organizing principle, which works in tandem with loving kindness. Just as we cannot love a person without respecting her, except delusorily, we cannot live with one another without tolerating each other’s needs, habits, likes and dislikes.
In the economic sphere tolerance is subtly pertinent. We cannot readily sense its inner working unless we pay attention to its musings at the work place, as we interact with one another as bosses and employees.
Consider the following example to underscore the point. There is this employee who does things in ways that many people find annoying. She customarily comes late to work; she procrastinates; she spreads papers, cans and food stuffs all around her sometimes she cannot even find herself amid the dirt, the pile and the dust. Yet, and this is the point, whatever she does is done flawlessly, as flawless as human products could be. Her boss has agonized over what to do with her; he has contemplated firing her numerous times. Lulled by the elegance of her work and his loving-kindness toward her, he decides to keep her. He has promised himself to erase those occasional thoughts of getting rid of her. As he told one of his friends, he has learned, and not very easily, the ways of tolerance as a principle of management, of managing employees who will not and cannot change their habits for the rest of their lives.
I consider this manager very wise and skilled at the art of management. He decided, obviously because he could change himself as hard as it was, rather than expect his employee to change. The structure of his thoughts could be put syllogistically.

Y cannot change her way
X can change easily
Therefore, X must change for Z

Y is the manager. X is the annoying employee. Z is the organization where Y and X work. In this situation Z is saved precisely because the manager internalizes tolerance and loving-kindness as the organizing principles of the organization. Y controls his ego and chooses to advance the interests of Z over and against his own private needs. He did not fire X because his ego demands it. Nor does he ever insist that X must change. He has intuitively and empirically concluded that it is not pointless to expect X to change, nor would it benefit Z to lose X, since X is an intelligent and skilled worker.
Where tolerance is habitually practiced at workplaces it becomes an indispensable good that could save many employers the unnecessary cost that is incurred on hiring and firing employees and ease the distress of the families and loved ones of employers and employees. Tolerance can easily remedy the situation. If it is much easier for managers to change than it is for excellent employees with annoying habits, and then it is those who can change their ways who must change for the sake of a functional and democratic moral economy.
Patience is a feature of NME. The ideal leader as well as the ideal citizen must patiently wait to witness the appearance of the Transcendent. Nothing great is accomplished without a transcendental intervention, the seal of completeness, of Generosity and Justice, two other features of moral economy, as I have argued in previous essays.
Rarely is patience, however, associated with economic forms. Economic forms are founded on seizing the opportunity before it vanishes. The activity is everything but patient. Patience and quick money making are the virtues of capitalism. In that worldview, success is measured by shrewdness, quickness, impatience and opportunism. Whereas patience is undermined by capitalism, the economic form for NME reveres it. The economic form for the Ethiopian condition demands it. Without this virtue the disadvantaged citizen of modern Ethiopia is fated to starve and die and I propose that the regime in power makes a note of this during its next term and please all those Ethiopians who voted for it, in good faith.
Patient waiting is the much-needed revolutionary virtue that both generosity and justice demand. An example might illuminate the abstraction.
Ethiopian economy has been blooming blooming lately by the measurements of Neo-Liberalism, and the Western world has been hailing it as a model for the future. The Ethiopian rich class gets spoiled and its inhabitants shop madly. No commodity is beyond their reach, so they think. Suddenly, all things, with the exception of the Transcendent change, since no condition is permanent. The mineral fields drain. The spoils of the economy are distributed unevenly.
The poor citizens become impatient and rich who had been introduced to the pangs of luxury, cannot withstand the pangs of hunger. Friends turn against friends. Ethnicities hate and fear ethnicities. The shopping frenzy slows down. Their lovers do not love the men anymore. The rate of divorce increases, since the men’s ability to maintain expensive lifestyles are no more.
Patient waiting for better days is not a norm. Loves and friendships founded on comfort, wealth and excessive wealth are not permanent. They flounder as easily as they initially sprawled. Things that last must be built slowly, in the furnace of time, and be sculpted in accordance with the laws of beauty.
Modern Ethiopia can easily become a model of hopelessness as it ones was, unless it quickly reforms. An economic form that does not institutionalize patient waiting as a way of life digs its grave when conditions change. That is why patient waiting also must be systematically insinuated in the new Ethiopian’s psyche, as an ethics of living, and a stylistics of what I have previously called-existential seriousness. A responsible economic form must inculcate the virtue of patience among its citizens, from early on. This complicated and demanding virtue must be taught at all levels of school. It must be part of economic principles, and be taught as such, and not be pushed to the sidelines, as part of religion and theology, which does not have much to do with morals, and has nothing to do with economics. It is this dogma of capitalist economics that must change.
My argument here is a modest contribution to challenge one of the foundational dogmas of bourgeois economics. The morals must guide economics and a new moral economy that works in concert with moral philosophy and religion is precisely what the Ethiopian condition requires. More morality, with a distinct religious voice, such as the notion of patient waiting, will strengthen and expand our horizons as we struggle with poverty, famine and other sorrows of modern life.
We need more people who can patiently wait as everything changes, hopeful that no condition is permanent, including the conditions of nations, when their economies get distorted and the citizens are hardened and become cruel towards one another, and that the notion of helping your fellow citizens sounds indeed very strange, to those who are comfortable. Instead, during trying times, citizens do not patiently wait for things to change; instead, they give up altogether, or become irreligious and immoral. It is in this way that patient waiting, I argue, becomes one of the pillars of moral economy, along with generosity and justice, which I examined in previous essays.
Justice is one of the features of NME and it is also a potential source of a Moral Economy, appropriate for the Ethiopian condition.
As Aristotle taught, one does not become just merely by abstractly knowing what Justice is; rather, one becomes just by doing just things. The puzzling question is this: if one does not know what justice is then how can she know what just things are, so that she could choose only just things and not others? The question is not easy to answer. But an example might give us a sense of what Aristotle means, and then proceed to discuss the matter at hand, justice as one of the economic forms of NME.

