Rule of property versus rule of the poor?

First is the gradual awakening to the fact that this is but an ordinary country. In the consciousness of a place that has for so long defined itself in the language of exceptionalism, this recognition represents a significant cultural watershed.

Second is the understanding that what was hailed in the 1990s as “the South African miracle” may now be properly characterised as a stalemate.

One of the main tensions in South African politics and culture today is the realisation that there is something unresolved in the constitutional democratic settlement that suspended the “revolution” in 1994 but did not erase apartheid from the social, economic and mental landscape. This settlement led neither to final victory nor to crippling defeat for any of the protagonists in the historical drama. Rather, South Africa entered a historical interval. It is still caught in this interval, between an intractable present and an irrecoverable past; between things that are no longer and things that are not yet. This is the stalemate many would now like to end.

Third is the realisation that, after 18 years of ANC rule, the present, especially for the black poor, did not have to be the way it is now.

Second transition
In this context, what can the term “second transition” possibly mean?

Not much, if the ANC’s policy discussion documents put out for its conference from June 26 to 29 are a sign: they lack a credible appraisal of the ways contemporary capitalism tends to pre-empt the possibility of democracy, while emptying out the future itself.

Indeed, a planetary recoding of situations of misery, debt and enforced idleness is under way. If global unemployment and the rise of superfluous populations are part of the general law of capitalist expansion in its current phase, capitalism today seems to be moving in two directions. The first is towards increasing exploitation of large parts of the world through what Marx called “primitive accumulation”. This, in South Africa, has always taken the form of a raw, extractive economy.
The second is the squeezing of every last drop of value out of the planet. This takes the form of increasing rates of innovation and invention, the active refiguring of space, resources and time, as well as the insertion of difference into the cycles of reproduction of capital.

Labour has ceased to be the great wellspring of wealth. It is possible today to produce increasing quantities of commodities with decreasing quantities of labour.

Speculative bubbles
The real economy is becoming an appendage of the speculative bubbles of a finance industry constantly refining the arts of making money by buying and selling nothing but various forms of money.

Worldwide, these processes have increased surplus populations, which in the past meant either masses of people with insecure employment, cycling rapidly in and out of the labour force, or those who were rarely employed.

To these, in South Africa, should be added those who will never be formally employed.

Old categories of work, production or exploitation barely apply to them. That most of them are black only confirms the fact that capitalism cannot expand without massive racial discounts. It needs to work through and across different scales of race as it marks people as disposable or as waste.

Today, black people are still paying the price of yesterday’s racial discounts, without which white privilege would have been a chimera.

Propertyless citizens
But, unlike the developmental states of East Asia in the 1970s, the South African state lacks the capability to incorporate these vast reserves of propertyless citizens into a wealth-creating machine. Nor is it capable of marking them entirely as waste and spatially confining them within a prison-industrial complex, as has happened in the United States since the end of slavery.

The next decade will see increasing conflict between market forces and democracy, between the rule of property and the rule of the poor. Since the ANC came to power, by and large the outcomes of market exchanges have taken precedence over constitutional rights. If anything, the democratic government has failed to honour fully the expectation of a life outside the law of the market and the right of property.

Historically, capital’s biggest fear has been that the rule of the poor over the rich would destroy private property and “free” market forces. Faced with this dilemma, capital would rather abolish democracy to save capitalism from a majority dedicated to economic and social redistribution.

Under the emerging international politics of public debt, global capital increasingly requires the average citizen to pay with his or her private savings, cuts in public entitlements, reduced public services and higher taxation.

Worldwide, markets dictate in unprecedented ways what nominally sovereign and democratic states may still do for their citizens. The pre-emption, even suspension, of democracy by market forces is now propounded as the only rational and responsible response to a world in which individual and public debt have mortgaged the future of entire nations.

Capital accumulation
The capacity of the South African state to mediate between the rights of the propertyless and the requirements of capital accumulation will be severely tested in the next decade. If nothing is done and corruption, abandonment and predation prevail, it will become increasingly apparent to many that capitalism is not naturally compatible with democracy.

Also lacking in the policy documents is a proper analysis of the crisis of culture affecting South Africa. The ANC has not distanced itself from a purely instrumentalist view of the arts and culture, one that equates culture with the past, customs, heritage and tourism.

There was a time when South African arts were powerful. In the works of arts, human life and experience were not just narrated, they were in themselves events of life.

Two decades into a democratic dispensation, we have not seen the expected explosion of aesthetic boundaries. South African art still uses quoting, reappropriation and recombination. But it is struggling to be once again a witness to the regenerative forces of life. Just like politics itself, it seems to have lost its power to give form to life, and has become subservient to repetition.

A “second transition” will not happen as long as the world of life barely forms the work of art and the idea of the political. It will not happen as long as we have not truly moved our imagination beyond a past world and into a world of the present and the future. Nor will it happen as long as we keep investing in anachronisms and keep thinking and acting as if not much has happened — the repetition of something that had power once, but no longer has.

Achille Mbembe is a research professor in history and politics at Wiser

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Achille Mbembe
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