Monday, 21 October 2013

A Path Through the Embers and into the Agora?

A Path Through the Embers and into the Agora?
- Notes on the Necessity for our Democratic Imagination to Take Better Measure of the World

Richard Pithouse

Retrieving life and the human from waste

Achille Mbembe has argued that the rendering of human beings as waste by the interface of racism and capitalism in South Africa means that “for the democratic project to have any future at all, it should necessarily take the form of a conscious attempt to retrieve life and 'the human' from a history of waste”. He adds that “the concepts of 'the human', or of 'humanism', inherited from the West will not suffice. We will have to take seriously the anthropological embeddedness of such terms in long histories of "the human" as waste.” Mbembe is not the first to want to hold on to the idea of the human in the face of the systemic denial of the full and equal humanity of all people and to insist that the idea of the human needs to be delinked from what Aimé Césairecalled 'pseudo-humanism' – colonial particularities masquerading as universal. Césaire aspired to “a true humanism . . . a humanism made to the measure of the world”. Steve Biko envisioned a “true humanity”.

The idea that progress requires that some humans should be rendered as waste was central to the first stirrings of modernity. In 1764 John Locke, sometimes referred to the 'father of liberalism', took the view that lands that, where ever they may be in the world, were still governed under an idea of a right to the commons rather than as private property mediated by money were 'waste' – 'waste' that could and should be redeemed by expropriation. One consequence of this, as Vinay Gidwani and Rajyashree Reddy have noted, is that for Locke, 'waste' lies outside of the ethical ambit of civil society. Locke was a particularly brutal figure - a theorist of slavery, genocide, colonialism and the workhouse. He thought that children should enter the workhouse at the age of three. But he was not an aberration within liberal thought. After all John Stuart Mill, often seen as a gentler figure, entered the East India Company at the age of 17 and was committed to colonialism throughout his life. He began his reflections on liberty in 1859 with the disclaimer that “we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage . . . Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians.”  The historical practice of liberalism was certainly emancipatory for the English bourgeoisie from which it emerged but, beginning in Ireland, it simultaneously produced what Domenico Losurdo describes as “exclusion, de-humanization and even terror” for millions of others.

Making philosophy worldly

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. As Stathis Kouvelakis has shown Marx 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 his attention away from the elite public sphere 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, from London to Johannesburg, remains 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 he insisted that for this happen it must be radical because “To be radical is to grasp things by the root. But for man, the root is man himself.” Communism, he insisted, is “fully developed humanism”.

Marxism & waste

But there were moments in his life when Karl Marx took the view that colonialism would be an ultimately redemptive force thereby implicitly rendering the majority of actually existing people and economies as waste in the name of a shared future to come.  Kevin Anderson's recent book Marx at the Margins provides a useful analysis of the way in which Marx's thought evolved during the course of his life and shows, in particular, that he came to reject the idea of colonialism as a progressive force and began to look at communal modes of life, outside of its reach, and the reach of capital, as potential sites of progressive movement. Aditya Mukherjee has also done important work on how Marx moved away from his initial view of colonialism as an ultimately historically progressive force. Nonetheless there are still cases such as, for instance, in West Bengal, where ongoing dispossession, and the rendering of people as waste, has been justified in the name of a form of Marxism that, wielded by the state, continues to see the enclosure of the commons and proletarianisation as the royal road to a socialist future.

At home, in Europe, Marx, in the first half of his life, spoke of the 'lumpen-proletariat', the urban poor living outside of wage labour, with astonishing vitriol.  Marx first coined the term in The German Ideology  – a text that was written in 1846 amidst the crop failure, escalating urbanisation and first stirrings of the political ferment that would soon explode into the European spring of 1848. It, tellingly, moves from the assumption that it is production rather than, say, as Aristotle would have it, the capacity for speech that distinguishes the human from the animal. The term 'lumpen-proletariat' is usually translated as the 'ragged proletariat' but the word 'lumpen' meant both ragged and knave and it has been suggested that Marx had the second use of the word in mind. In The Communist Manifesto of 1848 he, with Friedrich Engles, wrote of “The 'dangerous class', the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society”. Four years later, in The 18th Brumaire, he railed against the “scum, offal, refuse of all classes”.

Ernesto Laclau shows that, at this point in Marx's work, the proletariat is strictly delimited from the ‘lumpen-proletariat’ in order to affirm its position within capitalist development with the result that the ‘lumpen-proletariat’ is given the status of the pure outside and its “expulsion from the field of historicity is the very condition of a pure interiority”. In other words the virtue of workers, male workers, is asserted against the dissolution of the urban poor. But when he wrote Capital, fifteen years after The 18th Brumaire, Marx took a far less hostile view arguing that:

it is capitalist accumulation itself that constantly produces, and produces indeed in direct relation with its own energy and extent, a relatively redundant working population, i.e. a population which is superfluous to capital's average requirements for its own valorization, and is therefore a surplus population.

