Past: Time, Need, Action/Morality
When Voodoo shaman Dutty Boukman called upon those gathered at Bois Caïman to listen to the liberty that lived within their hearts, could he sense the gravity of his words? To be sure, the men and women gathered must have known that history was afoot; the 200-odd slaves that met in the forest on the northern plain of Saint-Domingue surely yearned for change as they made plans to revolt against their masters. Still, did anyone, not least Boukman himself, anticipate that a young man with connection to neither their condition nor locale would be echoing these words from thousands of miles away, centuries later? If they did, I’m sure the thought was fleeting; legend has it that the meeting took place in sleeting rain, and one’s mind must go quickly to the necessities of warmth and dry. Thoughts of historical grandeur are pleasant when they can be afforded, but they are less than functional. What’s more, I promise you I am much different than what they would have briefly imagined.
Necessity is the father of ingenuity, and thus change. I believe this can be extrapolated further: Necessity is the father of action.
We cannot forget this equation works in reverse: action is driven by necessity.
This notion of necessity is difficult to swallow when considering history. Conviction is best understood when it is felt not as intellectual burden, but as visceral need; when change is dictated by the status quo being untenable, not merely onerous. This can be heartening when we consider the great revolutionaries of global history – necessity pushes leaders of men to better the lots of the downtrodden.
But how do we come to terms with the other side of this coin? The great horrors of human history have been perpetrated with this same sense of necessity; it is the same burning of lack and untenability which has pushed them ever further into the depths of cruelty. The same principles of motivation apply because they must: it is marginally more comforting to believe that the gravely sinister acted with a sense of conviction, however misguided, rather than simply out of inborn malice. The devil you know will forever be better than the one you don’t, or worse still, no devil at all.
There are certainly severe sadists who have been responsible for ungodly acts of evil; those who have tormented others for little more than their own satisfaction. However, I believe these people, guided by nothing other than their own sick delight, are historical outliers.
In this light, sugar and its histories take on a different inflection. When one considers the sugar planters of the New World, they too must have been guided by necessity. When labour arrived across the Atlantic from foreign (notably, African) shores, first as indentured labor, and then later as slaves, their exploitation must have been driven by necessity…right?
When the grand blancs of Haiti refused to recognise the citizenship of the affranchis of the colony, it was fuelled by a fear of lack, by the crippling uncertainty that comes when facing down the barrel of insufficiency or danger…right?
Most importantly, when slaves worked to the point of exhaustion, certain death, and somehow further, living every day a nightmare dreamt up by the white ruling class, those masters only wanted to provide for their own…right?
To deploy this thinking is not to be an apologist for the individual, abhorrent crime, but to recognise the the fallibility and corruptibility of man, and for the paranoia and inhumanity that is birthed by need or fear for one’s own survival. These are the conditions which provide fertile ground for history’s great acts of injustice.
In other words, this considers action on the basis of principle alone to be little more than a myth. Man cannot survive on historical grandeur only – people act because they see a way for themselves to survive.
The conclusion that most action, even cruelty, is primarily driven by a perceived necessity is difficult to come to terms with, but it is better than placing a blind faith in the pervasiveness of evil. Better yet, it feels truer to life: we have all done things we aren’t proud of – perhaps not evil things, but certainly unkind things – when we’ve felt there was good reason for it. Malice and caprice are not easy bedmates.
Evidence enough of this is our collective perpetuation of exploitative systems. Your iPhone was produced in unsafe work conditions, your t-shirt sewn together by a child in an emerging nation; all the while, your food was picked by a migrant, seasonal workforce. However, we buy them because we feel they represent a necessity, not because we relish the systemic impediments these products represent.
The New World’s sugar plantations were not only the birthplace of modern capitalism insofar as they served as the initial sites of capital investment in hope of a financial return, but also as the sites of capitalism’s first forays into material depravity. Slavery, of course, is the condition under which human life is measured in “exchange value” and becomes nothing more than an input to be used up for the greatest possible output; Marx himself notes this in Volume One of Das Kapital.
Yet, these remain the forces that have enriched our nations, and made possible the ease and efficiency with which residents of the global north are able to navigate their largely urban and sub-urban lives. These are the forces that have shaped my life, and yours. The sugar in your tea is built on centuries of evil, but we live within these systems because we feel we have no other choice.
