Neville Alexander, Unbounded Organisation, and the Future of Socialism


Howard Richards – TRANSCEND Media Service

In the late 1980s, as apartheid neared its end, Neville Alexander called on educators to   “…shape consciousness in ways that are looking forward, in ways that are preparing people for a liberated, non-racial, democratic, and socialist South Africa.”   On May 13, 2010, in his Strini Moodley Memorial Lecture at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal he said, “There ought to be no doubt in anyone’s mind …that … the bourgeoisie, the self-same capitalist class of yesterday, is in command of all the strategic positions, no matter what the ‘democratic’ posturing of the politicians might be.”   As of the date of his death, August 27, 2012, the socialism he had desired and advocated, and in some periods of his life had perhaps expected, had not come to pass.  Did he die then in the terms of Thomas Kuhn as one of the old men who still believed in the old paradigm who had to die before the new paradigm of triumphant capitalism could fully occupy the intellectual terrain?  Or did he die at a time when, in the words of Jean-Paul Sartre,  Marxism was still in its infancy; when any pretended “refutation” of Marxism could only be a return to pre-Marxist ideas or the rediscovery of an idea already contained in the philosophy “refuted.”?[1]

Is Neville Alexander’s life’s work a contribution to a revolution that is still happening?

My answers to these questions will turn on the concept of “accumulation.”  Marx wrote, “With the accumulation of capital there develops the specifically capitalist mode of production, and with the specifically capitalist form of production there develops the accumulation of capital.  … Each accumulation becomes a means for making a new accumulation.”[2]

Armed with Marx’s concept of accumulation I will offer an explanation of why at this point in history socialism appears to many to be a lost cause.  I will offer definitions of capitalism and of socialism.  Then I will explain why socialism (so defined), while apparently perhaps a lost cause, is nevertheless so necessary that if humanity has a future at all it is a socialist future.    With all of this preparation I will be in a position to answer the questions posed above.   Yes, Neville Alexander was an adherent of an old paradigm, but the new paradigm is not triumphant capitalism.   It is unbounded organisation and it is expressed in Alexander’s thought although he did not use the term.  Yes, Marxism is still in its infancy, but in its maturity it will not remain within the limits of the heritage bequeathed by its Ricardian ancestry.   In its maturity Marxism will blend with more recent economic history and substantive anthropology:    Yes Neville Alexander contribute to a never-ending revolution that Paulo Freire called “cultural action” and “humanisation.”

Central Planning as a Lost Cause

Shortly after Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized state power in Russia ushering in the era of “really existing socialism” Ludwig von Mises published his famous proof that a centrally planned economy is impossible.     Von Mises identified socialism with rational central planning.  Consequently for him if rational central planning was impossible then socialism was impossible.

The crux of von Mises´ argument is that it is impossible to make a rational choice among alternative uses of scarce resources without numerical measures of the expected costs and benefits of each option considered.  He maintains that it is impossible to measure costs and benefits without the numerical measures provided by prices.  There are for him no “real” prices without markets.  On his view under socialism (by definition) markets in producers goods are not allowed to operate freely enough to establish the real prices needed to ground rational choices.

Impossible though it might have been in some sense of the word “impossible,” Soviet central planning existed for more than half a century.  But von Mises and his allies did not consider themselves refuted by the phenomenon of a large formerly very poor country industrializing under a series of five year plans.  In their eyes Soviet planners were chronically and inevitably bungling.  The Soviet Union existed, but “socialism” in what they took to be the true sense of the word did not exist.  Socialism (if it were possible) would be rational central planning.

Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History and the Last Man (1992) added a new twist to the ongoing debates about the feasibility and merits of central planning.  Fukuyama was willing to concede that socialism had existed.  Socialism had achieved the basic industrialization of Russia and several other countries.  But it did not exist anymore.  “History” defined as competition among economic systems was “now” (in 1992) over.  The United States model of capitalism plus democracy was now the universal ideal and the irreversible trend, give or take a few pockets of resistance slow to join the consensus.  In the future socialism will be a non-starter.  Clumsy bureaucratic central planning had managed to bungle and coerce some of the backward peoples of the world as far forward as the level of basic industrialization, but from here on into the future humanity will live in “knowledge societies” provisioned by “knowledge economies.”  In tomorrow’s knowledge-driven fast paced economies capitalism will be the only game in town.