He also presents the “combination between the employed and unemployed” as both a way for workers to combat the rendering of their own place within capitalist production as precarious and a real threat to the logic of capitalist production that, via the logic of supply and demand, relies on the existence of a large group of people without an independent livelihood or a wage to drive wages down. Here Marx’s political imagination can see a positive role for the urban poor, although he still thinks of labour solely in terms of work performed by men in the factory. He writes that for the worker capitalist social relations “transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the juggernaut of capital’. Of course Silvia Federici, who we were honoured to have here at Rhodes last month, has shown not just that the home is also a site of labour, largely performed by women, but also that this labour enables the reproduction of the work force on which capitalism depends.

Despite Marx’s his shift towards imagining a positive political role for the urban poor, albeit in a manner pre-determined by his own theory, Marxism, as both doctrine and political culture, often retains a deep current of hostility to the urban poor and often sustains a fetish of the industrial working class, often imagined as male, as the only subject capable of emancipatory political action. In contemporary South Africa it is not uncommon for Marxists, in and out of the academy, and including in seminar discussions here at Rhodes, to dismiss, on an a priori basis - and without any attempt to investigate a particular political event, sequence or organisation - any prospect of progressive action on the part of the urban poor. Jeff Peires, for instance, has invoked Marx and the idea of the ‘lumpen-proletariat’ to reject, out of hand, the prospect of progressive organisation and mobilisation on the part of the unemployed in Grahamstown. Jimmy Adesina has also invoked the idea of the ‘lumpen-proletariat’ in a way that compounds rather than contests the production of people as waste.

Colonial discourses about race and the urban poor were enmeshed from the early 1800s. Engels followed the bourgeois thought of the day declaring the ‘lumpen proletariat’ to be a “race . . . robbed of all humanity, degraded, reduced morally and physically to bestiality”. At one point Engels repeats one of the key tropes of the bourgeois thought of the time, a trope that, in a racialised form, also became central to colonial ideology – that the urban poor are those  “who do not wish to work”. Nicholas Thorburn concludes that “Marx and Engels' most vehement assaults are saved for those who seem to revel in surviving outside productive relations”.

As Kristin Ross has shown with her characteristic élan the Paris Commune of 1871, an urban revolt that became a decisive moment in the formation of the modern left, and continues to carry particular import for many radical approaches to the urban question, also became a decisive moment in the political investment in the idea of the good worker, a man, by the modern left. She suggests that this was largely in response to right wing diatribes, often highly gendered, that presented the politicised urban poor in monstrous terms. The Parisian elites at the time, along with the usual claims that criminals and foreign agents were behind the uprising, claims that are all too familiar to us in contemporary South Africa, also pointed, amidst a full-scale moral panic, to the perversely gendered image of the Communard as a woman, a 'petroleuse' - a “bloodthirsty, slothful, drunken prostitute”.  Marx’s political investment in ‘working men’, and in particular factory workers, in response to a political event, a municipal revolution largely constituted around the neighbourhood rather than the factory, and that was, Manuel Castells argues, “decisively an action by the women”, has left its mark on the common sense of the left.

This fetish of the male worker as the only credible revolutionary subject is often apparent in dissident and more democratic currents of Marxism. In her reflections on the Russian Revolution, published in 1918, Rosa Luxemburg, often seen, and for good reason, as a democratic alternative to Vladimir Lenin, presented the 'lumpen proletariat', under the heading of “The Struggle Against Corruption”, and with reference to terms like 'degeneration' and 'sickness', as a “problem to be reckoned with”, an “enemy and instrument of counter-revolution” requiring the 'healing' and 'purifying' rays of a revolutionary sun.  In an earlier intervention, The Mass Strike, she had written that “Anarchism has become in the Russian Revolution, not the theory of the struggling proletariat, but the ideological signboard of the counterrevolutionary lumpen proletariat, who, like a school of sharks, swarm in the wake of the battleship of the revolution. And therewith the historical career of anarchism is well-nigh ended.”

But classical anarchism mirrored rather than opposed the objectification of the urban poor surviving outside of formal employment. While Marx saw proletarianisation as enabling revolutionary agency Mikhail Bakunin saw it as destroying revolutionary agency that, for him, was rooted in the peasant commune and its insurrectionary traditions and various groups in the cities that had not been subordinated to the discipline of work. Bakunin sustained Marx and Engel's objectification of the urban poor while inverting its logic to conclude that “in them and only in them [the ‘lumpen-proletariat’], and not in the bourgeois strata of workers, are there crystallized the entire intelligence and power of the coming Social Revolution. A popular insurrection, by its very nature, is instinctive, chaotic, and destructive”. As Thorburn notes Bakunin, “in a fashion not so different from Marx's account of lumpen 'spontaneity'”, assumes that the lumpen-proletariat carries a “transhistorical instinctual rage”. There is no space here for a politics rooted in organisation, worked out via the use of reason and expressed as speech.

