Anansi and the Sky Kingdom: Socialism Before Marx

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In the sanguineous gladiatorial arena that is the world of politics, socialism is a dirty word. When Barack Obama ran for president of the United States, his detractors would often use the term ‘socialist’ as a slur to describe his politics and demean his character. For proponents of capitalism, socialism represents the theft of not only that which they have acquired, but also the potential for what they hope to be. To them, socialism steals from them the hopes they had for wild success and wealth in their future. To them, socialism means repression by powerful oligarchs who restrict personal freedom and take the country’s wealth for themselves while leaving the average citizen in poverty with little to no resources for their personal development. Socialism is not only the antithesis of personal freedom; it is an existential threat to human development…or is it?

With drastic food shortages in Venezuela, the uninitiated can easily point a finger at the crisis and say that socialism is still a failure and only unfettered capitalism and the invisible hand of the market will save the starving people. It is easy, but it is incorrect. Without turning this short blog into a dissertation on Marx’s Communist Manifesto, socialism if properly understood is the idea that the means of production should be controlled by the common people. This means that the general population, not large corporations, control and profit from the factories, farms, and natural resources of their country. This means not only monetary compensation, but social programs such as healthcare, education, infrastructure, and social assistance in times of crisis. This concept is by no means new. As far back as ancient Africa, the virtues of allowing the people to profit from the wealth of the land are touted in traditional storytelling. Many of these tales were spun in a time when people had to share what they had in order to survive the harsh conditions of a hunter gatherer or proto-agrarian society. Once such tale is that of Anansi and the Sky Kingdom, which explores the importance of not only sharing wealth communally, but also about the struggle between classes.

The tale begins in ancient Ghana, when animals roamed the earth and spirits ruled the sky, before the first footsteps of men. The world was lost in darkness, wrapped in eternal night. The plants withered, animals starved, and everyone cried in despair. Every year the plants were fewer, and the wild game diminished in kind. Lion, king of the animals called an assembly. Every animal, from the highest soaring eagle to the lowest crawling worm was in attendance. Lion said that something had to be done. The sky spirits sit above the clouds steeped in wealth from the golden sun. Their trees are fruitful, their grass is green, and their water glistens in the light. The animals all agreed that they needed the sun more than the sky spirits, who do not even have to hunt for their food, or roam all day in search of it among the dying grasses. Many animals volunteered to petition the Sky King to give them some sun. Lion, however, selected from them the lowliest, Anansi the spider, and his best friends Fly and Ant. Anansi was clever, Fly was brave and Ant was strong. They agreed to do go to the sky and talk to the king. Fly grabbed Anansi and ant, and flew them up past the clouds into the brightness of the Sky Kingdom. The fruit trees were bountiful, the grass was green, and the water glistened. They demanded an audience with the Sky King, who was intrigued and agreed to meet these strange visitors.

They asked him to let the sun shine down on the earth so that they too can have fruit trees, green grass, and glistening water. The king laughed and told them to leave. They begged and pleaded with him until finally the Sky King promised to give them light if and only if they met his challenge. He took them out to a field and said that they can have all the light they desire if they can eat every blade of grass on that field. The three of them were so tiny that the task was near impossible. Anansi looked to Ant, who had ten thousand brothers and ten thousand sisters, and asked him to bring his family up to the Sky Kingdom and eat the grass before dawn. Anansi spun a ladder out of webbing to allow them to climb up, and they began to eat. When dawn came, Ant’s family had gone, and took the grass with them in their bellies. The Sky King was astonished by their success, and mildly enraged by their success. Not to be outdone, he changed the agreement and set forth another challenge, they must eat all of the mangoes in the orchard by the next morning, and then they can have all the light they desire. This time, Anansi would call all of Fly’s family to come and eat all of the mangoes until the last pit was gone. The next morning, the Sky King was furious that they had succeeded again. The Sky King offered them a place in his palace for their perseverance, but Anansi and his friends continued to demand light for everyone. The Sky King set one last challenge.  They needed to throw a net around the sun and hold it in place for an hour. Anansi was so small; he could not build enough webs to hold the sun. The task was so great that even his whole family could not accomplish it on its own. So overnight he called all the spiders to work together to build a net big enough for the sun, then they called all the flies to carry the net. The ants then came and with all their might pulled on the sun until it stayed in place. The Sky King was furious and was about to send them home without any light at all until his court, moved by the perseverance and ingenuity of the small creatures, pressured him to part the clouds and let down the light. The Sky King relented, and opened the clouds for the animals. When the light came down, they had bountiful fruit trees, green grass, and glistening water. From then on the animals never again went hungry, and the spider, the fly, and the ant were held up as heroes.

