1% tax, 100% forgiveness

The equation of human suffering and money is so tenuous, so dangerous, that only under the rarest circumstances should the thought ever be entertained. By equating suffering and money we enter into an exchange, an economy that places value on what cannot be thought of in terms of value.

So dangerous is this “transaction” that our first obligation, even before entering it, is not to the victim but to the question: Are the necessary conditions in place that will prevent this equation from succumbing to the logic of an economy, amount to an equivocation of the sacred and profane, of human life with “value”?

In other words, are the necessary conditions in place that will allow this “transaction” to pass without becoming a transaction, a compensation that will not become compensation, an equivocation that will not pretend to be a compensation? and so on.

I think there are at least three such conditions.

First, an imaginary objective observer—one who is empathetic to human struggles yet sufficiently removed from them not to have a vested interest in their outcome—must be able to conclude: What you are about to do is treacherous but you are forgiven, in advance, for you have little choice.

Only when we have little choice but to equate life with money does it possibly become forgivable to do so. In our post-secular age—one in which God is dead but spirituality is alive—there is no longer an observer, alien or divine, who can issue such a guarantee. Instead, whatever forgiveness we need to invoke as guarantee for making this equation bearable must be immanent to the social bond itself. It must be a function of the recognition that the bond is irreparably torn; that nothing short of a miracle can fix it and that in such a state of human exception we have little choice but to forgive ourselves for entertaining the possibility of such a transaction.

The fact that courts of law as a rule compensate suffering with money does not mean that we have recovered from the metaphysical wound this implies, nor that we may not revisit the logic of that remedy when it is called for. This is a matter of law as much as it is one of morality and metaphysics. What matters to me is the problem of thinking the latter two in a world that is post-secular. Enter the difficulty of thinking guilt, culpability, shame and responsibility when we can no longer claim “God made me do it.” Which is exactly why we need to take these three conditions very seriously. 

The second is the moral purity of both victim and perpetrator, purity not in an absolute but in a contextual sense: a “purity” that entirely derives from the historical moment when the possibility of the transaction is contemplated. One sign of this purity is that all of us collectively recognise in the transaction the danger that, once we equate suffering (the breaking of the social bond) with money, we run the risk of not healing the bond but contributing to its unravelling by depriving it of its requisite sacredness—of what should remain beyond value. Recognition, then, that the circumstances are so dire, the call so just that the risk is worth the taking: “If we don’t proceed with this transaction we will have failed ourselves yet again.”

The third condition takes us to the limits of the sacred. From the context itself, from the very specific historical circumstances in which the giver and receiver find themselves, from the responsibilities and opportunities we’ve all had to avoid having to take this risk, it is imperative that one thought above all should remain beyond the pale, unthought, not even entertained as a racist slur. This is the thought of financial opportunism, the thought that “While the cause is just, I fear that it may just be about the money.”

This thought must remain unthinkable at the precise moment when we consider the transaction, because it flags the possibility that suffering is being used as capital. Only the naivety that is the absence of this thought can guarantee the integrity of equating suffering with money. This innocence is the sacred circle that needs to circumscribe the conversation. In less pompously spiritual terms: this innocence absolves us, in advance, of entering the transaction.

Whatever melancholy we may have about the failure to have instituted some version of a wealth tax at the time of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)—however many mutations of racist and moral cowardice circulated among whites who resisted the idea—nobody back then thought of accusing the incoming government of just trying to make up a short-fall, of identifying additional sources of income; nobody suggested that it was just about the money. We were innocent then. Racist, yes; scared, yes—but innocent of that thought.

These conditions may seem impossible and therefore useless. And yes, the idea of a conversation between morally pure agents is impossible. But it is not for that reason useless. On the contrary, it is an invitation to think creatively, as John Rawls did in A Theory of Justice (1971). In that ground-breaking text he asked: How can we imagine the conditions under which there would be a basic agreed-upon minimum of justice in the world, given that we all have vested interests in what that world should look like? He suggested a thought experiment. Imagine that everybody who was going to take part in this conversation drank from a River of Forgetfulness before they entered the conversation.

The water from this river made them forget about the interests they would otherwise be prone to defend. The result would be a conversation between true equals; one in which every single person would have an interest in arguing for the basic minimum of justice because everyone would know that they may well be the one who would need that bottom line once the forgetfulness wears off. 

There are important differences and similarities between Rawls’s project and our need to have a conversation about a 1% wealth tax for whites, as suggested by Desmond Tutu. The difference is that Rawls was after a world that would be just; we are in search of a world that would be moral. And while interests make it difficult for people to talk as equals about justice, we are in a position where suspicion, prejudice and ressentiment make it impossible for us to talk as morally pure individuals.

In other words, where Rawls demanded absolute (hypothetical) equality, we need absolute (hypothetical) trust. He suggested we drink from the River of Forgetfulness in order to bracket those interests. I am suggesting we get to trust by sticking with the conditions for a moral conversation—particularly conditions two and three.

They are intimately related. Condition two requires of all of us to agree that the situation is so dire, the cause so just that we cannot but entertain this possibility. But here’s the catch. In order to agree that the situation is indeed so dire that only a treacherous equation of suffering with money can save us, we need to engage condition number three. This condition requires all of us to give an account of what we’ve done over the last 17 years to address the problem to which the transaction is suggested as a solution. Only by abiding with these conditions will some be prevented from prostituting the past while others will be compelled to take responsibility for it.

In the spirit of the courage this conversation will demand of all of us, allow me to go first. Let me articulate my worst fear in an attempt to push myself in the direction of the impossible moral purity that is required here. My worst fear is that the government will end up converting a morally sound gesture into “tax”, thereby allowing the one thought that ought to remain unthought to penetrate our moral hymen. The thought goes: “We need to launch a National Health Insurance Scheme but we’ve spent all the money on guns and soccer.” Even worse, that there is only one failsafe way to ban the thought of financial opportunism from this conversation in order to recreate a simulation of lost innocence: white guilt.
Your turn.

Leonhard Praeg is assistant professor in political and international studies at Rhodes University and co-ordinator of its Thinking Africa project; he is the author of The Geometry of Violence (2007)

Academic Samantha Vice has caused a storm of controversy with her thoughts on white shame in South Africa. Read the reactions. View our special report.

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