There are other lacunae in the classic texts of the modern left. For Walter Benjamin, writing in 1940, the year that he, in flight from the Nazis, took his own life on the border between Spain and France, the wreckage upon wreckage that undergirds the 'storm' of modern progress erected the elegance of the Parisian arcades, the ancestor of today's mall, on the foundation of a permanent state of emergency. But while crude material need was systemically unmet the working class in Germany could still assume that being swept into the factory was, nonetheless, a movement with the current of history, with the “fall of the stream”, in which it would soon take its rightful place. The factory appears as a step on the way from the commons to socialism. But in the colonised world people were not only expropriated and proletarianised. People were also turned into members of races in a world that was, Frantz Fanon wrote in 1961, the last year of his life, “cut in two”, divided into “compartments . . . inhabited by different species”.

Thinking the unthinkable

In Aimé Césaire’s famous equation “colonization = 'thingification'”.  Césaire, writing in 1955, insists that in the colony 'the storm' is more about what has been trampled, confiscated, wiped out and brought into new regimes of abuse in “a circuit of mutual services and complicity” than any sense of hard won but ultimately redemptive universal progress. Here neither the living nor the dead can be redeemed by a modernity in which capital makes concessions to society in a double movement, or a revolutionary proletariat seizes the engines of progress for itself, until racism is abolished and humanity known under a generic appellation. But the sorry state of the postcolony where, as Fanon warned, national consciousness has seldom attained “political and social consciousness”, makes it clear that while the abolition of racism is a necessary condition for the achievement of a generic humanity it is not, on its own, a sufficient condition. In fact it’s clear that colonialism and anti-colonial nationalism have often shared a view of the subaltern, as Partha Chatterjee writes of the peasantry in India, “as an object of their strategies, to be acted upon, controlled, and appropriated within their respective structures of state power.” Chatterjee also notes that elite nationalist thought excludes the subaltern from the domain of reason and argues that “Nowhere in the world has nationalism qua nationalism challenged the legitimacy of the marriage between Reason and capital.” Both the expulsion of the subaltern from the domain of reason by nationalist elites, in and out of the state, and the conception of the subaltern as an object to be acted on from above, which is also central to the logic of some forms of left vanguardism, including those organised in NGOs and groupuscles of various sorts, are familiar to us in South Africa.

Chatterjee has sought to introduce some conceptual categories that can shift the discussion of what he calls 'popular politics in most of the world' on to a rational terrain. In his estimation shack dwellers, living outside of the law are not just subject to stigmatisation but are also structurally excluded from the agora. They are, he argues, “only tenuously, and then even then ambiguously and contextually, rights-bearing citizens in the sense imagined by the constitution. They are not, therefore, proper members of civil society and are not regarded as such by the state”. Chatterjee notes that politics conducted outside of civil society, outside of “the zone of legitimate political discourse”, is often just dismissed as “lumpen culture” amidst fears that “politics has been taken over by mobs and criminals”.  Again this is something that we are very familiar with in South Africa. And there have been occasions when the left has read the entry of the subaltern subject into the agora with forms of panic and hostility, sometimes clearly racialised, that mirror those of the most crudely unreflective forms of ordinary bourgeois thought. Chatterjee argues that it makes better sense to see the zone of engagement outside of civil society as what he calls 'political society', a space in which people may “transgress the strict lines of legality in struggling to live and work” but are, nonetheless, engaged in real forms of politics, some of which can enable “actual expansion of the freedoms of people”. Aditya Nigam, who is not uncritical of Chatterjee, has written that Chatterjee's “notion of ‘political society’ has provided an unprecedented opening, a possibility – that of thinking the ‘unthinkable’”.

In Texaco, his fabulously inventive novel about a shack settlement in Martinique, Patrick Chamoiseau writes of a “proletariat without factories, workshops, and work, and without bosses, in the muddle of odd jobs, drowning in survival and leading an existence like a path through embers”. But Texaco is also a novel of struggle, of struggle with the 'persistence of Sisyphus' - struggle to hold a soul together in the face of relentless destruction amidst a “disaster of asbestos, tin sheets, crates, mud tears, blood, police”. It is a novel of barricades, police and fire, a struggle to “call forth the poet in the urban planner”, a struggle to 'enter City'. It's also about the need to “hold on, hold on, and moor the bottom of your heart in the sand of deep freedom.”