The most compelling reason for viewing central planning as a lost cause is that Communist parties in power appear to have been persuaded by liberal economics in general and by the doctrine that real prices require free markets in particular.  Well before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 its nomenklatura had been convinced that free market reforms were necessary and had started to implement them.  Chinese reformists led by Deng Xiaoping abandoned central planning in 1978 in favour of what in China is called “the responsibility system.”   Fidel Castro’s younger brother and successor Raul with the support of Cuba’s technocratic elite has embraced markets and private business, as have governing Communist parties in Vietnam and in the Indian states of Kerala and West Bengal.

Some Common Arguments against Social Democracy

Social democracy broadly conceived as any attempt to introduce elements of socialism into a basically capitalist economy is commonly attacked on the following grounds.

It is said that any increase in the power of Leviathan (the state) even when it is for benevolent purposes is a step toward tyranny.  This is the argument of Friedrich van Hayek in his classic anti-socialist polemic The Road to Serfdom.  (Although he was of course an anti-Communist, and although he criticized central planning, for the most part he considered that his mentor and teacher Ludwig von Mises had already refuted the arguments for central planning.   Van Hayek was mainly concerned to attack the moderate social democrats by arguing that contrary to their own best intentions the measures they were advocating could only lead to tyranny.)

It is said that acting on good intentions often has unintended bad consequences.  In principle this is not an objection to social democracy; it is an admonition to temper democracy with strong doses of social science.  In practice the good intentions in question are usually those typical of social democracies, such as to raise wages, to strengthen trade unions, to build a welfare state, to ensure safety on the job and to minimize environmental damage.  In practice the unintended consequences in question are typically capital flight, slow growth or none, mounting debt, inflation, and/or rising unemployment.

Let us now look at the same dynamic in reverse. Instead of focussing on the unintended consequences of the well-meant Robinhoodism of the social democrats, let us focus on the observed real-world results of the incentives for investors of the neoliberals.   Now we see that it is easy for neoliberals to amass empirical evidence confirming their beliefs, because some of their beliefs are true.  It is true that incentives attract investment.  It is true that investment spurs growth.  Standard research designs following standard notions of scientific method produce proof after specious proof.

Left-leaning politicians are commonly called “populists” or even “demagogues.”  The insinuation is that they make promises they cannot keep.  They generate mass movements that make greater demands on the state than the state can satisfy.  Frequently the upshot is that a combination of the disappointed anger of the masses and the economic realism of the elite leads to an authoritarian crackdown.  A muted version of this argument knits together Norberto Bobbio´s book The Future of Democracy.  Bobbio finds that the viable democracies of the future will be those that do not attempt redistribution of wealth or structural change.

Lastly on this short list of arguments against social democracy it is argued that socialistic practices destroy the one thing needful: the confidence of financial markets.  Even talk envisioning socialistic practices that might or might not materialize can destroy the confidence of financial markets.   Nelson Mandela echoed many when he said to his staff shortly after being elected president of South Africa, “Chaps, we have to choose.  We either keep nationalization and get no investment, or we modify our own attitude and get investment.”   However Simon-pure social democrats may be in their commitment to non-violence and however impeccable their credentials as authentic democrats may be, when they take or advocate steps toward socialism they are commonly found guilty of shattering confidence.   When they back off they are praised for improving confidence.  “Confidence” here means in the first instance the expectations of investors that their investments will be profitable.  From there the idea of “confidence” goes on to embrace the attitudes of the consumers and the other classes of actors whose thoughts and feelings either set the economy humming forward or jerk it into reverse.

