Does anyone even read Henry David Thoreau anymore?
Today, July 12, marks the 200th anniversary of the American poet and philosopher's birth. And much is being said and written about him — not all of it flattering. His work is "anecdotal," some say. Or "irrelevant," "juvenile" even.
To answer the initial question, I do. And I can also say that certain key elements of my political outlook — my anarchist streak, and my often misunderstood conservatism — are very much inspired by Thoreau. For me, at least, he's very relevant indeed.
I remember reading Walden for the first time in my teenage years. In it, Thoreau tells his readers about the two years and two months he spent living in the woods, away from "civilization." Like an American version of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Some, interestingly enough, call Walden a juvenile book written for adolescents. This view is superficial and it ignores at least two things. The first is the beauty of Thoreau's prose. Notice how beautiful the mornings are in his writings: "Morning brings back the heroic ages," he wrote. Recall too how accurate his mundane observations are: "Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new." It's the sort of sentence that stays forever imprinted on your mind.
Thanks to Thoreau, I've learned to laugh more quickly at the new fashions than at the old ones, which prevented me from following them with a — here it comes — juvenile enthusiasm. That applies to ideology as well as clothing. Even when something is all the rage, it's still nothing more than a rage.
Thoreau's Cove, Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts, circa 1908 — Source: Library of Congress
I also confess that it's because of Thoreau that I've managed to reach the ripe age of 41 without ever wearing a watch. We are slaves of time, but there's no need for us to show off our chains.
The second aspect ignored by superficial readings of Thoreau is that his choice to live near Walden Pond was the expression of a noble desire, one that defines his entire body of work: the desire to be left in peace.
I know only too well that in our infantilized societies, we expect our central authority to intrude in our lives. We don't want the government to be limited to its basic functions; we demand a maximum government, even for the minimal things.
The ideas Thoreau presented in his Civil Disobedience are somewhat different. "That government is best which governs least," he wrote right at the beginning, given the impossibility of having no government at all. The text is partly a condemnation of slavery and war — both promoted by an immoral government. But Thoreau goes further and deals with ever-present, pre-political questions. Does the government override individual conscience? Does this conscience belong to the people only?
I like to read Thoreau in times of confusion.
A century before the devastating wars of the 20th century, Thoreau glimpsed the tragic consequences of this transfer of moral responsibility from the individual to the government. The first consequence was the allocation of abusive power to corruptible men with limited abilities. The second was the transformation of a society of free men, morally free, into an organization of robots that limit themselves to following the orders from above.
When you listen to Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann's defense in Jerusalem in 1961 — that he was simply following orders — it's hard not to remember Thoreau's glorious mornings. And the desire of being left in peace is also the desire of protecting our nature.
That doesn't mean I don't have disagreements with my friend Thoreau. I have several actually. I don't share his exalted vision of "civilization." And in my opinion, Thoreau only wrote the way he wrote because he was, first and foremost, a civilized man.
But what really matters lies elsewhere. I like to read Thoreau in times of confusion, just to be reminded of some truths as clear as the waters of Walden Pond: My life is mine; time is in short supply; today's fashions are laughing stocks for the future; sometimes the multitude that matters is the multitude of one single person; political power is necessary, but it's still a necessary evil; and conducting my soul is a task for no politician, no government, no State.
At this moment in history — 200 years after his birth — Henry David Thoreau symbolizes the courage of freedom. Everybody speaks about "freedom" all the time. But there are few who have the sufficient courage to really embrace it. Did you say juvenile? That's funny. I don't know a more demanding author, more indispensable, and yes, more adult than Thoreau.
The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.
This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.
In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.
The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.
A popular uprising may be inevitable
The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?
Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.
The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.
But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.
Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.
For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.
The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.
Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.
A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.
In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.
Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.
File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020
Generals in suits
Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.
For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.
This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.
Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.
Demands of the revolution
The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.
First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.
Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.
The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.
Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.
Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.
The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.
Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.
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