The Case for Cannabis Article: A Philosophical Contribution

Thank you to Guy Rogers and the Herald Weekend Post for publishing the article I posted in the previous post: The Case for Cannabis: Taxing Education can Fund Education, Saturday 19 Nov 2016. My intention here is to add some food for thought in light of the article.

As mentioned in the aforementioned article, I have a philosophy background – I have encountered a few ideas along the way relevant to the topic of the legalisation of cannabis in light of the #FeesMustFall phenomenon. I will refer broadly to the question of the role of philosophy, specifically with reference to ideas from two philosophers: Alain Badiou and Slajov Žižek.

To begin, a comment on the #FeesMustFall context: one can certainly say that the #FeesMustFall phenomenon has foregrounded the complexity of South Africa’s socio-political and economic dispensation. Discussions between interested and affected parties, and between ‘stakeholders’, have often revealed that there is often ‘no common measure’ between different parties. This is understandable in a rainbow nation where cultural diversity is a given and where completely different paradigms and cultural experiences colour people’s perceptions of the world, of what is important, of what is right and just.

Given the complexity of the situation, it is therefore unsurprising that no easy ‘solutions’ to the problems of the #FeesMustFall phenomenon have been forthcoming. Most readers will know about demands made by students, about responses from by the Universities, about the statistician-general Pali Lehohla’s recent comment that education can never be free, etc. Scrutiny of these and other differing ‘positions’ reveals what I referred to as the lack of ‘a common measure’ between the positions.

Interestingly, a lack of ‘a common measure’ is a sure sign of a philosophical situation as described by Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek in a short book called Philosophy in the Present (2009). Badiou uses the term “no common measure” as part of his analysis of a philosophical situation; commenting further (2009:24) on the effect of the lack of a common measure, he says that genuine philosophical commitments “create a foreignness” and that philosophy, in “a general sense… is foreign.” Žižek’s response (2009: 70) to this is intriguing: what “interests me in philosophy above all is that moment of foreignness to which you [i.e. Badiou] refer”:

“This moment of foreignness that emerges through displacement; that philosophy… was from the very beginning not the discourse of those who feel the certainty of being at home. It always required a minimum of breakdown of the organic society.”

In light of the above, we can say of the #FeesMustFall phenomenon that it has brought to the forefront a sense of foreignness, a sense of ‘foreign’ perspectives that (understandably) lack a common measure. As a lecturer at a university ‘closed-for-business’ at various stages during the past few months, I have often not felt “the certainty of being at home” – and I know colleagues and students who feel the same. Žižek’s comment about the breakdown of organic society is completely appropriate for our situation, because South African society did indeed see some level of “breakdown” in the form of university closures, disruption of the academic programme, and riot-police intervention (all indications that no common measure was forthcoming during negotiations). And if we as a nation do not rise to the challenges, social and economic breakdown will continue, so it is best we do come up with some actionable ideas in response to the ‘breakdown’ and the ‘foreignness’ to which I have just referred.

So the #FeesMustFall phenomenon offers a glimpse of a philosophical situation as defined by Badiou and Žižek. Moving on: Badiou and Žižek continue to comment on the role of philosophy in Philosophy in the Present. Part of the role of philosophy, says Žižek (2009:51), is to “change the concepts of the debate”. At risk of huge oversimplification, the ‘debate’ in the #FeesMustFall phenomenon has been between various parties discussing ‘free decolonised university education’. My contribution as a philosopher, in view of the notion of changing the terms of the debate, is to suggest a mechanism by which funding can be generated – that mechanism being the taxation of legalised marijuana (see the aforementioned Weekend Post article).

We are accustomed to the familiar ingredients in the recipe: ‘We demand free education (as promised in the Constitution)’; ‘The university cannot make education free’; ‘This is Government’s problem to solve’; ‘Government cannot even sort itself out’; etc. Accepting that huge amounts of revenue can be generated from taxing legalised Marijuana sales, the presence of this revenue certainly changes the terms of the debate: ‘the funds are available, so what do we do with it to make education more accessible?’; ‘the funds are available, so what do we do with the funds to ‘decolonise’ education without throwing the baby out with the bathwater?’ And so on.

I would add that the presence of funds does not radically change the debate; perhaps more appropriately, it adds factors to the debate that make it more pro-active in the sense of providing a mechanism by which something ‘actionable’ can be born from the debate. This is infinitely more preferable than, for example, a shut-down or wounding of the university indefinitely into the future, which is bad for everyone – it does not take much imagination to see the socio-economic consequences of continued disruption in the education sector.

There is another philosophical ingredient in all this. Badiou (2009:74-75) states that each time that philosophy “confines itself to humanity as it has been historically constituted and defined, it diminishes itself, and in the end suppresses itself. It suppresses itself because its only use becomes that of conserving, spreading and consolidating the established model of humanity.” These phrases intrigue me, and I am using them in my PhD: humanity as it has been historically constituted, and the established model of humanity. By legalising, we break away from a very rigid and oppressive historical force that has taken it upon itself to punish people for exercising their right to use a medicinal and therapeutic plant, and we shift the established model of humanity towards a slightly different model, specifically a slightly different economic model – the case of Colorado state, for example, shows us the millions of dollars (about a billion Rand) that can be generated by the taxation of legal marijuana – this by one US state in 2015 alone. Granted, it remains a capitalist model, but gradual changes are better than no changes at all or changes for the far-worse; and taxation of the exercise of a right is better than imprisonment for exercising a right.

By legalising, we proactively take the reins and make a shift to the established model of humanity – it’s a small shift, and with it comes opportunities to improve an economy gradually buckling under the weight of trying to continue according to its old and increasingly-obsolete model. The first impact of legalisation can be the funding of education transformation, but thereafter funding can go towards transformation of public sectors drastically in need of transformation.

Drawing to a close here, let me point out that philosophy and transformation also go hand-in-hand; Here is Badiou (2009:11) on this point: “What will philosophy tell us then? It will tell us that… we must think the exception. We must know what we have to say about what is not ordinary. We must think the transformation of life.” Transformation comes whether we like it or not – such is the way of life, where change is constant. How transformation occurs is something over which we can have some measure of control. The legalisation and taxing of marijuana offers some manner of control in this regard.