Accumulation as an Explanatory Concept

Although history is so complex and so varied that it is perilous to attribute any given effect to any definite cause, Marx’s concept of accumulation can be deployed to with considerable verisimilitude to explain the causes of the setbacks of socialism in the 20th century.   Or, at least, so I claim, and so I will now briefly seek to demonstrate.   Marx wrote in Das Kapital, “With the accumulation of capital there develops the specifically capitalist mode of production, and with the specifically capitalist form of production there develops the accumulation of capital.  … Each accumulation becomes a means for making a new accumulation.”[2]  Later, in the posthumously published second volume of the same work Marx illustrated accumulation with diagrams that can be simplified as follows:

M         >       C        >   ……..P …………    >        C´        >         M´

The diagram shows that the capitalist begins with M, Money.

With the money M he purchases the commodities C necessary for production, most notably the peculiar commodity that is the labour power of the workers.

(Marx’s German word translated as C “commodities” is Waren, a cognate of the English “wares” i.e. things made to be bought and sold.  The word “wares” was famously employed by the innocent Simple Simon who said to the pieman “Let me taste your wares,” unaware that in a mercantile economy the possession of money is a prerequisite to eating—a point later developed more profoundly albeit less poignantly by Amartya Sen in his study of famines.)

Next in the diagram the owner of the commodities purchased causes the process of production to ensue:  ……P…….

At the end of Production the same capitalist owner has become the owner of other wares. Now they have become commodities with a greater value, designated as C´

Finally comes the sale of C´ resulting in M´.   The quantity of Money M´ earned by the sale of the commodities produced is greater than M, the quantity of Money initially invested.

The difference M´ –  M  Marx calls surplus value (Mehrwert).

The diagram shows the germ of the idea of accumulation.   Extended accumulation comes from repeating the cycle.  M´ can be invested again to produce M´´,  which can be invested again to produce M´´´ and so on.   Accumulation continues indefinitely motivating production and generating ever greater wealth.

The French regulationist school of economists followed by cultural critics like David Harvey and Kenneth Jameson has extended the idea of accumulation found in Marx and other classical economists beyond the sphere of market exchange.   They refer to a “regime” of accumulation comprehending all of the institutions of society: politics,  education, culture, family, religion (and in Jameson even the subconscious mind).   Everything must be compatible with and geared to accumulation.  If it is not –if some element or dimension of society brakes accumulation– the system does not function.   Translated into Keynesian terms (see Chapter 12 of Keynes´ General Theory) the whole world depends for its daily bread on the “confidence” of investors.  The system cannot function without confidence, that is to say confidence that M´ will exceed M.

The Setbacks of Socialism in the Twentieth Century

Although the analytic emphasis here is on failure, I do not mean to eclipse or to fail to celebrate success.  Surely if it had not been for the heroic efforts in the twentieth century of the socialists and the social democrats (some of whom are by an odd quirk of language called “liberals” in the USA)  the levels of longevity, health, freedom and security of the world’s masses would be lower than they are now in the twenty first century.

To some considerable extent (ignoring for the moment the continuing importance of non-capitalist material practices in the world) the point of departure for a transition to socialism is a system whose mainspring is accumulation.

The unintended consequences, the disappointments of populism, and the destruction of investor confidence that have plagued social democracy can be readily understood as the unravelling of regimes of accumulation.  Where everyone’s livelihood depends on capitalists making profits, falling profits means failing livelihoods.  Uncertain profits mean uncertain livelihoods.   For this reason, social democrats elected to public office have to walk a tightrope.   They have to manage capitalism successfully enough not only to prevent its collapse, but also successfully enough to keep it from slowing down so much that they are blamed for poor economic performance and voted out of office.   At the same time they must manage (or attempt to manage) the system, they are committed to transforming it.

