Richard Pithouse, SACSIS
For some time now much of the left has either been alienated from actually existing popular mobilisation or unable to make and sustain productive connections with it. But the emergence of new forces to the left of the ANC, forces with money, a national reach, easy access to the media and, in the case of NUMSA, an established and organised membership, is generating fresh optimism.
However, the old fantasy that history will, in time, reward radical patience sometimes functions to prevent serious reflection on praxis, including attempts to think the singularity of the here and now. As French philosopher Alain Badiou observed some years ago, “When the content of a political statement is a repetition, the statement is rhetorical and empty. It does not form part of thinking…True political activists think a singular situation.” Some political principles have a universal dimension, but the demands of practice are seldom stable.
For many forms of leftism the social question is essentially a matter of the struggle between labour and capital, between those who work and those who expropriate the work of others. For crude forms of Marxism, this struggle will be resolved when an enlightened vanguard attains state power and nationalises industry in the name of workers who are taken to stand in for the people as a whole. One of the more obvious limits of this perspective, which has been theorised in a variety of ways over the years, is that oppression is a national as well as a social question in South Africa.
Another limit to the more crude forms of Marxism is that in a context of mass unemployment and sustained struggle in urban communities, the implicit reduction of the primary subject of emancipatory political action to the worker and the primary site of political action to the workplace is inadequate to the realities of our time. An allied point is that given that women often make up the majority of the people engaged in community struggles, the need to take a critical distance from the domination of men and of masculinist conceptions of the political, that are often common in both nationalist and trade union politics, is a strategic as well as an ethical necessity.
But something that is not spoken about enough is that if there is any prospect for the state to discipline or even displace capital in the interests of society rather than a rival elite, it would have to develop a form that is very different to that which it currently takes. Actually existing forms of state ownership, like Eskom, raise serious questions about the easy conflation of state and society in some of the cruder versions of both nationalist and socialist sloganeering. As the bitter disappointments for the left over the last hundred years have shown again and again, the state cannot be used to subordinate capital to society if it is not itself subordinated to society - and this process is unlikely to have generally emancipatory outcomes if powerful democratising forces have not been developed within society.
Our state form is liberal in principle but its actually existing form includes increasingly predatory and violent aspects. It operates in a manner that is far more conducive to the use of authoritarian strategies to manage our crisis - a process that is already under way - than any attempt to resolve our crisis via an expansion of democracy.
This is not simply consequent to who controls the commanding heights of the state. Already the higher reaches of government are unable to contain local power brokers who are able to capture and distort state projects for their own purposes. In some parts of the country these local elites, whose wealth and power is tied far more closely to the state than to capital, and who are sometimes experienced as people’s most immediate oppressors, have an independent capacity for violence.
We cannot, as the ideology of civil society assumes, hope to deal with the problems of the actually existing nature of the state by simply posing an opposition between it and society. The middle classes are, in the main, entirely unmoved by the routine murder of impoverished people at the hands of the state. Moreover it is not unusual for institutions like, say, the media, which are quick to assume their democratic virtue, to express the most base forms of irrational hostility towards people who are poor and black. This is especially evident when people have placed themselves outside of the order that structures their oppression, be it in spatial, symbolic or directly political terms.
The entanglement of society and the state is not, as some forms of Marxist thought assume, undone with a quick nod to class analysis. Public sector workers are often among the most committed supporters of the state as it actually functions. In some cases, they have a direct interest in enabling it to function as a tool for social predation. When popular organisation does emerge in the zones of subordination and exclusion and is not crushed by the state, or captured by civil society and its generally undemocratic politics of donor supported and self-authorised claims to representation, it is frequently drawn into local structures of patronage that enable its leaders to join those who profit from the capture of local development in exchange for policing those who do not.
Moreover, at all levels of society there are deeply conservative responses to our escalating social crisis. They are often gendered and are often complicit with the reproduction of a violent and exclusionary social order.
Building democratising social power in society, the transformation of the state into an instrument of society and the subordination of capital to the state are political tasks that require social forces of a quality and scale that are not yet in existence.
There is already something of a discussion about what it would take for the left to attain sufficient scale to become a significant actor. It has, for instance, been noted that there needs to be a principled opposition to the crippling sectarianism, sometimes animated by an authoritarian instinct that rivals that of the state, that is willing to mobilise the most gross forms of dishonesty, along with, on occasion, outright intimidation, to try and supress independent thought and ruin forms of actually existing organisation and mobilisation that it cannot rule.
It has also been noted that the dogmatism, which is often present on the left, is a barrier to the project of developing political ideas and practices adequate to the historical moment. As Uruguayan journalist and political theorist Raúl Zibechi has argued, when actually existing forms of emancipatory political action do emerge, they do not conform to the conceptions of the political “proposed by the state, academia and political parties”. A left that is unable or unwilling to take this seriously will never attain a sustained and fruitful connection to actually existing forms of popular struggle and will never be able to become a democratic actor itself.
But it is, above all, the relentless elitism of much of the left that has often consigned it to irrelevance in a period of escalating popular struggle. This elitism also propels significant parts of the left towards the fantasy that trickle-down economics can be successfully opposed with trickle-down politics. In organisational terms it is often expressed via an attraction to the NGO form or an assumption, invariably classed and sometimes raced, that popular organisations should be subordinated to NGOs. This frequently militates against the need to build democratising social power within society.
The primary challenge for the left today is to break with its elitism. As Frantz Fanon declared more than fifty years ago, “We must join [the people] in that fluctuating movement, which they are just giving a shape to…Let there be no mistake about it; it is to this zone of occult instability where the people dwell that we must come.” This is where radical ideas adequate to our place and time need to be formulated, discussed and tested in action. After all as Badiou insists, “A genuinely emancipatory project asserts that emancipatory politics is essentially the politics of the anonymous masses; it is the victory of those with no names.”