More morbid symptoms

Much of what passes for politics these days is actually just anti-politics: not a function of too much politicization, but a severe lack of it.

Photo by Piron Guillaume on Unsplash

Most people entered the new year restlessly—exhausted by the tumult of the year before, uncertain there would be respite ahead. Given what 2020 turned out to be, one would be forgiven for forgetting just how chaotically it began, starting with the United States assassinating Iranian general Qasem Soleimani three days into January. A year later, it would be America itself at the receiving end of an insurrectionary assault after Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol in a terrifying, yet ultimately feeble bid to halt the certification of the 2020 election result. It was an unexpected event, replete with terribly familiar images of street confrontations and standoffs.

Here in South Africa, the easiest analogue of comparison are the events of 1993, when the far-right Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) stormed the venue where multi-party negotiations to end apartheid took place. But there are more recent examples––there’s #FeesMustFall students breaching the parliamentary gates in Cape Town and coming close to doing the same at the Union Buildings in Pretoria (in both cases they were quickly quelled by the police). This is not at all to equate the political causes being advocated for, but rather to say something tentative about the political style of the moment, that unites the righteous and the reactionary. For anyone paying attention to today’s nagging crisis of representation, that America’s “temple of democracy” was “desecrated” should come as no surprise. Outside of some violence, that this so-called desecration consisted of hooligans mostly taking selfies, is no surprise either. It represents the spirit of the age, the future of politics.

A year ago we asked “Where will neoliberalism end?” At that point COVID-19 was not a word yet, and it looked like neoliberalism’s unravelling would be hastened by multiple insurgencies happening in the latter half of  2019 (recall all the unrest in Chile, Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, Hong Kong, Algeria, Uganda, France). Then, as the pandemic spread, people thought that lockdown restrictions would discourage political demonstrations, but their unjust implementations and the underlying inequalities they exacerbated forced restive populations to the streets. But as it was the case in 2019, South Africa appeared to sidestep much of the protest ferment erupting everywhere else. We did not witness anything of the scale of BLM, #EndSARS, the estallido social, or the extraordinary Indian farmers strike that has spilled over into this year. The most significant effort at popular mobilization was a “general strike” in October that saw collaboration between South Africa’s two largest and otherwise competing trade union federations. Turn-out was poor, and while numbers on the street are not a good measure of popular power, they can be one of weakness. South Africans are largely resigned politically.

But not all of them. South Africa’s recent political history has produced some memorable episodes of political confrontation that dominated the discourse when they happened. The first, surrounded the magistrate court appearances of those accused of murdering a white farm manager Brendin Horner in a small, rural town called Senekal in South Africa’s Free State province, where protesters (most of them white and donning “Stop Farm Murder” t-shirts or carrying “Boer Lives Matter” signs) stormed the court to demand custody of the accused.  After this South Africa’s third largest party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, ensured that the next time round its members were in town in order to guard the court and “confront white arrogance.” Having long-campaigned for the killings of white farmers to be declared hate crimes, South Africa’s official opposition party, the supposedly “non-racial” Democratic Alliance (DA), also joined the protests but in solidarity with the farmers. (In this, they had taken on board baseless claims by AfriForum and Solidarity, two NGO’s dedicated to advancing white Afrikaans grievances.) There were genuine fears (and some hopes) that a “race war” was imminent. It did not materialize.

Not long after that, the EFF was again “confronting white arrogance” at Brackenfell High School in Cape Town, after a parent-organized prom-like function was exclusively attended by white students. White parents mobilized a counter-protest against the EFF’s picket, and eventually even attacked some of their members. The DA, who governs the Western Cape and as such is responsible for school administration in the province, predictably sided with the violent white parents and played down the racism allegations. These two incidents (and the fallout from a racist ad by South African cosmetics retailer Clicks, where the EFF also led the backlash) constitute the events which most captivated South African public consciousness. Mainstream media reacted to them with consternation, bursting with missives bemoaning political polarization and the loss of “the middle”, against the social media commentariat who saw these events as accelerating a reckoning on race that this country has for too long tried to sweep under the carpet. Yet, rather than being an unfortunate kind of politics, or even a cynical expression of identity politics, most of it is actually just anti-politics. Not a function of too much politicization, but a severe lack of it.