It is perhaps less obvious how the concept of accumulation sheds light on van Hayek’s (and his allies)  influential argument that every step toward a welfare state is a step toward tyranny.    His argument is in any event something of a groundless bogey,  albeit still an influential groundless bogey, because since 1944 when he composed it there have not been any welfare states that have degenerated into totalitarian tyranny.  Van Hayek makes some interesting points  regarding Hitler and Stalin, but neither Sweden’s Hjalmar Branting nor the UK´s Clement Atlee nor any other social democratic leader who has led his people down what van Hayek called the road to serfdom has in fact led them to or toward serfdom.   Nevertheless, even though his empirical case in his most famous book rests almost entirely on a biased sample of two, van Hayek does make a conceptual case that links an increasing role of government in the economy with political tyranny.  That case is better understood if it is taken into account that accumulation is the mainspring (according to Marx the invariable accompaniment and virtually the definition) of capitalism.    Van Hayek chimes in with the argument that demagogues make promises they fail to keep (here an understanding of the concept of accumulation comes in, since it illuminates why they fail to keep them) and adds that their very failure motivates them to seize still more economic and political power.   He sees the slide into tyranny as an iterative process in which successive waves of tribal sentiment and misguided economic ideology undermine and eventually destroy the legal framework of liberty.

The concept of accumulation, because it is a two-sided concept,  also contributes to explaining the failures of central planning.   Capital accumulation is both a dynamic and a logic.   It is a dynamic that motivates human action; namely the pursuit of profit.   It is a logic that defines rational decision-making;  namely optimizing profits by maximizing revenue from sales while minimizing costs.  Central planning is a logic but it is not a dynamic.   It proposes a series of methodologies for deciding where to commit resources and what to do with them.   The adequacy of central planning techniques as a logic for decision-making remains a large subject on which much has been said, and much remains to be said.  I for one believe that the best societies of the future will be neither completely planned nor completely unplanned.  In any event whatever its status may be as a logic, central planning is not a dynamic.  It does not shed light on how to motivate people to do what in some sense or senses of “rational” and/or “ethical” they should do.     It does not propose methodologies for cultural transformation.     To build an alternative to capitalism it would be necessary to do both,  that is to say both some kind or kinds of  economic planning and some form or forms what Paulo Freire calls cultural action.  People would have to be socialized to play roles in a society of liberty, equality, and fraternity and they would have to find pleasure and personal fulfilment in playing those roles.

Definitions of Capitalism and of Socialism

The arguments against socialism mounted by the likes of von Mises, van Hayek, and Fukuyama have depended on tendentious definitions.    Capitalism has been defined as a system where resources are allocated by competitive free markets.   The real prices that capitalism allegedly has and socialism allegedly lacks are by definition the prices  generated by such markets.    Socialism has been defined as central planning.  The definition of capitalism is not realistic.  The definition of socialism is not fair.

Historically as distinguished historians like Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein show capitalism has never been a system of competitive free markets.  Capitalism has always been a struggle (and frequently an armed struggle) to capture privileged niches that yield for  their incumbents sustainable rents (in the economic sense of “rent” derived from the Ricardian tradition).   Real capitalists have always sought and found refuge from the intense competition postulated by textbooks.   Further, as Joseph Schumpeter has wryly noted,  the mythical system where resources are allocated by competitive free markets that serves as an ideology justifying capitalism is not even a possible ideal.  If such an ideal were ever to be implemented, it would drive down profits to so close to zero that the system would cease to function.

I propose to define capitalism as production for the purpose of sale, where sale is for the purpose of profit, thus more briefly as production for the purpose of profit.  I do  not make the exploitation of labour (in a pejorative sense of the term “exploitation”) part of the essence of capitalism expressed in its definition, but I do acknowledge the exploitation of labour to be a fact characteristic of  much of  the real-world history of capitalism.  My definition does not imply that the capitalist epoch of history will necessarily be followed by a socialist  epoch, but I do believe (for reasons given below)  that for the human species  to become a sustainable species it must liberate itself from its domination by capitalism.  For the most part except for making exploitation a contingent fact and not part of the definition I track the usage of the man who coined the term, Karl Marx.  Marx begins Das Kapital saying that his book will be about that form of society whose wealth consists of a vast collection of Waren, i.e. of things made to be sold.

