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Bedouins, Bolsheviks and Babylon: What world cultures teach us in divesting from modern capitalism

The Bolsheviks, popularising the strand of revolutionary Marxist-Leninist political thought that emerged in Russia during the early 20th believed in the complete political and economic liberation of the Russian working class and the overthrowing of the government to form a true socialist regime.

Bolshevism founded and headed by Vladimir Lenin recognised the power of the working class (proletariat) in Russia and the underdevelopment of the ruling class (bourgeoise) and thus the potential for the working class to revolt and advance a classless system of political and economic egalitarianism for all people. Lenin who realised communism would not be immediately obtained in Russia, however foresaw the potential across Europe for the working class resistance and communist ideology to become successful, planning for communism to overtake Russia by degrees.

The Bolshevik ideology in spite of its somewhat utopian theory had setbacks in praxis. One of them was the reality of nepotism, favouritism and corruption (also known as nomenklatura) which undermined the revolutionary communist ethos and led to the incapacitation and stagnation of socialist policy on the ground. Despite this, this has not hindered Lenin’s legacy and particularly socialist thought across the subaltern post the moment of decolonisation through the unique ideology of especially African decolonial leaders from Bissau-Guinean Amilcar Cabral to Burkinabé Thomas Sankara. 

My longing for a tent

After an adobe house.

My longing to see

Scattered herds of white camels.

My longing to accompany

A just-departed motor.

My longing to gaze

On the plain behind the mountain.

When Bedouin nomads

Disperse to desert camps,

The absent beloved

Will not be remembered.

– Bedouin Poem

In another country, in another culture, the present day nomadic Bedouins of North Africa and Arabia could not appear any more different to the Russia Bolsheviks of the 20th C. Peculiarly however, they share many similarities.

Lila Abu-Lughod, Palestinian-American anthropologist opens her ethnography ‘Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society’ with the following description:

“One takes the road that leads west, leaving behind the stately buildings and palm-lined boulevards of Alexandria, passing rows of identical sand-colored buildings with balconies crowded with children, men in undershirts, women shouting across to neighbors, and clotheslines covered with multi-colored garments that dry instantly in the bright Egyptian sun. As one travels westward, these signs of the encroaching metropolis thin out, replaced by scattered one-story houses of stone or whitewashed cement. These crude structures, often painted yellow, light blue, or pink, embellished with simple hand-painted designs and surrounded by scrubby dwarf fig trees, are sure signs that one has entered the Western Desert, which stretches five hundred kilometers to the Libyan border…”

Known for their simplicity, the Bedouin of Egypt also known as Awlad ‘Ali unknowingly marshal against the pomp, circumstance and luxuries of Egyptian city life. The Bedouin are a patriarchal, pastoral,  nomadic group with large kinship networks of clans or tribes that span across the Arab world from Morocco to Jordan. The word ‘Badu’ in the Arabic language means to live in the open-the word ‘Badawiyin’ meaning dweller of the desert. Descendants of mainly the Adani and Qahtani tribes, the Bedouin are traditionally herdsmen who uphold a rich oral literary culture of poetry, storytelling and sharing proverbs and who preserve a strong code of cultural honour.

Abu-Lughod’s opening immediately points to the Bedouin’s neglect of extreme hierarchy and disparity between the classes (or clans) in similarity to the Bolsheviks. This is not to equate Bolshevism to simple, rural, pastoral living but rather to point to the poignant lack of need to demarcate class hierarchy through architecture. This is also not to erase the reality of wars, raids and particularly the tribal competition that occurs amongst the Bedouin through poetry. It is however to point out that despite the proliferation of globalised capitalism, and the social, cultural, economic and political shift amongst especially young Bedouin men in adapting and responding to the mcdonaldization of the new world as well as the contemporary shift in state policing of borders, curiously the customs, the indifference to what capitalism has to offer and the contentment with simplicity of the Bedouin remains. 