This story, though short and simple is layered with meaning. The story is an indictment of class hierarchies and the wealth gaps they create as well as a call to action to face the powers that be and demand equality. Firstly the Sky Kingdom and its people represent the oligarchy that is the ruling class. They control most of the wealth, and live well; so well in fact that they separate themselves from the rest of the world and pay no attention to the suffering of the animals that live just below them. When they are approached about their abuse of power and hoarding of resources, they look down on those who come to them and refuse their request. When the lowly creatures continue to demand their share of the sun, they powerful put up barriers to prevent them from succeeding. The challenges are so great that they seem impossible, and even when they do manage to succeed, the powerful elite change the rules of engagement and erect another barrier.

Consider for a moment the society that we currently live in. The world’s wealth is controlled by the top 20%, who reap 83% of the world’s income. To put that into perspective, if there were 100 people on earth with 100 dollars to spread between them, 20 of them would split $83, leaving the remaining 80 people to share $17 with each other. Those who control the majority of the world’s wealth have a vested interest in maintaining that dominance. In a capitalistic society, this means the creation and maintenance of social underclass. This underclass is held in place by circumstance, not due to some intrinsic deficiency. Circumstantial restrictions can take the form of systemic barriers such as redlining, job discrimination, the prison industrial complex, the high costs of education leading to student debt, food deserts, political assassinations, and many others. These barriers make it difficult for members of the social underclass to develop the wealth, organizational sophistication, and freedom to fully participate in the political landscape as active citizens. When members of the ruling class see dissention among the great unwashed, they will usually try one of three tactics: ignore, co-opt, or destroy.

Take for example the complete destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa OK during the early 20th century. Cut off from the economic fruits of American society, African Americans created their own miniature economy in which they supported each other’s businesses, provided adequate housing, and increased the wealth of their small population. In a time when they could not even use the same entrances as their white counterparts, the kind of wealth generated in this enclave was unbelievable. Social taboos prevented African Americans from engaging with in business with whites in any meaningful fashion. Through a complex series of events fuelled by the hatred of the ruling class, the entire town was burned to the ground and over three hundred people were murdered. The African American community in that area never recovered.

A more contemporary example is the resistance by African Americans to police brutality, which is a corollary of the prison industrial complex. The consistent response is “if you perform the following activity, then no one will harm you.” Some of the activities listed include following officer’s orders (whether they be unconstitutional or not), and obeying the law. History has shown us that these strategies do little to change the outcome. Philando Castile was shot to death by a police officer while obeying orders to produce his paperwork. Alton Sterling had his hands up and was not resisting or aggressive with police officers before he was thrown on his back and shot in the chest while his hands were restrained.  Disregarding the story did not work. There was too much evidence. However, like the Sky King, people in positions of social and economic power, unwilling to share the freedoms they enjoy, seek to create more barriers that seem impossible to surmount. Co-optation appears when members of the government offer jobs and incentives to leaders of dissenting groups in exchange for management of the masses. If co-optation is unsuccessful, then the final stop is ultimate destruction. One such barrier is the argument that African Americans are inherently criminal, and in order to be treated with dignity, that needs to change. The truth is that a barrier like an unchanging perception rooted in one’s own sense of superiority is impossible to pass. Regardless of what social barriers may be crossed, if one’s oppressor erects a barrier to the ability to claim one’s own rightful humanity, then there is no resolution, there is no lassoing the sun. When the oppressing class refuses to acknowledge the equal humanity of the classes below them, there will be no changing of their opinion.

Much like Anansi and his friends, if an underclass of people wants change, they cannot look to the classes that sit above them in the social structure to make it. Pleading with the king only got them mocked. If the Sky King saw that they were passing the barriers he created in order to keep the wealth of the sun to himself, he outright refused to give it to them until he finally caved to the pressure the Sky People put on him. It was only when the lowliest of the creatures combined their efforts and lassoed the sun did they get what they needed. The Sky King had no more challenges to place before them. Anansi and his comrades showed that by working together, they were able to not only beat the challenges set before them, they were able to hold power accountable and seize for their animal brethren what they needed: to have their share of the light that should have been given to everyone. Don’t ever be afraid to demand your place in the sun, as the old proverb says: together, the ants can overcome the elephant.

Until next time, be good to yourselves and each other.

 

One Love,

 

Adam H.C. Myrie

 

 

Marx and Socialism: https://www.marxists.org/archive/fromm/works/1961/man/ch06.htm

Income and Wage inequality: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xMCWr0O3Hs

One version of the story: https://storycove.com/anansi-and-the-sky-kingdom-summary

Image Credit: https://mrpsmythopedia.wikispaces.com/Anansi?responseToken=05bc938b7a927bf1fd0c61ddd461da638

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