I propose to define socialism as the continuing power of the people to create and to select the institutions that work best for them.   Neville Alexander often identified socialism with the power of the people; to my knowledge he never once identified it with central planning.    I say “continuing” for the same reason that Alexander says socialism is a process not an event.    Socialism is not a universal and eternal system chosen by people-power once and for all, but as a never-ending democratic process.   So defined, and given the above definition of capitalism, socialism is not incompatible with a mixed economy including reasonable doses of well-governed capitalism.   Given the power to create and to choose what works best for them, I do not think it likely that any democratic populace will ever decide to eliminate private business for profit altogether.  So defined socialism is equivalent to what John Dewey called an “experimental society” in which every institution is a hypothesis to be judged by its results.   The people are the judges.  This way of conceiving “socialism” tracks the etymology of the word and the usage of those who first coined it.   The word was invented in France in the late 18th century, along with “social,” “society,” and “sociology,” in each case drawing on the Latin socius (“partner”).   Tradition says the first lips and tongues that hissed its “s” and rounded its “o” and sequenced its “cialisme” were those of Pierre Leroux, Marie Roch Louis Reybaud, and in England Robert Owen.   The early socialists delighted in designing imaginary utopias.  In some cases as in the case of the cooperatives established by Owen, they experimented with turning their utopias into realities.  I draw from them their underlying message and premise (a premise with which Marx agreed, and which to the best of my knowledge all  who call themselves socialists agree) that human social institutions are not made once and for all by God or by Nature.  They are constructed by human beings.  Human beings can reconstruct them.  If we think of ourselves as partners, we will reconstruct them together for the common good.

The concept of accumulation shows why socialism so defined does not yet exist. It shows why capitalism as it now exists dominates governments.  It dominates the people who elect the governments.   The domination is systemic;  it is not domination by the power of a class of people called  “the capitalists.”  It is systemic because the way a system of accumulation works makes it necessary to establish and/or maintain one or another regime of accumulation.  Wherever such a system dominates, whatever else a government does,  whatever else a society does,   it must foster confidence that investments will be profitable.  Whenever that overriding economic necessity clashes with any other necessity, for example with the ecological necessity established by the laws of physics, chemistry and biology, the overriding economic necessity wins a pyrrhic victory.     The victory is pyrrhic because the socially constructed imperatives of accumulation win at the expense of physical reality.  In terms used by Antonio Gramsci, culture fails to perform its physical functions.

This last point alone is sufficient to show that humanity must free itself from the systemic imperatives of regimes of accumulation to survive.   To make the transition to a green economy compatible with a sustainable biosphere,  humanity must be free to do what it physically must do.     In José Luis Corragio’s terminology we must resignify markets so that we have “people’s economies with markets” but not  “a market economy.”   Here Corragio means by a “market economy” a “market-dominated economy.”   It is an economy that requires one or another regime of accumulation.   It enslaves its prisoners, the human beings who live it.   They must obey its imperatives because the daily bread of all depends on the accumulation of profits by some.

The Contributions of Neville Alexander

The general conclusions I want to draw are that building the socialism of the future requires contextualizing Marx’s critique of political economy in the context of the wider history of human organisation, and that to build socialism we should think in terms of unbounded organisation.   Organisation (or organising) is said to be “unbounded” when it is oriented to a wider and wider context and links more and more organisations.   Science (or thinking) is said to be unbounded when it transcends the historically given constitutive rules of the here and now.  Management is unbounded when its objectives are aligned with the needs of “the societal enterprise” i.e. those of society.

In their commentary on Das Kapital Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar emphasize that it is a book that deliberately makes simplifying assumptions.  Then it analyzes the consequences that flow from those assumptions.  This is perfectly legitimate for a critique of political economy.  That is to say, it is perfectly legitimate in critiquing a body of thought to assume its assumptions and denounce where they lead.  But building socialism is different.  It requires imagination.  It requires creativity.  It requires openness to the cultural resources of non-western and non-modern societies.  It requires learning in and from experience.

