Excessive Greed Sign of Cultural Malaise

By , K24 Digital
On Thu, 12 Sep, 2019 12:34 | 4 mins read
A luxury home at the Kenyan coast

Muiru Ngugi

Over the last few years, Kenyan headlines have revealed a deep-seated malaise afflicting Kenya’s, and Africa’s, emerging culture. 

Among other vices, the media have carried troubling stories about theft of huge sums of public funds in nearly all public sectors, importation of poisonous sugar and other harmful foodstuffs, exam cheating, and even planned spousal murders, to mention but a few.

It is estimated that annually, Kenya loses a third of its Ksh. 3 trillion budget to corruption.  And that is the amount the government is able to correct and budget. A large sum of money is simply lost before collection as individuals and corporations go to great lengths to evade and avoid paying taxes.  

Describing the Phenomenon

There are many ways of describing this phenomenon, the dangers of which the government is finally waking up to – corruption, moral crisis, decadence, wanton greed, personal aggrandizement, worthless materialism.

These descriptors are right on the money, for they describe the crisis of the shifting nature of capitalism in Kenya’s developmental setting.

Simply put, private ownership of wealth, which is a traditional African economic ideology, and even classical Western capitalism, have been perverted by a few so that this new, intensely voracious brand of capitalism now risks decimating the ordinary citizens – the very consumers it would normally thrive on.

Traditional Restraints to Avarice

It never used to be like this. Pre-colonial African society was restrained from internally generated self-destruction by various norms, mores and taboos. “He who eats alone dies alone,” a revered proverb admonished. Another proverb warned: “Avarice is the root of all evil.”

Equally, colonial and early post-colonial societies were restrained by fear of authority, effective regulation, and puritanical traditional, Christian and other religious moral economies that preached the value of being “your brother’s keeper.”

Then liberty came under the guise of the so-called “second liberation,” and with it much-needed economic prosperity fueled by privatization, marketization, commercialization, conspicuous consumerism, open bounders and globalization. 

The flipside, however, was that greed assumed new, unchartered proportions and became the pathological side effect of our newfangled freedom.

Clearly, Friedrich Von Hayek, the father of the extremist free market neo-liberalism, has been smiling in his grave over the triumphant, no-holds barred, anything-goes capitalism in Africa. 

Capitalism is Hardly The Issue

In way, capitalism is hardly the issue. Capitalism is by its very nature mean, competitive, exploitative, unequal, imperialistic, and has warlike tendencies, as Michael Novak observes in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.

Capitalism is the dominant economic ideology that Kenya – and much of Africa - has so far pursued and is likely to stick with us for the foreseeable future.

The issue is how to bring back values and virtues that cannibalistic capitalism corrodes so efficiently, producing a critical mass of avaricious outliers who have abandoned legacy virtues like honour, honesty, love, sincerity, fairness, selflessness, and doing the right thing – all of which previously tethered the individual firmly to the community in the pristinely of the past.   

Communitarian Ideals Replaced by "Me" Orientation

Communitarian ideals have been replaced by a “me” orientation that has engendered big-money maniacs who want to kill us all in their mindless pursuit of a narrow, personal Eldorado.  

Which bring us to the real crisis confronting our society. It is not capitalism, although it is piggybacking on capitalism. In one word, ours is the crisis of “selfishness.”  All the corruption, thievery, thuggery, mega pilferages – are acts of pure selfishness.

Various dictionaries define selfishness as “the quality or state of being selfish” or “lack of consideration for other people” or beingconcerned excessively or exclusively, for oneself or one's own advantage, pleasure, or welfare, regardless of others.”

To be selfish is to be without an iota of altruism, unless it is somewhat linked to greed. The politicians giving huge donations in harambees and churches are often not doing so out of sheer love. It is an investment payable with votes.

To be selfish is to completely lose the human feelings of empathy and sympathy, for a human being, supposedly the most intelligent creature alive, ought to naturally feel for other members of the species and to appreciate how members are inextricably bound together.

A manifesting concern only for one’s self is a disavowal of what it means to be human.  It is to sell out to animalistic instincts, and to become an unfeeling automaton.  

It is to fail to see that consumption beyond one’s needs and basic wants is often the consumption of the very resources others aspire to access to meet their basic needs.  

Eating for the Others

To put it simply, it is to eat for others, which is actually to eat them as well, and therefore to indulge in cannibalism. In itself, this is to regress beyond primitivity, for even primitive society abhorred anthropophagous practices.

Ordinarily, humans who do not conform to established social norms are considered mad, and viewed as unrestrained by reason and judgment.

Such people are often handed over to mental institutions for proper care and treatment.

But the nature of the crimes being committed against Africans by selfish people is evidence that the perpetrators are able to think clearly. For it takes a combination of strategic thinking and malice aforethought to pull off such criminal plans.

The detailed planning and the flawless execution of the multimillion-shilling rip-offs is evidence enough that we are not merely dealing with people who have gone beyond the pale but who are also fully in charge of their faculties. We may even be dealing with evil geniuses.  

It means therefore that these people are only half-mad, however much we like to see them as being totally deranged.

Rehabilitating Our Selfish, Thieving Psychopaths

The process of their rehabilitation must assume an eclectic approach. I am no doctor but I think their treatment must combine a stint in a mental hospital to cure their mental condition with Prozac and other psychiatric drugs, and an appropriate jail term as punishment for their crimes.

American President Theodore Roosevelt once said: “The things that will destroy America are prosperity-at-any-price, peace-at-any-price, safety-first instead of duty-first, the love of soft-living, and the get-rich-quick theory of life.”

With the exception of “peace-at-any-cost,” for Africa must pursue peace at any cost, he might as well have been talking about Africa.

The writer teaches at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Nairobi. Email: [email protected]