After the Saint Domingue slave revolts of 1791 – which would eventually turn into the Haitian Revolution – slave leaders offered to sell their comrades-in-arms back into slavery for their own freedom and amnesty. The French representative on the island at the time, French Governor Philibert François Rouxel de Blanchelande, (astonishingly) rejected this offer. Indeed, it was as an intermediary for the leaders to the colonial powers that Toussaint Louveture entered the revolution. To sell their fellow slaves back into the fields would have been evil, but when faced by an already-presumed defeat, they did what they felt they needed to in order to survive.
This is an instance on a plurality of histories, not simply amongst traditionally cast “sides” of a given historical event, but within any group of recorded “victors” or “losers.” To be sure, this is not a tribute to the facile notion that there are always “good people on both sides.” It is instead to determine that so multiplicitous are the historical vectors that “sides” is an inadequate spatial analogy for considering the intersection of time, need, and action. Moreover, it is to note that to speak of “good” or “bad” here is to subscribe to a logical binary that leaves little room for nuance.
In this light, history can be considered as a series of actions produced from the intersection of time, need, and action, each instance as singular as the individuals by whom they were experienced. As examined above, morality and immorality must become malleable to these moments, not the other way around. If one insists on either morality or immorality as a guiding construct, they are under the sway of kismet or nihilism.
I believe this is critical to making humanistic sense of history for several reasons:
– It alleviates the burden of judgement. Apart from the truly sadistic outliers, there remains just historically righteous or unjust participants in history.
– It is the only way to make sense of our contemporary moment: one defined by dissonance. It forces us to accept that one course of action and its inverse may be equally valuable, or that two facts, seemingly contradictory, may both be true.
Sometimes this kind of thinking is easy: In 1831, when Jamaican baptist slaves formed an army with nearly one-fifth of the island’s slave population, led by preacher Samuel Sharpe, they fought their way towards emancipation. That emancipation began in 1834, and was achieved outright in 1838, ahead of the planned six-year timeline.
Sharpe is historically righteous. There are those who then may have had good reason to disagree with Sharpe. But he is still historically righteous, the lack of “sides” aside.
Sometimes this thinking is hard: In response to slave emancipation, Britain’s parliament awarded £20 million pounds to former slave owners as compensation for their loss. In today’s money, that is about £1.5 billon. The repayment, which was given out in bonds, was not completed until 2015. The slaves, on the other hand, received nothing – their humanity, it must have been thought, was payment enough.
If there are sides to be had, those responsible for that payout were in the wrong; this can be said doubly for the individual who cashed in that bond in 2015. But we must understand that the potential intersections of time, need, and action are infinite, and thus that we may never be able to understand what created those outcomes.
Indeed, it remains true that sugar is as demanding a crop as there is, and that cheap (read: free) labour is about the only way to profitably produce it. Slaveowner or freed slave, white or Black, that truth remains unassailable. And this is but one thread – it goes on forever.
I ask for you to bear with me; to hold onto this one idea. By exploding systematised, linear chronologies, our intellectual and ideological linkages to the past shatter.
The takeaway is this: we have arrived at where we are today due to decisions made in the past, but those decisions are countless, unidentifiable, and profoundly human. If actions were undertaken in response to perceived needs at a specific, singular moment, then there is only this moment, our needs, and each other.
Present: The Impasse
No one in the past was prepared for the present. Most of what people have thought about the future has been incorrect.
Indeed, the decisions we make about the future are rooted in the present. If we can accept that much of what was thought about the future in the past was incorrect out of hand, then we too are likely equally incorrect, and thus decisions we attribute to future needs really satisfy present needs, brought on by expectations of the future.
Pointedly: We cannot take action to assess needs in moments that have not happened.
Importantly, when things do not eventuate as they had been anticipated, it is not necessarily because initial calculations were wrong. It is often because the conditions have merely changed, and intercessory realities have taken hold. Or instead, the full picture only becomes clear once the outcome is inevitable.
Tate & Lyle were among the most vocal supporters of Brexit, looking to abolish the EU trade restrictions that severely stymied their ability to import cane sugar, and thus compete with domestic and continental sugar beet production.
The frankness of their campaigning – and their long history of struggle with the EU and its predecessors – leaves one oddly sympathetic to their cause. It is indeed correct that the EEC/EU’s policy of prioritising sugar beet production versus cane sugar importation has led to additional costs for the company. That is in itself reason enough to believe at least the pervading sentiment of a promotional video in support of Brexit released in January 2017, claiming job losses and downsizing for the company’s employees.