So we should now ask, what is politics anyway? We would be hard-pressed to give any kind of stable and precise definition. No definition of politics is immutable—it depends on the epoch, and how those living through it understand its meaning. At one point politics was about taking collective action towards clear and discernible goals, goals pertaining to the matter of how society ought be governed and its resources produced and distributed. The sphere of the political was one of clear materiality and clear antagonism—different groups had different interests on the matters that politics concerned. The first prize for political actors was acquiring the requisite power in social institutions, or exercising substantial influence over them.

And then something happened—apparently, history ended. Following the Cold War, neoliberalism marched triumphantly into the new age, indexing everything other than itself as the mark of a failed state. Politics was over! There existed a finite set of societal models, all of which had been exhausted, and America’s version of “liberal, constitutional democracy” was for better or worse declared the best of the rest. Since the 2008 financial crisis, we have been witnessing the unraveling of this consensus. In South Africa, it had its local translation through the mythology of Rainbowism that papered over racialized inequalities arising as a legacy of apartheid, and the inability of the still-ruling African National Congress (ANC) to chart a meaningfully redistributive program after it.

The effect of neoliberalism was to depoliticize. In retooling the state to shield the market from politics, governance, and public policy was subject to a post-ideological, technical rationality that portrayed the interests of capital as the objective, national interest. In the process, South Africa’s left got swallowed up into the governing alliance of the ANC, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the Communist Party. The reign of Thabo Mbeki (1999–2008) brought “clean” accumulation through financialization and privatization, until Jacob Zuma came into power (2009–2018) and ushered in the period of “dirty” state capture which haunts South Africa until today, well into Cyril Ramaphosa’s first presidential term. Rather than viewing this “dark time” of rampant corruption as an aberration to South Africa’s political story, with anticorruption as the movement to get things back on track, both phenomenon are also expressions of anti-politics, an indication that the political order has reached aporia—there is no track to get back on.

Anti-politics shouldn’t be treated as a desire to go “beyond” politics as the ideology of neoliberalism insisted. Humans are by nature political animals, but not in circumstances of their own choosing. What anti-politics is, is the reaction of a populous that is so thoroughly depoliticized, so unmoored culturally and socially, that it is not a rejection of the political, but an inchoate and confused effort to be political. It has for a while been obvious to most people that something is wrong about the state of the world, that things have been getting worse. Today’s political dysfunction arises out of people being unable to state exactly what is wrong, why it is wrong, and who is responsible. They then look elsewhere for explanations.

The proliferation of anti-vaccination conspiracy theories exemplifies this well. The latest Ipsos survey shows South Africa as having the largest drop in vaccine willingness between October and December of last year, and ranking in the bottom three of the 15 countries surveyed. As we pointed out early last year (when a conspiracy theory that Nelson Mandela died in 1985 was doing the rounds), conspiracy theories, wherever their origin, always have political content to them in that they are an attempt to make sense of a dynamic but decaying world, by reducing its conflicts to a Manichean struggle between occult forces of good and evil. Since the pandemic began, conspiracy theorizing has been in overdrive, producing a dizzying cocktail of panics around 5G networks, Bill Gates, and vaccine microchips, child-sex trafficking rings and so on. QAnon—the “movement” aiming to be the container for this toxic mix—even possibly originated in South Africa.

Yet, all the conspiracy theorizing at the end of the end of history has a distinct class character to it. An important thing to note about the Ipsos survey, for example, is that in South Africa, online samples tended to be “more urban, educated, and/or affluent than the general population.” By itself, this is not a reliable measure of anything (though there is generally more vaccine hesitancy in wealthier countries than in poorer countries). But, William Callison and Quinn Slobodian spot a similar dynamic in the anti-lockdown, anti-vax, and generally anti-establishment sentiments pervading everywhere else—they are supported by a base of a kind of lumpen middle-class, comprising a mix of small to medium sized business owners, the self-employed, and generally downwardly-mobile. Callison and Slobodian call this explosion of middle-class politicization, of which the Capitol riot is one incident—“The Revolt of the Mittelstand.”

Naturally, it’s those with internet access, and mostly working from home or an office whose attention-spans are completely soaked up by social media as their work and ‘social’ lives migrate online, the line between the two blurred.  A quick but incomplete scan of social media supports the middle-class tenor of present-day hysteria, and reveals them to overlap with a series of other middle-class concerns, crossing racial lines. It’s no surprise, that a good portion of vaccine skepticism on one side originates from the infamous “RET crowd”, a moniker to describe the preoccupations of a scattered and incoherent black political bloc, some aligned with the Jacob Zuma faction in the ruling party, others supporting the EFF and being supposedly on the “left”, and others backing former Johannesburg mayor (and ex-DA member) Herman Mashaba’s new political outfit ActionSA. What unites this tendency is a diagnosis of South Africa’s political impasse as being rooted in unresolved questions of identity and belonging, that the country’s political and economic order is insufficiently indigenized and demands “radical economic transformation.” It is no wonder then that this rhetoric has graduated to the nativist demand to #PutSouthAfricansFirst, and is beginning to result in concrete policy (proposed legislation in South Africa’s most densely populated province, Gauteng, seeks to exclude foreign nationals from owning and running businesses in its township economy).

