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Can we revive our democratic imagination?

Narendra Modi, a politician who combines a form of hypercapitalism that produces fabulous wealth for some at the cost of ruination for many others with a narrow and dangerously chauvinistic form of hypernationalism, will soon take office as the new prime minister of India.

The results of the election that bought Modi into office should give anyone who retains a naive faith that democratic processes will always favour democrats – or that the assertion of nationalist sentiment from those parts of the world trying to recover from colonial occupation is always a reaching towards justice – cause for concern.

What we see in India is an attempt to contain an entrenched social crisis through authoritarian and exclusionary means, rather than to resolve it through democratic and inclusionary means.

When Nelson Mandela ascended to the presidency and apartheid fell, there was considerable optimism about the prospect that democratisation in South Africa would be an ongoing process. One of the sources of this optimism was that nationalism, as an ideology, often assumes a collective and, ultimately, redemptive destiny.

The power of nationalist sentiment to animate collective resistance to national repression is undeniable. But it’s clear that nationalism can also function to legitimate domination and exclusion.

In the colonised world, nationalism enabled people to confront their oppressors with extraordinary collective courage and it has sometimes, as in the Egyptian uprising in 2011, continued to do so in the postcolonial world.

Yet, in the postcolonial world, nationalism has also often enabled a conflation of the people as a whole with a part of the population under the authority of the party and the leader in ways that have enabled new forms of oppression. As we can see in India today, nationalism on its own offers no guarantee of a democratic or progressive politics.

Another source of the optimism that was widely felt about demo-cratisation as an ongoing process in the salad days of our democracy was that, after the Cold War, there was a certain confidence in some quarters that the political question had been essentially resolved in favour of liberal democracy.

It was often thought that there was a broad move, from the old Soviet Union to countries such as South Africa, Haiti and the Philippines, towards a process of democratisation.

From East Berlin to Johannesburg, Port-au-Prince and Manila, it was popular power that had posed the most direct threat to authoritarian modes of rule, but the new consensus was that a politics of elite representation would replace that of popular presentation, and that civil society – generally assumed, in practice, to be made up of nongovernmental organisations – would, along with the courts, counter the power of the state in the name of the people.

In some respects the ANC, with its strong links to the now lost world of the Soviet Union, was something of an anomaly in the new world that seemed to be stretching its democratic wings in the wake of the Cold War.

It has been argued that in parts of the world, such as Porto Alegre in Brazil or Kerala in India, the left imagination was breaking from Soviet strictures and seeing civil society – understood as popular organisation rather than NGOs – as a valuable way to diffuse power and to back states against global capital and imperialism.

Soviet ideas about economics were abandoned in South Africa, yet other ideas rooted in the Soviet experience and a reading of Lenin mediated by Stalinism – such as the need for the party to exercise centralised control over the forms of political expression of its constituency – were retained.

There was a strange but, for a time, effective confluence between two very different types of politics: a Leninist desire for central control and a liberal desire to restrict politics to elites. Both, in practice, resolved to expel the people from the political stage.

Twenty years after South Africa’s first democratic elections, optimism about democratisation as an unfolding process is over. It’s true that if we compare our situation with that of most other postcolonial societies, rather than to, say, the ringing declarations of the Freedom Charter or the Constitution, we could be doing a lot worse.

But it’s equally true that from the mines around Rustenburg to the shack settlements of Durban, the ANC is willing to use murder, along with a set of ancillary practices such as torture, to contain popular struggle.

It’s also clear that the ANC is seeking to curtail rather than extend the limited democracy that flourished in the elite public sphere after apartheid. Decisions about, say, how to regulate the media, the judicial system or the public broadcaster are clearly not being taken in a manner that demonstrates any commitment to democratisation as an ongoing process of expansion and deepening.

For the moment the ANC remains far beyond the reach of any opposition at the polls. That will remain so unless a credible opposition emerges that is well organised and rooted in the aspirations of the majority of the people. Still, there should be no naivety about the character of an effective electoral opposition still to come.

Now the only party with any credible claim to be the germ of a potentially effective opposition is the Economic Freedom Fighters. Its willingness to speak directly to the trauma at the heart of our experience is admirable but, along with other problems, is not matched by any serious commitment to a democratic resolution of our crisis.

We should remember that across the postcolonial world there have been all kinds of alternatives to the corruption of former national liberation movements – and to authoritarian political parties – that throw up new problems.

In India, the Congress party, like the ANC, a former liberation movement, has just been routed at the polls by a deeply reactionary and, in some respects, even fascist alternative. In Algeria the alternative to the Front de Libération Nationale was a ruthlessly authoritarian form of Islam. In Zimbabwe the Movement for Democratic Change was captured by imperialism and offered no credible social programme.

We have reached the point where naivety about a steady advance towards the “national democratic revolution” under the wise guidance of the ANC is inexcusable.

We have also reached the point where naivety about the courts, the media and civil society, largely imagined as NGOs operating as representatives of society and as a bulwark protecting society against the state, is inexcusable.

As the latest scandal about the payments given to chief executives has reminded us, we have also reached the point where naivety about the social benefits of capitalism under the discipline of a democratic state is equally inexcusable. In some respects capital has had more success in transforming the ANC than the other way around.

Aspects of the kind of degeneration first seen in the ANC – internal battles driven by competition for personal power rather than principle, dishonest misuse of the media to further factional agendas, voting according to slates and so on – are starting to appear in other political organisations and to become general features of our politics.

If we cannot restore our democratic imagination, and ground it in democratic practices open to all, our future will be limited to a choice between authoritarian modes of containing our social crisis and authoritarian modes of resolving it.

This challenge requires us to think of politics beyond the ­electoral ­terrain. It also requires us to think of politics beyond the realm of NGOs, the courts and the elite public sphere. It needs to be recognised that this challenge is not automatically resolved by affirming a left politics. Left organisations are not always democratic and there are alarmingly authoritarian currents in the left in South Africa.

Moreover, some of the left assumes, incorrectly, that a popular politics can be derived from an economic critique when this is plainly not the case.

This kind of left politics can produce useful critiques but is irrelevant as a political actor in its own right. At the same time there is an ongoing naivety on the left about the NGO as a form of organisation, some of it predicated on the hope that it will be a mechanism for political enlightenment that will trickle down to the people as a whole.

A left that has real prospects for success will have to be genuinely immersed in the lives and struggles of oppressed people and it is here, in this cauldron and not in some NGO or university, that it will have to form, test and revise its ideas and practices in a manner that is dialogical rather than pedagogical.

At the moment that left does not exist on anything like the scale required for it to be an effective political actor in the national drama. If we want to hold out for a democratic resolution of our crisis, there is a lot of work to be done. –

Dr Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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Richard Pithouse
Richard Pithouse
Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University, where he lectures on contemporary political theory and urban studies. He writes regularly for journals and newspapers, both print and online, and his commentary is widely read.

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