A final curiosity to note is the desert equivalent of mutual aid. “Today’s host is tomorrow’s guest” is an Arab proverb often recanted by the Bedouin where their foundational values drawn from the Islamic tradition is to honour the guest. It can be argued that as with Bolshevism, the Bedouins uphold social solidarity as opposed to charity with key tenants of their philosophy being mutual aid in the harshness of Arabian desert plains. It is with this form of mutual aid that the Bedouin are able to survive the harsh vicissitudes of rugged desert and the heat of the scorching midday sun.

“Fire, Fire, Babylon shall retire

Mind invasion shall expire

Them ghetto youth we shall inspire

Guide and protect them as them acquire…

A full overstanding of a materialization,

Conquering our souls’ conception

Peace upon the mind opens doors to realization

That fi ah ghetto youth’s materialism be them destruction.

Free your mind, pure thy soul and free thyness from hate

Babylon wickedness shall encounter its fate”

~Chant Down Babylon, Kim Yu

For British millennials who increasingly face the realities of the housing crisis, inflation, the cost of living crisis and the lack of social kinship networks to replicate the model of mutual aid, running to the hills in the post-covid context, or perhaps to a sandy safe haven in the middle of nowhere appears to be an increasingly persistent fantasy.

Pan again from the Egyptian desert to a north London inner city suburb. Tottenham, home to the 90s and 2000s UK grime and garage scene, Tottenham carnival and an eclectic mix of West African, Caribbean and Eastern European inhabitants is a distant and seemingly opposing world to the oscillating sand dunes of Arabia.

Strangely, a community of Caribbean men and women who convene in parks, outside barbershops and outside Caribbean owned shop fronts tell a similar story to that of the Bedouin. There is a similar disregard for what capitalism has to offer and amongst the Jamaican Rastafari community – a denouncing of the evils of ‘Babylon’- the neo-colonialism, oppression, corruption and capitalism of global society.

Increasingly, many within these communities turn to flatlining- (working menial jobs without scope for progression and only to get by) in order to make sense of the tensions arising from living in capitalist society and simultaneously wanting to avoid the legacies of colonialism and imperialism which have almost single headedly shaped the form of capitalism that western societies have adopted today. As a Tottenham resident, when taking a stroll in my local park the base of a reggae sound system can often be heard thudding into the earth with a smattering of mostly Afro-Caribbean men and women surrounding the booming speakers. They, like many, have chosen to divest from the programme and work only just enough to live and not accumulate. 

In paper titled ‘Sufferers in Babylon: A Rastafarian perspective on race, class and gender in Reggae’,  Martin A M Gansinger writes that

“the Rastafarian concept aims at eradicating structural disadvantages between the dominating Western world and the global periphery and offers a spirituality-based social consciousness, characterised by its egalitarian character”.

For many, flatlining as a means to avoid Babylon offers a solution. Avoiding Babylon provides the opportunity to build a collective identity oftentimes around shared ideology and music as well as around common aspirations for an imagined future of the African diasporic youth, Africa as a whole and an overthrown capitalist system.  

The question remains- what does it mean to divest from modern capitalism and what do the Bedouins and the concept of Babylon teach us?

The minimalism, mutual aid as opposed to charity, modesty and contentment with little, exemplified by the Bedouin can be a step forward for us in Britain in avoiding the inequality that capitalism engenders. Not accumulating massive wealth and being conscious of the far reaching imperial antennae of a capitalist world system can also be key for us in divesting from materialism and its colonial implications. Marxist aligned political parties can provide a framework and community to collectively divest from a system that for most does not seem to be working. If this is too radical a step, personal divestment on a micro scale can look like building your own mutual aid networks, avoiding excess and materialism, and being conscious of what brands are implicated with colonial histories and links that still benefit today.

Ultimately, whilst many have gained from a capitalist system, most across the world have not and continue to lose out – only exploited in order for the rich to become richer. Babylon and the Bedouin are two reference points we can all use to navigate global capitalist society and in our own small way, incrementally divest from the programme.

Soukeyna Osei-Bonsu is a poet and writer based in London. She is author of the chapbook “All The Birds Were Invited To A Feast In The Sky” and has been featured in the publication The Drinking Gourd, The Black Explorer, Amaliah and showcased at an MFest exhibit.

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