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Aristide Returns to Haiti–and crises, material and ethical

“We have not reached the consensus that to eat is a basic human right. This is an ethical crisis. This is a crisis of faith.”
— Jean-Bertrand Aristide

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, democratically elected, deposed in two coups with the blessing (and probably the active support) of the United States, living in exile in South Africa since the second coup seven years ago, returned to Haiti today. Aristide’s return to Haiti in the midst of the electoral debacle there, the banning of his party, and the polite ignorance by the mainstream media of the historical roots of Haiti’s current misery, make for a situation rich in irony. Aristide strikes a rational, benevolent figure, where the media has tried for years to make him appear crazy. In Port-au-Prince, he gave a speech in five languages, challenged the exclusion of the Lavalas party, and made an interesting distinction to Haitian celebrity Wyclef Jean, who is performing at a concert tonight in support of right-wing presidential candidate Michel Martelly. Nor was the irony of Aristide’s return lost on his lawyer, Ira Kurzban:

You know, the irony of all this is, on the one hand, they were saying how unpopular—in 2004, they were saying how unpopular he was, and yet they didn’t want him in the Western hemisphere. And somehow, no one caught the irony of all that. But yeah, the documents were basically saying that the United States government was engaged in a conscious program, through the Brazilians and others, to pressure South Africa to make sure that Aristide did not come back, as I’m sure they’re under immense pressure today to try and keep him here at least until after the election.

Aristide wasted no time and immediately raised foundational issues, calling the situation of Haiti’s tent-dwellers a barometer for the entire nation.

The atmosphere at the airport was charged. It was here after all that Aristide was bundled on to a plane in February 2004, leaving behind a rebellion in full cry and a power vacuum. Since then the country has endured landslides, political stasis and enduring poverty – all compounded by last year’s earthquake which killed more than 300,000 people.
“Since the earthquake, the humiliation of the people under tents is the humiliation of all the Haitian people,” Aristide said.
…”Modern-day slavery will have to end today,” said Aristide. “The greatest richness of Haiti is Haitians. Remedy for Haiti is love.”

But I want to talk briefly about Aristide’s observation that the lack of consensus on food as a fundamental human right represents an ethical crisis. What is an “ethical crisis?” I take it to be the same as a scientific or other paradigmatic crisis. When a phenomenon presents, and troublingly re-presents itself, over and over, with scholars and thinkers and researchers unable to fold the phenomenon up neatly and file it away in the reigning systems of human knowledge that might otherwise lay claim to it, that’s a crisis for the discipline in question.

Material oppression, and especially oppression of the magnitude suffered by the people of Haiti, does indeed constitute a crisis of ethics. It places in crisis those abstract notions of “rights” and “goods” discussed in legal and political theory. When discussions of this sort take place in privileged (even relatively privileged) academic circles, there is seldom room for more than a condescending acknowledgment of the hungry and the homeless.

Why is it an ethical crisis when global leaders and their think tanks actually disagree on whether there is a right to (and accompanying positive obligation to provide) food to the hungry? Why is it a crisis, rather than an open question? The idea that one may withhold food from the starving other problematizes the distinction between positive and negative rights, just as it problematizes the difference between active and passive murder. We make those distinctions in the abstract. Material relations, the interrelatedness of everyone, make those abstractions inappropriate, because we soon realize the way crisis situations erase the line between willfulness and passivity. When faced with hunger in a context of inequality, where the means and resources exist to address it, indifference becomes an active response, not a morally neutral non-action.

The answers put forward by defenders of free markets, or U.S. imperialism, or both, seem curiously hypothetical and naive. They assume worlds without limits, absent of externalities, or they rely on the good graces of imperial powers to soften the impact of vast material hierarchy. They roll back constantly into social darwinism, Randian objectivism, or Calvinism–sometimes creatively permuting the three. They can’t account for most of their own assumptions, and misunderstand the assumptions of poor and working class Haitians, Hondurans, Egyptians, Palestinians, and Americans.

Although somewhat dated, Paul Mattick’s 1965 essay on socialism and humanism provides a good description of the worldview of those who would invoke dead ethical principles in defense of what is, objectively speaking, a kill-or-be-killed material order. It’s interesting to read that description while thinking about the people of Haiti.

The ‘survival of the fittest’ involves both force and ideology. The force brought to bear upon the ‘unfit’, i.e. the working classes, resides in the capitalist class possessing the means of production and its control over the political means of coercion. The ideology which supports this condition and, thus, the exploitation of labour by capital, maintains that capital production and the social relations at its base are natural relations independent of the influence of time. To make this doubly sure, old superstitions were revived and added to the new. Once more men were turned into passive victims of superhuman forces beyond their control. The humanisation process which had accompanied the rise of capitalism turned into a new and more powerful dehumanisation process through the subordination of all human endeavour to the new fetish of capital production.

Aristide also refers to a spiritual crisis in his remark. I can only assume he meant that the moral duty to feed the hungry found in the Christian canon as well as in most other world religions ought to override, or inform, the question of whether eating food might be constructed institutionally as a human right. Expelled from his priestly order in 1988 for preaching liberation theology and “inciting violence,” Aristide responded that “Jesus could not accept people going hungry. It is a conflict between classes, rich and poor.” There was no question in his mind whether Jesus would struggle for food rather than let people starve. Despite the historically successful effort of religious conservatives to always punctuate scriptural moral duty with “not if the government does it,” Aristide’s spiritual vision represents the inescapably progressive, even socialist normative commitment of Christianity among the poor. “Government,” “redistribution,” “dependency” — these are not greater evils than malnutrition, disease, lack of education, lack of jobs, and goons beating down those who protest such conditions. As economic conditions worsen around the world, look for a new liberation theology to supplement the widespread rejection of neoliberalism and multinational capitalism. Just as conservative ethics break down in the face of the hungry and homeless, conservative religious edicts dismissing redistribution of wealth make as much sense in Port-Au-Prince as an ice machine at Vostok Station.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s return to Haiti occurs in the midst of a significant, if limited and uncertain, shift in class politics across the Americas–as well as a categorical rejection of neoliberal economic models by the people of the Middle East and North Africa. Haiti has always been on the losing end of these battles, but the symbolic victory of Aristide’s return at a time when the rest of the world is beginning to recognize our villains as resembling Haiti’s is worth celebrating. Aristide’s return re-asks the question of why people are allowed to starve in a world where abundance is possible. That question, in different forms, is now being asked, again, in many different places. The liberals in mainstream media wince and shake their heads that such a “polarizing” figure has returned to Haiti. But the only reason there are “poles” to polarize around is that Haiti’s history consists of an unmitigated material beat-down on the vast majority of its citizens, with occasional uprisings by the oppressed–uprisings that have, without exception, been condemned by the United States. It’s that sort of material assymetry that shreds abstract political theory, and abstract ethical formulae. We might just be creating something new now, and that’s a happy time.

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About Matt J. Stannard

Policy Director for Commonomics USA, longtime writer, speaker, and legal & policy consultant on economic justice and public deliberation.