Sugar beet farmers feel just as strongly about Brexit, albeit from the alternative view: the elimination of beneficial subsidies and quotas leave the door open for cane sugar – which is cheaper to produce – to take hold of the British market. Heartbreakingly, these concerns appear against a disastrous crop in 2020 as the backdrop.
Both of these realities can be true. They are simple responding to respective needs at a particular historical moment.
This is about as clear as binaries get: both are campaigning for what amounts to the same cause.
It really doesn’t get simpler.
Let’s complicate it:
“In the EU or out the EU, that’s both P if a man’s broke … Life got me on the ropes, but I’m good at the rope-a-dope.”
– Pushin’, Splurgeboys
This sentiment is an expression of needs, but these needs can be difficult to chart.
More specifically, where do the needs of the individual fit into the rubric of needs expressed by the triangulated tension between Tate and Lyle, British Sugar, and the historical moment (Brexit)? The answer is everywhere and nowhere, hiding in the interstices of commercialism, where the needs of the individual intertwine with the needs of the institution or corporation.
This is a reflection, yes, on the inability of corporate imperatives to adequately represent the needs of a workforce, but more pressingly, on our collective inability to layer adjacent or contradictory motives as they unfold in the present.
We are better suited for accepting ambiguity or the multivalent nature of the distant past, but we are not very adept at accepting it around us in real-time.
This feels very small and obvious, but these deductions, ascertained from our point of origin, highlight key (and problematic) sites of impasse.
What we know:
– Tate and Lyle and British Sugar are looking to achieve legislative advantage in order to pursue what amounts to the same ends. This has created, in effect, a (almost) perfect binary.
– However, when the role of the worker (or, read: individual) is introduced, we no longer have the intellectual bandwidth to adequately understand how three or more parties whose needs do not chart across the same axes of time, need, and action intersect. To this end, once the individual is exposed as being non-axial in relation to the others, the differences proliferate.
What we don’t know:
– The future.
Future: You Know Enough
What we know:
Chapter 1: Historical linearity is a convenient myth; morality is (often) both malleable and dependent on need.
Chapter 2: Action taken in anticipation for the future is actually action satisfying a need in the present, due to our inability to know the future; we have no means of really comprehending the a-linearity of human history as it unfolds in the present.
Important to know: none of this logic is an advocation for either nihilism or fate.
Here, nihilism and fate exist to much the same effect:
Nihilism: My existence has no purpose because there is no purpose.
Fate: My existence has no purpose that I know of because my purpose is preordained.
Understanding the present as the culmination of countless actions taken at the intersection of need and time means the only tenable world view is that of humanism.
It is the only position capacious enough to allow for the ever-changing, albeit (necessarily) human needs that have driven the story of the world to date.
A humanistic world view dictates action to the ends of ensuring the well-being of others.
This ideological dictum is enough to constitute a need in order to generate action.
Principle does not drive action, but working to the benefit of others under a humanistic rubric constitutes not principle but participation in a broader social cosmos; without this one is necessarily succumbing to fate or nihilism.
If we only have the capacity to understand the needs of the present moment, the work we undertake is best applied to the now.
That is not to say that we should not think to the future – indeed, as stated previously, preparing for conceptions of the future may satisfy needs in the present. However, it is to say that if given the option between acting now and future action, action now is always preferable.
If we do not have the capacity to understand a-linearity in the present, action towards our most immediate, most pressing context is always preferable to action undertaken in support of an amorphous, non-immediate need.
The most pressing needs of those closest to us are of paramount importance.
If morality is often malleable, then forgiveness – or at least acceptance of fault – becomes the only tenable humanistic position.
Those who have wronged in your eyes still deserve to have their well-being ensured; if the terms of wrongdoing can be moulded, or better, undone, a position of moral generosity is the only position to take.
This mode of humanistic benefaction bears closest resemblance to mutual aid. It is only mutual aid that collectivises well-being while recognising shared humanity.
This installation is a gesture to both the past and future, while being a response to the present. The hibiscus plant pays tribute to the colonial past echoed in this space; its closed buds, ready to blossom, a tribute to the hope of the future.
However, it is also an offering to you. I can’t know your needs, but I proffer it is as response to the immediate demands of the context: you have come here for beauty and life amidst rubble and concrete. It is not much, but I have tried to bring you beauty, no matter how you understand art. But these are living things, and ones much more demanding of present action than us. As such, I ask that you extend your own help as a counter-gesture: as leaves die and soil dries, I ask you take a moment to beautify the space in your own right, responding to both my need to maintain the space, and those around you, joining you in the space.