The theoretical project, undertaken in and around the academy, of working towards the assertion of a more genuinely universal humanism and a more genuinely universal emancipatory horizon – 'the sand of deep freedom' - is one thing. The political project of affirming an equal humanity amidst relentless destruction and waste with 'the persistence of Sisyphus' is another. It is not that often that they are brought together. One reason for this is that it is a common feature of a wide range of polities that the damned of the earth, people who may be seen as populations to be managed by the state and NGOs but who live and work outside of the parameters established as legitimate by bourgeois society, are not welcome in a shared agora. Indeed it is common for their very appearance in the agora as rational speaking beings rather than as silent victims requesting help from their masters, or a cheering mass performing fealty to their masters, to be received as illicit – as violent, criminal, fraudulent and consequent to malevolent conspiracy – even when their presence takes the form of nothing other than rational speech. This is as common in states that aspire to liberal democracy as it is in states governed by an authoritarian nationalism - be it inflected with ideas of the right or the left. It's also equally common when the masters in question are in the state, NGOs (across the political spectrum) or the left – understood, in Alain Badiou's terms, as the set of people that claim “that they are the only ones able to provide 'social movements' with a 'political perspective' ”. Jacques Rancière is quite right to insist that, from the ancient world until today: “The war of the poor and the rich is also a war over the very existence of politics. The dispute over the count of the poor as people, and of the people as the community, is a dispute about the existence of politics through which politics occurs”. We need to be clear that while it is true that, since Plato, it has often been thought that workers should keep to their place and function it is also true that during the last century workers won a political place, a subordinate place to be sure, in many societies. And as we know all too well the worker who steps on to the political stage outside of authorised forms of organisation and representation can very quickly appear as criminal or as a dupe of someone else's conspiracy to the state and civil society. But there is often a significant degree to which the urban poor, and especially people who live and work outside of the law, are cast out of civil society, and out of the count of who has a right to the political, in a way that is far more acute than that of worker who lives and works within the law. This situation has often been intensely compounded when people who have to make their lives on 'a path through embers' have also been raced.

There is a long history, across space and time, of people being objectified in a manner that refuses to recognise their speech as speech or to take their political capacities seriously. In Silencing the Past Michel-Rolph Trouillot, a brilliant historian who died last year, examines the reception of the Haitian Revolution of 1804. He showed that the idea of African slaves winning a revolutionary war for their freedom against the great European powers of the day was simply unimaginable - ‘unthinkable’ - in the most globally powerful sites of authorised intellectual authority at the time. He notes that the Haitian Revolution “constituted a sequence for which not even the extreme left in France or in England had a conceptual frame of reference”. Trouillot goes on to argue that “the narrative structures of Western historiography have not broken with the ontological order of the Renaissance” and concludes that “This exercise of power is much more important than the alleged conservative or liberal adherence of the historians involved”.

Silencing the present

Today we can speak of a ‘silencing of the present’. Human beings continue to become objects to others, either invisible or hyper-present, their faces distorted into caricature or worn into nothingness by the enduring weight of the economic, spatial and symbolic division of the world in accordance with what Trouillot terms “an ontology, an implicit organization of the world and its inhabitants”.

There has been, and, with important exceptions, often continues to be, a silencing of the struggles of the urban poor, struggles in which women have often been at the forefront, even within theories of collective emancipation. In the metropolitan ghetto, defined by Loïc Wacquant as a “distinctive, spatially based, concatenation of mechanisms of ethnoracial closure and control”, what Wacquant calls 'territorial stigmatization' has been profoundly inflected by race. The idea that spatial divisions, which are also sociological, must also be ontological has frequently been part of the unexamined common sense of the postcolony. For instance Obika Gray writes that in Jamacia in the 1970s the “mobilized urban poor remained a morally discredited, socially isolated and culturally stigmatized group”.

The tendency to read the intersection of spatial and sociological realities in ontological terms often endures across time and through different political regimes. In 1976 Janice Perlman famously argued that the myth of the marginality, of the moral degradation of shack dwellers in Rio was produced by the “constant attempt of those in power to blame the poor for their position because of deviant attitudes, masking the unwillingness of the powerful to share their privilege”. She noted that “the political left is also influenced to some extent by the myths of marginality” and concluded the myth was “anchored in people's minds by roots that will remain unshaken by any theoretical criticism”. Almost forty years later Raúl Zibechi reports that: “The Latin American left regard the poor peripheries as pockets of crime, drug trafficking, and violence; spaces where chaos and the law of the jungle reign. Distrust takes the place of understanding. There is not the slightest difference in perspective between left and right on this issue”.

This can be compounded by the catastrophic and still poisonous history of race as a tool of domination. Achille Mbembe begins On the Postcolony by noting that “Speaking rationally about Africa is not something that has ever come naturally”. V.Y. Mudimbe notes that anxieties about the African presence in the modern world have often been particular concerned with the urban African: “Marginality designates the intermediate space between the so-called African tradition and the projected modernity of colonialism. It is apparently an urbanized space.” The university’s pretensions to science, or academic rigour, offer no automatic immunity from the widespread inability to consider Africa, and sometimes, in particular urban Africa, rationally.

In 1952, in his first published essay, The North African Syndrome, Fanon, then twenty seven years old, argued that in France migrant workers from North Africa were “hidden beneath a social truth”, “thingified and “dissolve(d) on the basis of an idea” within French science. He was particularly critical of the view that the North African was “a thing tossed into the great sound and fury” which he described as “manifestly and abjectly disingenuous” as it functioned to mask both the reality of an inhuman system that treated people as objects and the humanity of the people in question. The philosopher Lewis Gordon, who will take up the Nelson Mandela Professorship here at Rhodes University next year – and whose work on ‘illicit appearance’ speaks well to some of the issues I am raising here - makes a similar point in his sustained reading of W.E.B. Du Bois's essay The Study of the Negro Problem over the last decade or so. The essential lesson that Gordon draws from his reading of Du Bois is that there is a profound difference between studying oppressed people as 'problem people', an approach that implicitly assumes that the broader system is essentially just and that there is something lacking in people who inhabit its underside, and studying oppressed people as people that have been subject to oppression and confront a particular set of problems consequent to that experience. A concept like the 'lumpen-proletariat', or 'the lumpen' which has been borrowed from Marx by Mbembe, and seized from Mbembe with some enthusiasm by liberals like Alistair Sparks is, when used uncritically and without very careful qualification, plainly more suited to the first mode of study than it is to the second.

