Unemployed People’s Movement
Ten Theses on Democracy
A contribution to the discussion at the Democratic Left Front Meeting, Johannesburg, Friday 2 September 2011
Michael Neocosmos recently gave a seminar at Rhodes University. We very much enjoyed his presentation. He begins and ends with the fact that all people think and looks closely at how this fact is denied in contemporary South Africa. We have had our own discussion on what the Neocosmos paper means for our understanding of the meaning of democracy and our orientation to struggles around democracy. We have prepared this document for the DLF meeting based on that discussion.
Thesis One: The Discussion about Democracy Must be Rooted in the Realities of our Struggles
If our movements have any chance of growing into a popular force that can win real victories against the state and capital then theory must speak to the realities of our struggles. We have to take the realities of our struggles very seriously because it is those realities that will determine whether or not we succeed or fail. We measure theory by how well it can speak to the realities of our struggles.
These Two: Liberal Democracy was not the Final Victory of the Struggle
We are often told that this democracy is the final fruit of the struggle against apartheid. That is not true. This democracy was a compromise in which the masses of the people were expelled from active participation in politics and returned to their allotted spaces in exchange for allowing the state to be placed under black management. As Frantz Fanon put it ‘the people were sent back to their caves’. This is why Mandela told the people to stop struggling when he came out of jail. A radical leader will always encourage the people to keep organising and struggling even when he or she is in power.
Thesis Three: Liberal Democracy Must be Defended
Liberal democracy is not democracy. It is just one very narrow and limited form of democracy that privileges elites and excludes ordinary people from active participation. But liberal democracy is much more democratic than the authoritarian and statist alternatives that the ANC is trying to entrench by rolling back media freedom, undermining the integrity of the courts and repressing social movements. Liberal democracy does give some very valuable space for debate and organisation and so we must defend it vigorously. However we must be very careful to avoid elitism and the domination of NGOs in this struggle to defend liberal democracy.
Thesis Four: Liberal Democracy Must be Extended
Communist democracy is popular democracy. It is the democracy of the Paris Commune, of the early Soviets, of the people’s power movement of the 1980s (which we must be careful not to celebrate uncritically due to the attacks on BC activists by UDF activists on the East Rand and here in Grahamstown too) and Tahrir Square. We need to push wherever we can to deepen liberal democracy, with its dependence on a commodified legal system and the politics of representation by political parties and NGOs, into a politics of direct democracy where people live, work and study. We need to continually radicalise democracy from below.
Thesis Four: Politics Comes Before Economics
There is a strong tendency in the left to put economics before politics. This is a mistake. It’s all very well for people to propose alternative economic arrangements but without the force to implement them they are just ideas. Ideas can only be made a reality when people have the power to force progress forward. This is why politics (the political empowerment of the people) must come before economics (the creation of a just economy). We need to keep discussions about alternative economic models open at all times but our main task is the political empowerment of the people.
Thesis Five: We are not Struggling for Service Delivery
The struggles of the people are relentlessly described as ‘service delivery protests.’ Even many people on the left impose this meaning on our struggles. We reject this. Of course we do struggle for better services sometimes but this is always nested in a deeper struggle for control over our own lives, our own communities and development processes. We are struggling for the political empowerment of the people that can lead to a democratisation of decision making which will lead to a more equal society.
Thesis Six: The State is Sometimes a Threat to Democracy
The state poses a serious threat to democracy. The attacks on the media, the judiciary, social movements and popular protest are all well known. At this point it is grossly irresponsible to see the ANC or the state as democratising forces. They are both actively trying to roll back the limited democratic gains that were made in 1994. We all need to be clear about this. We need to be clear that there can be no progressive resolution of our social crisis from within the ANC and that it is essential to build political alternatives outside of the ANC and the alliance. We should take note of the different way that protests by organisations inside the alliance (e.g. SAMWU, ANC YL, TAC etc) are treated by the police compared to how protests by organisations outside of the alliance (e.g. UPM, AbM, AEC, LPM etc) are treated by the police.
Thesis Seven: Civil Society is Sometimes a Threat to Democracy
It is a myth that civil society is always a democratic space. Civil society organisations are usually hierarchical, professional organisations which are not run democratically, have no democratic mandate and are often threatened by popular membership based organisations. They are often white dominated and always dominated by the middle class. They are often threatened by a politics that organises outside of the realm of professional civil society (the courts, conferences etc). There have been many cases of civil society organisations being as hostile to popular politics as the state and maliciously and dishonestly presenting popular organisations as criminal, violent and irrational. This is as true of liberal civil society as it has been true of some people in NGOs on the left (e.g. those that tried to criminalise AEC and AbM in the mass media and on email listserves).
Thesis Eight: The Criminalisation of our Movements is a Major Threat to Democracy
While we support the campaigns to protect media freedom and the independence of the courts they are often very elitist in how they are organised and in the way that they express their concerns. They usually leave out a major threat to our democracy which is the rampant criminalisation of popular movements. Both the state and the ANC on one side, and elements in NGO based civil society on the other, (including its liberal and left streams), have a record of trying to misrepresent popular struggles as violent, irrational and criminal. It is essential for all genuinely progressively forces to unite against this criminalisation of popular protest and popular organisation.
Thesis Nine: We Need to Think Democracy Together with Dignity
The indignity with which our people have to live every day is truly horrific. Today the brother of one of our comrades, a man who is 36 and has no job, is walking around Grahamstown with the body of his baby in his arms looking for someone to take the body. The hospital has turned him away. He is feeling useless and desperate. Democracy must not only be something technical. The way that we practice democracy must also contribute to defending and building the dignity of our people.
Thesis Ten: We Must All Practice What We Preach
All our organisations need to be rigorously democratic both internally and in how they relate to each other in forums like the DLF, Right2Know and so on. This means that people must be elected to all positions, accountable and recallable. It means that there must be equal representation of men and women. It also means that comrades from NGOs and Universities cannot assume an automatic right to leadership and that if a democratic process does not elect them or accept their views they must accept this process rather than trying to retain power by manipulating budgets behind the scenes or making wild allegations of criminality, conspiracy and so on.