Justice presented itself in this event, through the presence of those delicious pies, each of which was a duplicate of the other.

Generalizing this to a higher level, what we can say is that any economic form must be guided with justice as an event of doing things fairly and that all the commodities that human beings should want must be distributed with such a standard, the standard of justice as fairness. Given justice as fairness, commodity A can be distributed between persons B and C, in such an equitable way, that B and C share commodity A by getting the same amount at any time, any place and for a good reason.
The celebrated moral features of NME are generosity, justice, uprightness, tolerance and loving patience. Indeed, these are demanding virtues that capitalism, as the dominant economic form cannot support, no matter how diligently it tries. Adam Smith, the world famous economist, but who was also a moral philosopher, did argue that unless capitalism is restrained by morality, as a limiting condition of greed and superfluity, it would eat itself up. To that effect, he developed an elaborate moral theory comprising of what he called “moral sentiments” to control the excesses of the market. He proposed compassion and sociality as two powerful moral sentiments that could regulate the excesses of the market. The moral sentiment, he thought, could counter the purely instrumental features of the capitalist economic form. Of course, to this day, his warning of an inevitable doom has yet to be heeded, and capitalism itself continues to marvel its resiliency to create crises and immediately correct them, thereby proving its “naturalness” and making it easy for its proponents to present it to the world as a God chosen economic form. Any attempt to counter it with something like NEM is dismissed as a pipe dream. No body in her right mind is expected to take NEM seriously. And the fact the geographical origin of NME is an African civilization, conveniently results in dismissing NEM as irrelevant and wishful thinking.

NME as a moral form is considerably deeper than the passing moral sentiments that the Scottish moral philosopher proposed. Generosity, justice, uprightness, tolerance, wisdom and loving patience go directly against our natural proclivity of injustice, dishonesty, intolerance, closed mindness, ignorance and hate. These vices seem to fit the ready to hand tapestry of our makeup, which by now has become, so second nature that no NME is going to dissemble these powerful vices which were effectively used to build empires and economic forms that support the visions of the rich and powerful. In contemporary life revitalizing the features of NEM requires nothing less than cultivating a new human being.

We must create new Ethiopians, who have to be willing and capable of acting generously, patiently, tolerantly and lovingly. We do not have such human beings in sufficient numbers that matter to construct an economic form that values justice, uprightness, wisdom, tolerance and loving patience.

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