Around the world, contemporary struggles by the urban poor are often, via implicit recourse to an ontological division of the world, subject to contemporary forms of silencing. For instance in an intervention on the uprising in the Parisian ghettoes in 2006 Emilio Quadrelli shows the huge gulf between the assumptions, invariably pejorative, of what Bruno Bosteels calls speculative leftism, delinked from concrete engagement and “as radical as it is politically inoperative”, and the realities of the actually existing struggles in the banlieues by the simple but effective device of juxtaposing theoretical flights of academic fantasy, ungrounded in any actual experience of participation in popular struggles or credible research, with interviews with grassroots militants. There are cases in which a similar method would produce similar results in South Africa. NGOs, which often set the agenda for the media and academy, can also function to silence popular political initiative on the part of the urban poor. Peter Hallward shows that in Haiti NGO power is frequently racialised: “the provision of white enlightened charity to destitute and allegedly ‘superstitious’ blacks is part and parcel of an all too familiar neo-colonial pattern”. He notes that left NGOs tend not to “organize with and among the people . . . In the places and on the terms where the people are strong” but prefer “trivial made-for-media demonstrations . . . usually attended by tiny groups of 30 or 40 people”.  Hallward shows that some of these NGOs, like Action Aid – now headquartered in Johannesburg, supported the 2004 US backed coup against an elected government that drew much of its support from the urban poor. His critique extends beyond NGOs and includes the small political organisation Batay Ouvriye, a tiny political organisation that is, “like any number of neo-Trotskyite sects . . . militant and inconsequential in equal measure”, but has nonetheless been prominent on the international left and which produced slander against popular forms of political mobilisation as virulent as anything produced by the right. This became, he concludes, “invaluable propaganda for the sector of civil society” most committed to legitimating the US backed coup against a popular and elected government. Hallward’s account of how popular struggles in Haiti have been received by elites in NGOs and small political sects has striking points of connection with recent South African experiences. In both the cases discussed by Quadrelli and Hallward it becomes clear that a priori ontological assumptions are sometimes given more explanatory weight than empirical investigations. Perhaps there needs to be a return to Mao's dictum ‘No investigation no right to speak’ that was appropriated in Paris in 1968 with considerable intellectual and political consequence.

The rendering of people as 'waste' takes on a particularly acute intensity in South Africa. As Giovanni Arrighi et al note “the South(ern) African experience (is) . . . a paradigmatic outlier case of accumulation by dispossession”. Gill Hart has argued that here the extent of dispossession is an important factor driving the inability of the economy to create employment. The scale of what Marx called 'immiseration' extends far beyond that of any process that could be argued to be functional to the economy in so far as it constitutes a 'reserve army of labour'. Large numbers of people are simply economically redundant. And for many people labour, whether or not it is accompanied by a wage, is undertaken on a precarious and often highly exploitative basis outside of the formal economy and the legal protections that, often more in principle than in practice, regulate labour in that sphere.  This economic bifurcation is being actively compounded by the persistence of a profoundly unequal and inadequate education system. Moreover the rendering of people as waste is increasingly being built into the materiality of our cities in the form of the peripheral housing developments and the transit camp – zones of exclusion, suffering and stigmatisation - both of which are widely referred to in popular discourse via metaphors that speak to contemporary forms of 'development' as banishment, incarceration and the rendering of human beings as rubbish and as animals. 