For this group, vaccines are an imperialist tool, a plot to use Africans as guinea pigs to advance the push for total, world domination by the West and powerful elites like Bill Gates. Somewhere in there, there is a dormant critique of the vaccine apartheid where richer countries horde supply and big pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Moderna cash in big. Instead, a narrow, nationalist rhetoric is advanced, and countries which appear to be COVID free—like John Magufuli’s Tanzania that has stopped reporting cases since May last year and suppressed all talk of the virus—are looked upon favorably. On another side, it’s leafy suburbanites following the pseudo-scientific trails of alternative medicine advocates like the very popular Tim Noakes. For this group, the target of distrust is the South African government. While the incompetence of the ANC runs deep, the extent of cynicism in this group is driven by an entrenched mistrust in the post-apartheid state, a belief that rule by black people is forever doomed to end in disaster.

This new terrain cannot be mapped on a traditional left-right axis—this has stopped being meaningful in South Africa for some time now. Supporters of the new pop-up populisms share a lot of the same concerns—mainly immigration, rising crime, social, moral, and economic decline—yet they are divided across identity lines, manifesting in the hyper-racialized forms of black Afro-pessimism and white melancholia. Whether it’s because of  the increased power of the state over their lives, or by falling victim to the general pattern of violent crime and social disorder, a lot of white South Africans have lately felt under siege. As a whole, white South Africans have increasingly become militant in the aftermath of 2008 (which coincided with Zuma’s lost decade—they infamously led the #ZumaMustFall protests), because where they once had the economic muscle to opt out of society– through gated communities, private schools and private healthcare—now more than ever they are realizing that they live in a society.

The DA has consolidated its raison d’etre as the representative of the anxious white. At its recent Federal Congress, it elected the boilerplate, right-libertarian John Steenhuisen to lead the party (Steenhuisen had already been acting as leader, after the resignation of its first black leader, Mmusi Maimane), and side-lined Mbali Ntuli, a young prospect leading efforts to transform the both the party’s demographics and its strategic vision (Ntuli championed a number of progressive issues, like rent-control and climate change). Steenhuisen—along with former party leader and Federal Council chair Helen—have steered the DA’s sink into the culture wars, giving up its aspirations of being a mass party and instead preferring to curry favor with an ecosystem of social media personalities, podcasters YouTubers, and hordes of faceless, angry posters bent on fashioning their political complaints in the image of the American Right.

It’s a strategy that is already bleeding the DA’s electoral support, but it’s also demonstrative of the new normal of political life—it is no longer viable to maintain the sharp distinction between the online and real life, for better or worse the internet is as real as anything else. And the new, mediatized politics comes with its own, digitized political subject—one driven more and more by affect rather than well-developed political commitments. The communities formed around today’s political grievances constitute not an organized solidarity around collective interests, but what Hebert Marcuse once prefiguratively called the “instinctive, spontaneous solidarity of sentiment.” And this moment’s overriding sentiment is one of deep malaise, isolation, paranoia and skepticism, of the kind producing for the left and the right the negative movement—anti-lockdown, anti-vaccination, anti-immigration, anti-racism, anti-capitalism—all grand repudiations of things, and aptly summarized in the Fallist declaration that “everything must fall.” But if so, what must rise in its wake?

Last year was the 5th anniversary of the Fallist movements (#RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall). As current and ex-students, academics, plus others either fondly or bitterly recalled the two years of upheaval on South African campuses, it became clear that most are still vexed on what the Fallist legacy is. Its vestiges are apparent in the vocabulary South Africans now regularly use to go about framing political disputes, and Fallism properly inaugurated the era of #HashtagActivism and digital politics in this country. But its political significance is still undecided—underplayed by some, overestimated by others. The truth is that the Fallist moment presented the singular, most serious challenge to the post-apartheid political order. Instead of blaming its failures squarely on the shoulders of students and dismissing that period as now bygone (fees never really fell, and a resurgence is likely as COVID ravages the higher education sector); it must be confronted as an authentic effort to work through the contradictions of our time, while simultaneously being conditioned by our time. People make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing.