Marx and Engels themselves were pioneers in putting the cultural and legal assumptions of classical political economy in historical and anthropological context.  For example, the author most cited in the footnotes of Volume One of Kapital is Aristotle, cited not to move forward the argument of the book but rather to show that in another culture (a precursor of modern Europe different from modern Europe) things were different.  Marx notes, for example that  Aristotle would consider a process like   M         >       C        >   ……..P …………    >        C´        >         M´  to be unnatural and improper.   This accumulation process begins with “buying in order to sell” while for Aristotle proper and natural exchange is “selling in order to buy.”   But today we need not rely only on Marx and Engels to put the constitutive rules of capitalism in historical and anthropological context in theory,  and in practice (practice illumined by unbounded theory) to defang capital flight and to defang what Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis call “the exit power of capital” by building   green and diverse people’s economies.   Since the time of Marx economic history and economic anthropology have been enriched by the works of  Rosa Luxemburg,  Peter Kropotkin,  Fernand Braudel,  Karl Polanyi,  Marcel Mauss,  Marshall Sahlins,  Maria Mies,  Jared Diamond, Jacob Bronowski, Stephen Gudeman, and Genevieve Vaughan, to name a few.

I will briefly consider three of Neville Alexander’s contributions in the light of the principle that unbounded organization can and must free us from regimes of accumulation.  That is to say, it can and must free us from the necessity to submit to one regime of accumulation or another.   An example –David Harvey’s example— of the necessity-we-need-to-be-liberated-from to replace one regime with another would be the “necessary” replacement of the Post World War II Keynesian/Fordist regime when it broke down around 1980 with a Neoliberal/postmodern regime of accumulation.   Similarly when the neoliberal model breaks down perhaps something called “the developmental state” will “necessarily” step in to continue to guarantee the social prerequisites of capital accumulation.

The three contributions of Neville Alexander to liberation I will briefly mention are:  his proposals for neighbourhood organising, his proposals for multilingualism, and his proposals for alternative education.

Neighbourhood Organising

Organising at the grassroots level is a recurring theme in Alexander’s writings.  In 2010 he asserted:  “We have to rebuild our communities and our neighbourhoods by means of establishing, as far as possible on a voluntary basis, all manner of community projects which bring visible short-term benefit to the people and which initiate at the same time the trajectories of fundamental social transformation, which I have been referring to.
These could range from relatively simple programmes such as keeping the streets and the public toilets clean, preferably in liaison with the local authority, whether or not it is ‘delivering’ at this level, to more complex programmes such as bulk buying clubs, community reading clubs, enrichment programmes for students preparing for exams, teachers’ resource groups at local level, and, of course, sports activities on a more convivial basis, etc.”

He envisioned: “There are already many of these initiatives and programmes in existence. They will, if they are conducted with integrity and not for party-political gain, inevitably gravitate towards one another, converge and network. In this way, the fabric of civil society non-government organisations that was the real matrix of the anti-apartheid movement will be refreshed and we will once again have that sense of a safety net of communities inspired by the spirit and the real practices of ubuntu, the ‘counter-society’ …”

He asked: “How can such a programme be connected to and informed by the essential task of rebuilding our communities and our neighbourhoods on the basis of cooperativist and collectivist values of ubuntu, of sharing and caring?”

In these words I have quoted Alexander is talking about unbounded organisation, about blending the categories of political economy into the wider categories of community, about liberation from domination by capitalism by building people-power.  He is talking about concrete steps toward economic democracy.    He is talking about laying the ground work for a society capable of governing what Marx called “gifts of nature” and “gifts of history.”   As an intermediate stage, before a stage is reached when it can truly be said that capital is socialized to the point where the private appropriation of the social product is no more and no less than the people decide it should be (because that level of autonomous private capital, in diverse institutional forms,  works best for them and serves their interests), he is talking about making it possible for society to negotiate with capital from a position of strength –in contrast to today’s situation where gaining the confidence of financial markets trumps everything else.

Alexander’s proposals can be compared to what in Argentina is called ABC (Abastecimiento Básico Comunitario).   In Argentina, where almost every neighbourhood already has a soccer pitch and some place or places to dance tango and sip yerba maté, Enrique Martinez the head of Argentina’s National Industrial Technology Institute proposes that in every barrio every Argentine should have food security, housing, and primary health care.   This would be people power.    It would mean that whatever might be happening in the global economy, whatever threat there might be of capital flight, of default in paying international obligations, of investors speculating against the peso or against the rand, of capital exercising its exit power to close factories and lay off workers; however much stock markets might plummet, however insolvent banks might be,   etc. etc. the people could still fight back and defend their interests.  This would the end of a world where the people must concede whatever capital demands because they have no alternative.