Trade unions continue, sometimes militantly, to contest the terms on which labour engages with capital. But the community has, as was the case in the 1980s, also become a site of intense struggle. The shack settlement has often been central to this still escalating sequence of struggle the nature and significance of which is often obscured by the a priori use of descriptive terms like ‘popcorn protests’ or, more commonly, ‘service delivery protests’. These terms often function to render protest banal but there is also a whole lexicon that functions to render it perverse. Across a range of sites of elite power shack dwellers' political agency is frequently read in terms of external conspiracy, criminality or some sort of intersection between ignorance and thuggery. Reports of deliberative and democratic processes on the part of grassroots militants by researchers who have engaged in long term ethnographic immersion or participation have been confidently dismissed as, a priori, romantic or even fraudulent by people who have not conducted any investigation of their own. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Alliance (DA) both routinely present protest from shack settlements in terms of malevolent external conspiracy. In March 2013 a Durban newspaper, The Daily News, ran a story with the headline ‘Shack dwellers invade Durban’. The article, described the shack dwellers in question as an armed ‘mob’, and as ‘invaders’ and quotes interviewees, local property owners, describing a ‘mad racket’ and speaking of a ‘tragedy’. The land occupation inciting all this panic had been organised by long standing residents of the city who had been illegally and brutally evicted from their homes by the municipality. It was hardly an invasion of the city. When challenged from below to operate in a more democratic manner NGO networks have, just like the state, responded with entirely dishonest allegations of criminality, thuggery or external manipulation. There are cases where academics have repeated some of the worst aspects of the sectarian slander, some of it outrightly defamatory, much of it clearly racialised, against autonomous popular organisation that has emerged out of the intersection between NGOs and the authoritarian left in South Africa. But even when academic work has no sectarian axe to grind it frequently writes about the urban poor in a manner that draws on all too confidently held prejudices rather than credible research. For instance Daryl Glaser, in a piece on the xenophobic and ethnic pogroms of May 2008 that Michael Neocosmos rightly terms “crass”, simply asserted that “popular democracy in action is not a pretty sight” and concluded that the pogroms were in fact “profoundly democratic, albeit in a majoritarian sense”. No mention was made of the popular organisations, in at least one case deeply democratic, that effectively opposed xenophobic and ethnic violence. The result is that the reader is left with the false impression, one that conforms to the most base stereotypes prevalent amongst elites, that all poor people are xenophobic, violent and incapable of participation in the agora. In an otherwise valuable article on Jacob Zuma's rape trial Shireen Hassim writes that:

(T)here is also a challenge to rebuild relationships horizontally with the leadership of the social movements, who support Zuma as a ‘pro-poor’ candidate. Despite their professed commitment to poor women, the new social movements have revealed themselves as ready to ditch equality rights when ‘more important’ decisions about leadership are debated. Of the major social movements on the left, only the TAC has sided with women’s organisations. Yet it is not the only social movement that has a majority female membership – the same is true of the Anti-Eviction Campaign, the Soweto Electricity Crisis Campaign [sic], and Abahlali ‘Mjondolo[sic]. These movements, dependent on women for their grassroots character, seem willing to trade away women’s rights to dignity and autonomy for short-term political gain.

This author has no inside knowledge of how the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee responded to the campaign in support of Zuma at the time. But it can be affirmed with certainty that neither the Anti-Eviction Campaign nor Abahlali baseMjondolo ever expressed support for Zuma in any form. In the latter case the refusal to support Zuma cost the movement some support in some neighbourhoods, including support from women, and resulted in it being subject to serious intimidation, including misrepresentation from a suddenly explicitly ethnicised local ANC as having 'sold out' to its Indian and Xhosa members. This eventually enabled serious state backed violence against its leading members that was mediated through ethnic claims. Hassim's gross misrepresentation of the politics in the Anti-Eviction Campaign and Abahlali baseMjondolo at the time is certainly not based on any attempt to make sense of empirical realities but it does confirm to some stereotypes about popular politics. This cannot be held to be respectful of the dignity and autonomy of the members of these movements, many of whom, including many people in leadership positions in Abahlali baseMjondolo, were women.

The shack settlement as a site of politics

The significance of the shack settlement as a site of politics, and the shack dweller as a subject of politics, is not a recent development. On the contrary the shack settlement became highly politicised in South Africa at various moments during the last century. These included the mobilisation by the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union in Durban in the second half of the 1920s, the various shack dwellers' movements in Johannesburg in the 1940s, the contestation for Cato Manor in Durban from the late 1940s until the late 1950s, and the mass struggles of the 1980s which, in and out of the shack settlement, often took an urban form. There were moments when insurgent spatial practices were combined with a broader vision for social change and there were moments where women’s agency was central to these mobilisations. But, perhaps most infamously in Cato Manor in 1949 and in Inanda, in Durban, and Crossroads, in Cape Town, in the 1980s, there were also highly reactionary forms of violent mobilisation grounded in the opportunities for livelihoods that can be found in shack settlements and mediated via appeals to ethnicity or the patriarchal authority of culture. These forms of reactionary mobilisation often aligned themselves with a repressive state. They have a lot in common with the form of mobilisation that the ANC has recently sought to incite in Durban in order to crush independent organisation.

Before the end of apartheid shack dwellers' struggles were usually subsumed under a nationalist struggle, or opposition to it, that tended to disavow the particularity of the shack settlement as a site of habitation and struggle. It was often assumed that the urban question would be automatically resolved by the success of the national struggle. However there are clear lines of continuity in both state and popular practices in the periods before, during and after apartheid. The state continues to respond to the urban poor in an exclusionary, authoritarian and often violent manner. It continues, as happened under apartheid and colonialism, to see dissent from below, whether formally organised or not, as a result of external conspiracy rather than as what it says it is. At the same time insurgent spatial practices, sometimes taking the form of what Asef Bayat calls 'quiet encroachment' and sometimes taking the form of overtly political mobilisation – like the recent spate of land occupations named 'Marikana', continue and, at times, continue to offer a significant challenge to the ability of the state and capital to sustain their duopoly on urban planning. After apartheid the shack settlement has, again, become a site of acute political intensity.