These points are put rather well in a recent intervention from Endnotes, one bringing the last decade and a bit of disorder into sharp relief. There, the authors repurpose Asef Bayat’s notion of the “non-movement” to describe the political mobilizations characteristic of the interregnum—ones that have typically been structureless, chaotic, and with short life-spans—from the Arab Spring and #OccupyWallStreet, to #FeesMustFall, #BlackLivesMatter, and #EndSARS. According to Bayat, “Nonmovements refers to the collective actions of noncollective actors; they embody the shared practices of large numbers of ordinary people whose fragmented but similar activities trigger much social change, even though these practices are rarely guided by an ideology or recognizable leaderships and organizations.”

The nonmovement is the organizational form for a disorganized age.

A criticism often levelled against the Fallists, and indeed against nearly every mobilization part of “the global accumulation of non-movements” is that their constituencies, and as a result their aspirations, tend to be middle-class. It is beyond our scope to give an insightful breakdown of who exactly are the middle-classes, but as Göran Therborn recently argues, we have been witnessing, “an accelerated convergence of the Northern and Southern middle classes on the bleak path of inequality.” As Endnotes observes, it would be wrong-headed to proceed by viewing the increasing involvement of the middle-class in the political arena as an advance of any coherent project—rather, they should be seen as “subjective expressions of the objective disorder of our times.” It is a response to a stagnating capitalism, one which at some point was capable of delivering reward to those who “worked hard”, but which now subjects all but an elite few to the constant threat of expiration no matter how hard they work.

The implicit, albeit often inceptive complaint in today’s protest articulations is not necessarily that capitalism is wrong because it is exploitative per se—neoliberalism outmoded critiques of the production process by promising emancipation and individual identity through consumption—but that it has become an unlivable form of life. Everything is just too damn expensive now, and in quarantine who can enjoy it anyway? It is unlikely that this state of affairs will change—we are unlikely to see a post-COVID economic boom, and we are losing the very environment that makes production possible.

The oversized role of the middle-class in politics produces both progressive and reactionary disruption. What it does do for those it jolts into consciousness across the spectrum, is sharply identify the problem through a register that resonates—living in “these strange times”  is precarious, exhausting, alienating, anxiety, and resentment-inducing; the disorder is no longer remote but painfully felt. Today’s political confusions were already foreseen by Wendy Brown, who almost thirty-years ago clarified that: “The problem is that when not only economic stratification but other injuries to body and psyche enacted by capitalism (alienation, commodification, displacement, disintegration of sustaining, albeit contradictory, social forms as families and neighborhood) are discursively normalized and thus depoliticized, other markers of social difference may come to bear an inordinate weight.” The task ahead is to politicize the widespread feeling that the world can no longer be a home for anyone.

But it will be hard—neoliberalism has not ended. If anything, the crisis has demonstrated its surprising resilience, and Ramaphosa’s government is taking advantage by increasingly portraying the COVID-19 health crisis as an unforeseen catastrophe, one which the government must endure like every other household by tightening its pockets. The government looks tired of governing, bumbling through what many are hoping is the last stretch of the pandemic by messing up South Africa’s vaccine procurement and roll-out plan, and increasingly pushing the message that the actual responsibility for managing the pandemic resides primarily with individuals themselves—in his address to the nation announcing harsher lockdown restrictions, Ramaphosa might as well have said “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”

It is important to now say that social movements are not obsolete, and that the future of this country will be determined by its working-class. Class struggles are being waged in the battle to secure grants and social relief, to fight for access to housing, for water and sanitation, against mineral extractivism, for jobs, and against retrenchments and wage-cuts. All this while coming up against a government increasingly aware that it is managing an increasingly untenable situation—the other day it sent police to spray water cannons on civilians queuing to renew their temporary disability grants. The stated reason was to “enforce social distancing.” The real reason, is that it’s a message to the working-class as the government is on the cusp of pulling the plug on its COVID-relief efforts: don’t revolt, stay in line.

