To Grasp Things by the Root

By Richard Pithouse · 17 Nov 2011

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Picture: The Weekly World
Picture: The Weekly World

Julius Malema, unlovely as he is, is a symptom, a morbid symptom to be sure, of the crisis that we face. Any assumption that his effective expulsion from the ANC allows us to continue with business as usual will guarantee the emergence of more symptoms, different but equally morbid.

The real roots of our crisis lie in the fact that the post-apartheid deal has not only allowed elites to flourish while the people at the bottom of society have been pushed further into desperation but that it has also allowed contending elites to convince themselves that, despite the ongoing rebellion of the poor, politics is largely about their own internecine battles.

Of course all the protagonists speak in the name of the poor with the liberals arguing that the property rights and free markets that fuel their own aspirations are the only way to create jobs, tenderpreneurs suggesting that their personal interests overlap with those of the poor and so on. The debates within the elite are far from irrelevant. 

Whether we defend or roll back the democracy that we do have is no small thing. The seriousness with which we pursue the deracialisation of spaces of power is no trivial matter. But the reach of these debates is usually compromised, and seriously so, by the fact that underneath this merry-go-round millions of people remain locked out of real opportunities to access education, work, land, urban space, the legal system and the media.

We're not the first society to have had to come to grips with an unfinished transformation.

The roots of modern democracy lie in the French Revolution and its meaning was best theorised in Germany. In 1842 Karl Marx, a young man with a PhD in Philosophy, was wrestling with the German failure to repeat the French Revolution. He quickly realised that making the world more philosophical would require that philosophy be made more worldly, that it take its place in the actual struggles in the world. He saw that the state and capital both tended towards a repression of the political and, looking for what he called 'a third element', a constituent power, he first turned to the press arguing that the “free press is the ubiquitous vigilant eye of a people's soul...the spiritual mirror in which a people can see itself, and self examination is the first condition of wisdom.”

Marx hoped that “an association of free human beings who educate one another” in an expanding public sphere could subordinate the state to rational, public discussion in a process of ongoing democratisation. But when, in the following year, the newspaper that he edited was banned Marx turned towards “suffering human beings who think” and to the hope that “making participation in politics, and therefore real struggles, the starting point of our criticism” could provide new grounds for commitment to democracy as a process of democratisation.

The philosophical dogma of the day, which is often the dogma of our own time, had argued that as a large mass of people sank into poverty they would become a rabble, a threat to society. But Marx insisted that “only one thing is characteristic, namely that lack of property and the estate of direct labour...form not so much an estate of civil society as the ground upon which its circles rest and move.” Marx, always refusing to hold up abstract ideas of an alternative society to which actually existing struggles should conform, looked to the real movement of the working class, the male working class of parts of Western Europe, for principles to orientate future struggle and the material force to be able to realise them. True to his turn to a philosophy of immanence he insisted that theory, philosophy, can become a material force when it is formulated from the perspective of the oppressed and becomes part of their constituent movement but for this to happen it must be radical because “To be radical is to grasp things by the root. But for man, the root is man himself.”

From the beginning the agency of women, people too poor to be workers and the world beyond Western Europe was erased. And Marxism would soon become a theory that invented a fantastical idea of a fixed meaning and trajectory for the working class, not to mention a theory of the ruthless exercise of state power. But Marx's choice still confronts any attempt to think through a democracy that is not realising its promise. Is it realistic to subordinate it to reason via the pure exercise of reason when both the state and capital tend towards an anti-political tendency to reduce the sphere of reason? Or must reason be meshed with the material force assumed by those that suffer and think so that it can enlarge the sphere of public and political reason?

Today the two primary lines of official access to democratisation are party politics and civil society. The fact that the government is elected is no small gain but the general hostility of the ANC to popular organisation outside of its control, an hostility that is often violent, can no longer be denied. The violent hostility of the state, whether wielded by the ANC or the DA, to popular action that challenges the iron rule of money is equally evident. And the fact that from Cape Town to Durban mayors will insist, in writing, that if discussions with the organised poor do occur they must be restricted to questions of 'service delivery' shows, plainly enough, that there is no substantive right to challenge the development paradigms imposed from above. The hostility to the idea of democratic engagement along the vertical axis and of the sort that could be mutually transformative is clear. The things that matter are simply not up for open discussion with the people who, neither waged nor housed, most need democracy to be about more than the formal exercise of technocratic authority or the grubby informal negotiations that follow its elite capture.

Civil society has proven its mettle when it comes to battles like the defence of the freedom of the press. But when it comes to the battle to defend the right of poor people to organise freely it is largely absent. The problem here is not just a tendency to imagine freedom as bourgeois freedom but, also, the fact that civil society is often white dominated, foreign funded and a bourgeois rather than a popular project. It is vulnerable to claims, often but not always self-serving, of having no credible claim to represent the voice of the people.

Our crisis is not merely the inability of a set of liberal political arrangements to redeem their democratic promise. Our crisis is also that of a colonial society that can't fully escape the iron cage in which it was born. Almost exactly fifty years ago Frantz Fanon, the Martinican psychiatrist who joined the Algerian struggles against French colonialism, wrote Les Damnés de le Terre, The Damned of the Earth, the book that inaugurated serious thinking about the politics of post-colonial societies. Fanon, dying from the leukaemia that had recently blinded him, dictated most of the book from a mattress on the floor in a flat in Tunis.

He had been the ambassador of the Algerian liberation moment to the newly independent countries of West Africa and had seen how national struggles had been captured by predatory elites, how they often took over aspects of the colonial state and dealt with the people in a manner not dissimilar to the colonial state as parties became a means of private advancement. He writes of scandalous opulence, grandiose buildings, and increasing authoritarianism on the part of governments that hold their people in contempt, use the old party structures to hold them down and try to drug them with memories of the anti-colonial struggles. He shows how nationalism descends into ethnic chauvinism and xenophobia. The people are seen as an incoherent mass, a blind force, and their vocation “is to obey and to go on obeying.”

But “the struggle” he writes, “goes on.” Like the young Marx he poses the free flow of ideas against the degeneration of the democratic promise and insists that the living human being, and in particular the outcasts, rather than an abstract ideal, be it philosophical or statistical, be the measure of society. For Fanon the first step is to get rid of the idea “that the masses don't understand”. He poses a return to struggle but, unlike the young Marx, there is no fetish of a particular class. For Fanon nationalism has to acquire a social consciousness rooted in the “moving consciousness of the whole of the people...the...coherent and enlightened action of men and women.” The second struggle is not between national and social consciousness. It is to bring them together.

The idea that after Malema we can go back to business as usual will take us nowhere. Fighting rearguard actions in defence of the democratic gains won in 1994 is, while often very necessary, also not enough. If democratisation is to be an ongoing process, which it must be if we are to have any chance of resolving our fundamental problems, we have to look to a popular politics, firmly in the hands of ordinary women and men that holds the well being of human beings, and particularly those cast out of this order, as our real measure of progress.

**For more on Karl Marx's early thought see Stathis Kouvelakis' 'Philosophy and Revolution: From Kant to Marx' (2003). For more on Frantz Fanon's 'Wretched of the Earth' see Ato Sekyi-Otu's 'Fanon's Dialectic of Experience' (1996).

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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Lee Cahill
16 Nov

Direct Democracy

A bit of a weighty piece this time around, but the underlying message is clear: it's time for us to start moving towards a more open, participatory and accountable form of direct democracy - now. Only that can turn the tide in SA, and put the political power back where it belongs - in the hands of the people.

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