From the Epic of Gilgamesh to The Iliad, the Vedas and the Old Testament, the memory of our deep past is, among other things, a catalogue of battles — an accumulation of bodies. That accumulation of bodies gathers across the ages and into the present.
The foundations of the modern world, an age of reason and enlightenment for some and holocaust for others, were laid in blood as well as philosophy. The crushing of the peasant revolts and the witch hunts in Europe, the colonial genocides and the Atlantic slave trade were all essential to the making of the modern world.
Today, we continue to inhabit a world in which the weight accorded to human lives is undeniably and radically unequal. That inequality is frequently inscribed within a recognisably colonial paradigm.
Last month, the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre, perpetrated by United States soldiers in South Vietnam, and the 15th anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq were marked.
The My Lai massacre cost the lives of hundreds; women were gang-raped and bodies mutilated. Estimates of the number of civilians killed by US bombings in North Vietnam start at 50 000. The invasion of Iraq, and the occupation that followed, is estimated to have cost up to a million lives.
These facts and many others are not in dispute. But a teenager turning on her television in Johannesburg is likely to encounter representations of the US military as heroic or complex. When incidents of brutality are confronted, they are often presented as an aberration or as consequent to problematic personalities, and are almost invariably framed within a larger narrative of redemption.
The scale of the human cost in the wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo is disputed, but it is often reported that more than five million lives were lost between 1997 and 2003. Villages in North Kivu continue to come under attack. It is rare to come across serious reporting on these events in much of the international media. The implicit message is clear — some lives don’t count for very much.
Of course, the ideological mechanisms that mark out who can legitimately be killed and who cannot, when murder is considered as heroic, as an everyday policing operation or as criminal, when murder is visible and when it is not, whose lives count and whose do not, shift across time and space. People have been massacred in the name of religion, civilisation, nation, profit and revolution.
There is no single barrier to accepting the universality of the moral logic that every human life should carry equal weight. And monomania never ends well. When the complexity of the human world is denied and resistance to oppression collapses into a counter-Manichaeism, a mirror image of what it opposes, it is inevitable that people are going to get hurt. Frantz Fanon made this point with striking perspicuity.
In South Africa, a high price has been paid for the ease and frequency with which attempts to assert principle in struggle — including commitments to feminism, democracy and, on occasion, even basic honesty — have been denigrated and dismissed as “liberal”.
But this does not mean that liberalism, as an existing political project, has not been central to the accumulation of modern catastrophe. From the beginning it was constituted around a distinction between the civilised and the barbarian, the sacred and the profane, those whose humanity is obvious and uncontested and those who, in a phrase used by the Jamaican philosopher Sylvia Wynter, are “humans who can be not quite human”.
As I have noted in these pages before, the great liberal philosophers John Locke and John Stuart Mill were explicitly committed to a conception of rights that excluded most of humanity. “Despotism,” Mill wrote, “is a legitimate form of government in dealing with barbarians.”
The Italian philosopher and historian Domenico Losurdo shows that, in the liberal revolutions in the Netherlands, Britain and the US, “the demand for liberty and justification of the enslavement, as well as the decimation (or destruction) of barbarians, were closely intertwined”. He also demonstrates that “[s]lavery is not something that persisted despite the success of the three liberal revolutions. On the contrary, it experienced its maximum development following that success.”
Today, the liberal public sphere in Europe and its settler colonies sustains a significant international reach and authority. It tends to pride itself on how clear-eyed it is with regard to the crimes committed in the name of oppositional states and movements — Marxism, anticolonial nationalism and, more recently, Islamism. But a moral imperative, say, to disavow the murder of civilians in the struggle against colonialism in Algeria is seldom matched by an equally consistent imperative to disavow the bombing of Dresden, or Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
When these crimes are acknow- ledged, they are more or less never taken to call the entire armed struggle against fascism into question, in the way that armed anticolonial struggles are regularly disparaged by their contradictions or excesses.
A review of the collection of George W Bush’s paintings published last year is likely to present a far more complex and sympathetic picture of Bush as a human being than an obituary for Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
The long sequence of world history inaugurated by the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean in 1492 is not over. The initial justification for the claim to civilisational superiority was framed in Christian terms. But as science and philosophy displaced the authority of the church, Christianity as ideology gave way to liberalism and claims about race as biology, and then intensely racialised claims about culture.
Today, in the liberal public sphere, the implicit but dominant conception of the human — or, at least, the human whose life is held to be of real value and whose death should be grieved — is plainly not universal.
After the attacks on Paris in 2015, then US president Barack Obama declared: “This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.” It is unimaginable that an American president could say the same about an Israeli attack on unarmed civilians in Gaza. Britain’s Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn would be subject to an avalanche of organised vilification if he repeated Obama’s words, but instead of “Paris” and “France”, said “Gaza” and “Palestine”.
In the aftermath of the massacre of Palestinian protesters by the Israeli military last Saturday, The Guardian ran a headline describing the people murdered by the Israeli state as having died in “clashes with Israeli forces”. It is unimaginable that a similar headline would appear if a Palestinian militia were shooting at unarmed Israeli civilians. The Guardian was, rightly, excoriated for its reporting. But we should recall that much of the initial reporting of the Marikana massacre in our media, most of which considers itself to be broadly liberal, was even more rank with colonial tropes.
It often seems that the colonial hierarchy in the value accorded to human life is so entrenched and backed by such powerful forces that it cannot be overcome. Year after year, Palestine continues to be occupied. Black men continue to be murdered with impunity in the US. The lives of impoverished black people continue to count for very little in South Africa.
Regimes change. The language used to justify power shifts. But a discernible, and often lethal, colonial logic endures. Neither Europe nor its settler colonies seem willing, in Fanon’s words, to “wake up and shake themselves, use their brains, and stop playing the stupid game of the Sleeping Beauty”.
Nonetheless, we should recall that no empire or epoch is permanent. The sequence of human history inaugurated in 1492 will come to an end. Achieving that end, and doing so on a democratic basis, will require new forms of power and new institutions. But it will also require new ways of understanding our history, our present and prospects for our future.
As Wynter insists, the ongoing accumulation of crisis cannot be posed as a serious question, understood or resolved “within the conceptual framework of our present order of knowledge”.
One of the urgent tasks that must be undertaken against the present order of knowledge is that liberalism, in terms of its foundational texts and as an actually existing political project, must be held to full account for the world that it has made, and that it is still making.
This is not to suggest that authoritarian alternatives are preferable, but to assert that every human life must count as a life, and that equality must be affirmed as a universal principle.
Richard Pithouse is an associate professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research