Much as there has been some revolt across the world, it was, however, an overcalculation by the global left that the extent of the crisis would be immense enough to dig neoliberalism into its grave. The global working-class is still by and large in decline—union membership is at an all-time low, and the pressures for survival (and lockdown constraints) are enough to make anyone weary of engaging in risky political activity. This is why for the biggest mobilizations of last year—in Chile, the United States, and Nigeria—the first proverbial stones were usually thrown by groups outside of the organized working-class, often coming onto the political scene for the first time (even in India, a crucial role is being played by relatively wealthier, medium-sized farm owners). For a lot of these people—often young, middle-class, and downwardly-mobile, this moment has thrust upon them a heightening awareness of their proletarianization, and with it the realization that they possibly have nothing to lose but their chains. The unresolved question remains what world they are trying to gain.

Throughout the pandemic, South Africa has seen flashes of mobilization spearheaded outside of the pre-existing social movements. Last spring, national opinion was divided when a queer-feminist collective called #WeSeeYou, occupied a mansion in Camps Bay, Cape Town, one of the wealthiest suburbs on the continent not unlike Malibu for its appeal to celebrities and rich tourists. The collective undertook a 21st century tactic—they simply booked the house via Airbnb, and remained after their paid for three night stay was over. You could critique its middle-class composition, and you could critique the performance and spectacle of it (one question that nags us, is why they didn’t make common cause with already existing social movements on housing like Reclaim the City, Ndifuna Ukwazi or The Social Justice Coalition, or why those activists didn’t support or make the protest go viral)— but in a very noteworthy way the occupation drew attention to not only the fact of Cape Town’s spatial apartheid which brutalizes its poor and working-class, but the generalized housing precarity which defines the situation of most. Additionally, it raises today’s social rupture as producing not only struggles for redistribution, but struggles for recognition as well. The desire to feel seen, refracted through the familiar and immediate terms of race, gender, or sexuality, reflects a general and deep-seated state of social dislocation and anomie. The world can no longer be a home for anyone, and no one feels at home in the world anymore.

Therefore, Mario Tronti was right—“We have populism because there is no people.”  So, it is worth paying attention to Mazibuko Jara’s proposition that “The working-class must build an African nation.” It is clear that our society aches for the restoration of the social bond, a durable link between the governing and the governed, and does anything to give expression to this need such as construct imagined communities on the basis of exclusion—of who doesn’t belong. Contrary to that, as Jara–who was famously purged from the leadership of the Communist party–  notes (no doubt channeling Fanon), “… nation-building, for the working class, should mean unifying itself nationally as the leading class whose developing culture, aspirations and economic interests become increasingly those of the overwhelming majority of our people.” The working-class remains the revolutionary class because its interests are objectively universal—as Chris Hani, the South African freedom fighter assassinated by white right-wingers in 1993, reminds us, “Socialism is not about big concepts and heavy theory. Socialism is about decent shelter for those who are homeless. It is about water for those who have no safe drinking water. It is about health care, it is about a life of dignity for the old. It is about a decent education for all our people. Socialism is about rolling back the tyranny of the market. As long as the economy is dominated by an unelected, privileged few, the case for socialism will exist.”

And it is this case that must be made to all those in want of a fundamental change, across the class stratification. The South African Left must construct a new vision and political instrument that not only leads to a renewal of our social movements, but that captures the imagination of groups waiting to be politicized. The pandemic has seen otherwise unorganized groups, like parents, enter the political sphere to exercise influence over state decision-making such as on the question of if and when schools reopen, a question that has become a big flashpoint of public debate. There are opportunities not only to organize them towards changing our resource-segregated education system, but also around issues of racism and transformation– like we saw in Brackenfell. Long before the EFF and the DA’s theatrics, Brackenfell students had established an Instagram page to share their stories, and had handed over a memorandum to the school by July 8 already. Of the concerned political parties, were any efforts made to engage students? To engage the affected parents? To organize them? Instead, we got street battles and Brackenfell reduced to fifteen minutes of fame for a white social influencer before the media and everyone else moved on.

South Africa’s political opposition remains hopelessly weak. The more they are mired in facile political confrontations like we saw in Senekal and Brackenfell, the more they enable the ANC’s hegemony to slouch on. That there have been almost no political costs for the ANC’s gross mishandling of the pandemic, is telling of this age of anti-politics– not only is the opposition impotent, but they are short of a competitive vision themselves. It’s probable they don’t even aspire to govern anymore, they are happy to simply oppose.

And so, the left everywhere must lead with its vision. The strength of our case is stronger than those we oppose. There is no easy way out of this morass, there are no vaccines for social and political disorder. We know that the only way out is through struggle.

Further Reading

Masks off

The revival of an elite technocratic rationality is starting to undo South Africa’s lockdown, now in its second month.