Walter Rodney lived his life as a friend of the people and an enemy of the state. Upon his return to Jamaica in 1968, he rapidly immersed himself in social movements among the urban poor, focusing his efforts on segments of the youth who had already been radicalized by Rastafarianism. His charisma and ability to articulate the concerns of working people made him a valuable member of the Black Power movement, and unlike other intellectuals he developed close relationships with the grass-roots. To the still young Jamaican government, Rodney appeared as a very real threat.
When W.E.B. Du Bois speaks of a ‘general strike,’ he means that our mass refusal to work within a violent, corrosive social system can also demonstrate the possibility of a better world. In Black Reconstruction, Du Bois treats Black workers’ mass exodus from southern plantations during the civil war as an exemplary, triumphant general strike. He argues that the Black workers’ movement “was not merely the desire to stop work. It was a strike on a wide basis against the conditions of work.”1 Du Bois goes on to elaborate that the general strike not only ended slavery but also posited an entirely different economic and social order.
In 1738, affluent Parisians flocked to an exhilarating new exhibit at the Hôtel de Longueville that featured a flutist, a pipe-and-tabor player, and a curious duck that would eat corn right out of your hand and defecate only moments after. Of course, these were not normal musicians — in fact, they were not even very good — and this was certainly no normal duck. All three were automata: elaborate machines designed to imitate life.
When people say “knowledge is power,” what they really mean is knowledge is empowering. Generally, the idea is that knowledge is the foundation of individual achievement — that it makes a person more capable, effectual, and successful. In this piece, I’d like to take the opportunity to interrogate the history of the phrase “knowledge is power,” in order to illustrate how it may be fraught in surprising ways.
Anyone in search of the original “meaning of life” need look no further than Sartor Resartus, an 1836 novel by Thomas Carlyle. In the story, a German philosopher named Teufelsdröckh (whose name literally means devil-dung) declares that “the meaning of Life itself” is “no other than Freedom.” Of course, “Freedom” is only the “original” meaning of life in the sense that Carlyle happened to coin the phrase.
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