More than once Alexander affirms the study of African languages as a way to preserve and enhance co-operative forms of action as opposed to a universally

assumed instinct towards individual aggrandisement and gratification.   Such a “universally assumed instinct” is nothing other than the dynamic of “individual aggrandizement and gratification” assumed and required by the social norms that constitute today’s pervasive and dominant regimes of accumulation.

We can rephrase this dimension of Alexander’s advocacy of multilingualism in terms of “bounded” and “unbounded.”   We are “bounded” when our worldview is limited by the assumptions about human nature that are built into political economy.   Without using the term “unbounded” Alexander reiterates with variations the theme that strengthening a language is strengthening a way of life.   Teaching African languages is a golden path to opening the minds and hearts of youth to the indigenous values movements like the African Renaissance and the Black Consciousness Movement have sought to enhance.      For example, when today schools teach languages whose vocabularies and syntax are inseparable from the authority of the wisdom of the elders and inseparable from the principle that the community includes the ancestors and the not-yet-born as well as the living, they are crossing boundaries.  They are orienting young minds to a wider and wider temporal and cultural context.   They are opening them to possibilities unknown and invisible to homo economicus.     They are relativizing the constitutive rules that dominate here and now.   By the very practice of teaching languages in which co-operative forms of action are assumed and embodied , such schools are aligning  the minds of young people with  the societal need to preserve for our descendants the common heritage our ancestors have bequeathed to us.

None of this is meant to suggest that Alexander was anti-modern.  No one insisted more than he on the need to modernize and to “intellectualize” African languages and on the need to translate the great works of global civilization into them.  The author of One Azania, One Nation never thought in terms of a narrow “either/or” that would replace one “bounded” parochialism by another parochialism equally “bounded.”

Alternative Education

In Education and the Struggle for National Liberation in South Africa, a collection of his speeches and essays from the late 1980s published in 1990, Alexander advocated “…using alternative methods for an alternative society.”    Blending his own ideas with those of Paulo Freire, Alexander reported that even though the apartheid state banned Freire’s books, starting in the early 1970s hundreds of copied versions of his Pedagogy of the Oppressed were clandestinely distributed at black universities and eagerly studied by the young activists of the black consciousness movement.  The book spoke to the condition of young women and men from ghettos and homelands where conditions were similar to those of North-east Brazil.

Freire tells his readers at the beginning of Pedagogy that the key problem of our times is “dehumanization,” not as a philosophical possibility but as a concrete historical reality.  A problem-posing, dialogic, humanizing education is one that calls forth the human ontological vocation to join with others in changing the world, in creating culture.  It is consciousness-raising (concientiçao).  The core meaning of concientiçao is eliciting awareness that the currently dominant social order is not natural.   It is a cultural construction.  It can be deconstructed and reconstructed.

Alternative educational methods for a never-ending revolution drawing on Paulo Freire’s unbounded pedagogy became an integral part of many of the myriad episodes and components of the liberation struggle, only to be shunted aside in the negotiated transition and in the subsequent formulation of educational policy for the new democracy.   The new idées forces bore names like:  “qualifications,”  “economic growth,” “human resource development,”  “international competitiveness,” “productivity and profitability,” “lifelong adaptation to the needs of the global economy,” “certified expertise.”    Alexander’s “using alternative methods for an alternative society” was crowded off the centre of the stage, although –and surely this is among his most significant contributions—Alexander has been among those who have kept alternative education alive and preparing for a comeback during its eclipse.   Bounded thinking proliferated.  It was bounded in the precise sense that its horizons were those of political economy.  It was bounded in the precise sense that it thought inside the historically given constitutive rules of the here and now.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 31 Dec 2012.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Neville Alexander, Unbounded Organisation, and the Future of Socialism, is included. Thank you.

If you enjoyed this article, please donate to TMS to join the growing list of TMS Supporters.

Share this article:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

Comments are closed.