The intensity of the shack settlement as a site of contestation plainly has a lot to do with material factors. It also has a lot to do with the state's turn in 2004 towards an agenda aimed at the control and eradication rather than support of shack settlements. The way in which the state and the ruling party seek to discipline rather than enable organisation in the shack settlement is also an important factor. But it also has something to do with the fact that to step into the shack settlement is to step into the void. This is not because of any ontological difference amongst the people living there, or because life there is entirely other at the level of day-to-day sociality. It is because it is a site that is not fully inscribed within the laws and rules through which the state governs society. Because its meaning is not entirely fixed it is an unstable element of the situation. The unfixed way in which the shack settlement is indexed to the situation opens opportunity for a variety of challenges - from above and from below, democratic and authoritarian, in the name of the political, of tradition, of nationalism and of private interest, and from the left and the right - to the official order of things. Of course neither social exclusion, nor the many ways in which it is resisted, can be reduced to the shack settlement. But there is no question that it is a site where people's various forms of refusal to accept that they be rendered as 'waste' have come in to intense and sustained conflict with the state.

The shack settlement was a central site for the xenophobic pogroms that swept parts of the country in 2008.It has also been a central site for most of the formally organised movements that have emerged after apartheid. The shack settlement has also been a key site in the sequence of popular protest that is generally not organised by sustained and formally constituted social movements. Camalita Naicker, a Masters student here at Rhodes, is looking at women’s struggles in Marikana. Her work shows that the shack settlement was an important part of the struggle in Marikana. Benjamin Fogel, who studied here at Rhodes, has argued that in De Doorns, the centre of the uprising on the farms in the Western Cape last year, key organisers had been politicised by struggles for housing and services in the Stofland shack settlement. Women and young people have often been central to the forms of organisation and mobilisation that have been developed in the shack settlement which have often been constituted around the idea of community rather than work. These realities have not always sat well with forms of politics that - invariably dogmatic, often authoritarian and uniformly unable to build sustained mass organisation or mobilisation - operate under the illusory assumption that reality should, in Antonio Gramsci's words, “conform to [pre-existing] abstract schema”.

Dwelling is fundamental to any existential conception of human being. And, as Martin Heidegger argued in 1951, “We attain to dwelling, so it seems, only by means of building”.  Given the degree to which direction from donor and state agendas has ensured that much of the academic and NGO writing about housing and the broader urban question in contemporary South Africa is entirely technocratic this assertion of the existential aspect of dwelling, which has tremendous popular resonance – often framed in the language of dignity, is invaluable.  Housing is not solely a matter of a material need and the degree to which its provision is effective is not solely a quantitative question. It is also, as has so often been asserted in struggle, a matter of dignity.

But modes of building and dwelling are not solely inflected by existential choice. The capacity to build for oneself is dependent on access to resources – whether from a wage, other form of income or a commons – and the regulation of the right to build, or to occupy buildings, has frequently been one of the mechanisms by which people are classified into putative types and by which participation in the agora, economic well-being and access to physical security has been mediated. Buildings, and the lines of force that cut through their agglomeration, shape space and constitute a considerable part of the social situation in which dwelling takes form. Both economic and political inequality and forms of opposition to exclusion and domination, be they in the form of popular action – be it insurgent or defensive, openly and collectively confrontational or quieter and more personal forms of disobedience - or state reforms, have often been concretised in the manner in which the world is built and the social logic of building sustained by armed force in the hands of the state and the market, barricades in the hands of popular forces and all kinds of less dramatic forms of routine social regulation and contestation.

The intensity of the shack settlement as a site of politics is not, at all, unique to South Africa. There is a similar intensity, often associated with a repertoire of tactics that, like the road blockade marked by burning tyres, have become part of an international grammar of protest in many countries across the global South. In India and Kenya the shack settlement has been a site of catastrophic religious and ethnic mobilisation. But it has also recently been a site of progressive politics that, in countries like Bolivia, Haiti and Venezuela, has made important national interventions with international consequences. Account of the Egyptian uprising based on credible research rather than lazy assumptions about the power of social media are increasingly pointing to the role of the urban poor. Raúl Zibechi take the view that: ”If a spectre is haunting the Latin American elites at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is for sure living in the peripheries of the large urban cities. The main challenges to the dominant system in the last two decades have emerged from the heart of the poor urban peripheries.”

In South Africa, as is common elsewhere, the shack settlement has also become a deeply contested space onto which elite fears about crime, immigration, disease, and political and social insubordination, sometimes gendered, are projected with increasing virulence. In some cases it is a site of spatial exclusion that is functional to capital, and bourgeois society more generally, as it enables low wage labour, usually precariously employed, to be housed at no cost to the state or capital. But there are also cases where it provides a genuine challenge to the sanctity of private property and spatial segregation. When shack settlements are spatially insurgent they often enable access to opportunities of various sources, and in particular those relating to livelihoods, and to institutions, like schools.

