Liberalism’s hold on the political imagination loosens as new forms of populism surge

In 1989 the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War came to a sudden end. Stalinism – always an abomination – compromised the standing of any politics to the left of social democracy. At the same time very different kinds of antisystemic projects, including various kinds of anticolonial nationalism, had run into real limits. Liberalism was heralded as the world historic victor in the battle of ideas and as the only credible system in both economic and ethical terms. The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama announced “the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.

There was considerable investment from the United States and Western Europe in the normalisation of this idea. It often had real influence in the media, the academy and the nongovernmental organisations that had come to be called civil society. Liberalism, often scorned in the liberation movements that opposed apartheid, became hegemonic in legal terms – as well as in most of the media, the academy and civil society – after apartheid.

Liberal hegemony was never absolute in the ruling alliance or in society. But liberal optimism flourished for a decade or so. When illiberal ideas and practices were noted in the elite public sphere, they were often understood as a hangover from the past – as something that would, in time, wither away. It was often assumed that the Constitution, backed up by civil society, would iron out any creases in our shining new garments.

In 2005 Thabo Mbeki fired Jacob Zuma from the deputy presidency. In 2006 Zuma went to trial on a rape charge. This was the moment at which decidedly illiberal forms of populism moved to the centre of our political stage. But these events did not challenge the assumption, frequently held in places such as universities, that liberalism is a philosophy and practice of universal freedom. A recent textbook introducing South African students to political philosophy breezily declares: “Most discussions of freedom begin with John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.”

The recent cycle of struggle in universities has marked a significant moment in the decline of liberal authority. This has resulted in profound existential anxieties in some quarters. Rational discourse has sometimes been eviscerated by the sharp edges of escalating hysteria. The spectre of Pol Pot has often been raised – including on at least one occasion when black students were doing nothing more threatening than questioning the assumptions of white academics.

Liberal ideals, laws and institutions such as the Constitutional Court and the public protector’s office sustain real significance in South Africa. But liberal ideas and practices do not enjoy the hegemony that they once did in certain parts of society. When power is still exercised in liberal terms, its authority often seems harried and brittle.

This is partly a consequence of the ways in which the weight of our particular history continues to accumulate into the present. But there is also a global dimension to what is happening. As states become increasingly subordinated to finance capital and work becomes increasingly scarce and precarious, new forms of populism have emerged around the world. The ideas and practices of these kinds of populism have often exceeded the bounds of the political, as set by what were, not long ago, liberal orthodoxies.

The anxieties now present in South Africa have long been reported across much of the Global South. Some time ago, Partha Chatterjee described a widespread anxiety in middle-class circles in India about politics having been taken over by “mobs and criminals”. Raúl Zibechi has argued that in Bolivia the refusal of the oppressed to accept the place to which “they have been historically assigned” resulted in an “epistemological earthquake”.

Following the financial crisis of 2008, new kinds of popular interventions in the political sphere, sometimes moving beyond liberal institutions and norms, have also emerged in the Global North. There have been significant mobilisations in southern Europe, Brexit in Britain, and Occupy, #BlackLivesMatter and Donald Trump in the US.

To make adequate sense of this moment, we need to understand that liberalism has not emerged from history with its virtue uniquely radiant. There is a developing body of scholarship that shows that liberalism, both in theory and practice, was a constitutive ideological and political force driving the colonial project – including dispossession, enslavement and genocide. This body of scholarship notes the active commitment to racist ideas, and to the colonial project, in the work of liberal thinkers such as John Locke, Mill and others. It also notes the centrality of liberal forms of power to modern forms of colonialism and imperialism.

Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, written in 1689, offers explicit legitimation for the repression of the Irish and the dispossession of Native Americans, whom he described as “not … joined with the rest of mankind”. Mill’s 1869 essay On Liberty simply declares that “[d]espotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians”.

The Italian philosopher and historian Domenico Losurdo shows that, in the liberal revolutions in the Netherlands, Britain and the US, “the demand for liberty and justification of the enslavement, as well as the decimation (or destruction) of barbarians, were closely intertwined”. He also demonstrates that “[s]lavery is not something that persisted despite the success of the three liberal revolutions. On the contrary, it experienced its maximum development following that success.”

Rights for some were attained at the expense of the devastation of others. Liberalism, as philosophy and as practice, did not have a universal conception of the human.

Critique in the post-colony has often sustained a sense that there remains a fundamental dividing line between the previously colonised and the previously colonising parts of the world. Achille Mbembe famously begins On the Postcolony with the declaration: “Speaking rationally about Africa is not something that has ever come naturally.”

Many thinkers, including, of course, Frantz Fanon, have suggested that in the post-colony national elites come, in some respects, to take the place of the coloniser, and the new states continue to govern the oppressed in a manner that has clear continuities with colonial modes of domination.

In some cases it could be argued that more rather than less liberalism could overcome the lines of division that continue to mark post-colonial societies. It could be argued that this is true, for instance, of the enduring split that Mahmood Mamdani illuminates in post-colonial Africa between citizens governed according to rights and subjects governed according to tradition.

But there are other cases in which liberalism itself produces an enduring split between those with a right to participate in the political and those to whom that right is substantively denied. Chatterjee argues that, in Calcutta, people occupying urban land outside of the law are not just subject to stigmatisation but are also structurally excluded from the agora – the space of public life and ideas. They are, he argues, “only tenuously, and 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.”

Liberalism implicitly assumes a citizen with money. When people’s needs are not met by the state and cannot be met by way of the market, it becomes impossible to conform to liberal ideas about good citizenship. Across the Global South, land is occupied, services are appropriated and forms of disruption, such as road blockades, become everyday political tools.

The forms of politics that cohere around these practices may remain the preserve of impoverished people, but they may also attract the support of various kinds of elites – ranging from dissident intellectuals to owners of capital. They can take a progressive form in which social solidarity and a demand for greater political and economic equality are brought to the fore. They can also take reactionary and authoritarian forms, usually animated by ethnic, religious, racial or national sentiment, in which political antagonisms are expressed horizontally, often towards vulnerable scapegoats, rather than vertically.

In recent years the most notable instances of left-wing populism have emerged in Latin America and southern Europe. But in countries such as India and Russia, deeply reactionary forms of authoritarian populism have flourished. Right-wing forms of populism are currently enjoying considerably more success than their left-wing rivals.

In South Africa, the forms of politics that have emerged beyond the domains authorised by liberalism have been strikingly diverse. There have, for instance, been forms of politics that have organised people across ethnic, racial and national lines of division. There have also been acutely chauvinistic forms of politics, including waves of xenophobic violence. In the recent cycle of student politics we have had the anti-Semitism and homophobia of a figure such as Mcebo Dlamini, alongside many instances of democratic and principled practice.

Our future will, in part, be made in the expanding space beyond liberal norms and institutions. We will not be well served by a naive celebration of any challenge to liberal norms and institutions that takes no account of the deeply reactionary forms of populism that emerged in, say, Algeria in the 1990s, or that have, more recently, come to dominate India.

Yet, at the same time, an a priori presentation of this space as irrational, violent, authoritarian, criminal or animated by malicious conspiracy will drive us on to a political terrain increasingly governed by rights for some in zones of fortified privilege and violent containment for others – new forms of despotism for those coded as the new barbarians.

If we are to find a democratic and progressive path through the challenges to come, reason needs to be unshackled from liberal strictures.

Richard Pithouse’s new book, Writing the Decline: On the Struggle for South Africa’s Democracy, is published by Jacana

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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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