At the same time as all sorts of anxieties are projected onto the shack settlement political parties and NGOs are involved in active competition to capture these spaces and to be able to represent their inhabitants as obedient partisans of their projects. The result is a strange bifurcation in the stereotypes projected onto shack settlements and shack dwellers. When they are seen as a threat to bourgeois society – across the political spectrum - shack settlements appear, as Fanon wrote as “places of ill fame peopled by women and men of evil repute”. But when their inhabitants have, or can be made to appear to have accepted the tutelage of an NGO or a clientelist relation to a political party they are more likely to appear as the long suffering but patient and noble poor. In both cases the shack dweller appears as other-worldly and certainly does not appear as a person who thinks or who is worthy or indeed capable of independent participation in civil society. On the contrary it is routinely assumed that civil society is a space in which, as Marx observed with regard to French peasants: “They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them”. The result of this is that the shack settlement routinely appears as a space from which, to appropriate Jacques Rancière’s words, “only groans or cries expressing suffering, hunger or anger could emerge, but not actual speech demonstrating a shared aisthesis”. Despite the persistence of the shack settlement as a site of politics there is an enduring inability amongst elites, across the political spectrum, to recognise political agency in the shack settlement. No matter how articulate the subaltern may be there is a systemic inability to recognise her speech as speech in elite publics.  This is as true for the state as it is for much of the media, professional civil society and the academy, including, in both the latter cases, their left edges.

From Johannesburg, to Durban, Cape Town and innumerable small towns, it has, irrespective of the language that people are speaking, become common to hear people ground their right to disobedience in an affirmation of their humanity. Of course other discourses are also mobilised including citizenship, culture, loyalty to the ANC and histories of struggle. But, although popular politics is a certainly a dynamic space the affirmation of humanity as a foundation for a challenge to elites of various sorts has been striking. The years of protest from shack settlements around the country have won many small victories but they have never come close to forcing the state, capital and civil society to accept a fundamental democratisation of the urban regime. However they have constituted the urban poor as political actors and, despite relentless attempts by various elite actors to technicise the political, to politicise aspects of the ongoing production of people as waste.

A humanism made to the measure of the world

There is a rich tradition of thought that, in Césaire's phrase cited at the outset, reaches towards “a humanism made to the measure of the world”. This thought has sought to extend the category of those that count as fully human and to oppose ontological explanations for invisibility, exclusion or subordination with political explanations. Some of it has, as Mbembe writes in a luminous essay on what he calls the “force and power” of the “metamorphic thought” of Fanon, “the brightness of metal”.  In Fanon's case the will to contest rather than to abjure humanism is rooted in fidelity to the two ethical axioms on which his project is founded. The first is the necessity to recognise “the open door of every consciousness”. The second, which follows from a full apprehension of the first, is that we all have the right to “come into a world that [is] ours and to help to build it together.”

The character of the bright metallic strength that Mbembe discerns in Fanon's thought is drawn from the experience of being a subject amongst subjects “on the common paths of real life”. Fanon is clear that it is forged in action and requires ongoing ethical engagement with the self as well as others. This makes it entirely different to the ruthless will to power that can come with modes of politics that speak in the name of justice from within the blinding pain, fear and rage of a collective wound, fantasies of a privileged access to ethical enlightenment or strategic capacity, the politics of the synecdoche in which a part believes that it stands in for the whole, or a sense that states or economies are inhuman forces to which progress requires accommodation rather than contestation.

For Fanon the capacity for reason is central to human being. This is, of course, an ancient idea. For Aristotle the human, as political animal, is separated from other animals by the capacity for speech, which is not the same as voice, as it extends beyond the ability to communicate pleasure and pain to enable discussions on the question of justice. Aristotle concludes that “It is the sharing of a common view in these matters that makes a household and a state.” But when the agora is not open to all, when the right to speech is not extended to all and the mere appearance of certain people in the agora is considered to be illicit a dominant view will often be mistaken for a common view. In many cases its claim to constitute a common view will be rooted, along with other modes of containment that divide those presented as having a capacity for speech from those assumed to have a mere capacity for voice, in exclusionary spatial practices – the woman, the worker, the raced other and the foreigner all in their place – and often kept there by forms of policing, some discursive and some simply violent.

Our prospects for a democratic future, for democracy as a democratising process, for 'an association of free human beings who educate one another' is receding in the face of a state willing, amongst other things, to use murder as a form of social containment. But the democratic prospects that remain will not be realised if we do not find a way to look beyond elections and civil society to affirm that there is thought amidst waste and to open the agora to all.

Grahamstown, October 2013

This essay draws, in part, from a seminar presented at WISER, at WITS, in May last year; a public lecture given at the University of Illinois in March this year and recent papers published in 'City', 'The Journal of Asian & African Studies', 'South Atlantic Quarterly' and 'Thesis Eleven' as well as two forthcoming pieces. George Caffentzis pointed to an important omission in the first draft.