In April and May 2014, more than 200‑million people in India voted for the alliance of parties led by Narendra Modi, a man who has been regularly described as a fascist and credibly accused of direct complicity in an anti-Muslim pogrom. In June 2016, more than 17‑million people voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. In November the following year, almost 63‑million Americans voted for Donald Trump to be their president.
As repulsive as it was for readers of this newspaper, and many people in the United States and around the planet, the election of Trump was not a complete aberration. Silvio Berlusconi, an equally execrable figure, was elected as the prime minister of Italy three times. And, of course, Jacob Zuma won two elections in the ANC and two national elections.
When oppressive, kleptocratic, incompetent or just shamelessly unscrupulous regimes are imposed with force, especially when that force is foreign or has foreign backing, the opposition frequently assumes the unsullied virtue of the people.
Rebellious courage has often been marshalled by declarations and charters that make their ringing declarations in the name of the people. But some of the most malignant political projects in modern times have built their authority on genuine popular enthusiasm.
This is one of the reasons why, in the wake of Modi, Brexit and Trump, commentators have often looked back to the 1930s. Adolf Hitler’s road to power began with a failed coup d’état and proceeded via street violence and the collective intoxication of radical nationalism animated by the vicious scapegoating of a vulnerable minority. But Hitler would not have ascended to power without electoral success. His Nazi party won more than six million votes in an election in September 1930, Hitler won more than 13‑million votes in a presidential election in April 1932 and the Nazis won almost 14‑million votes in July 1932.
When a figure like Trump wins an election, the ancient and permanent temptation on the part of elites to imagine that society is best served by their exclusive stewardship can undergo a rapid escalation. Among the multiple meanings surrounding the now ubiquitous presence of the term “populism” in contemporary political discourse is a clear desire to restore the authority of established elites. This desire has often failed to take adequate measure of the extent to which new forms of populism, on the right and the left, emerged in response to the accumulation of wealth and power by elites.
In times of crisis, when the established order has lost its popular legitimacy, societies can reach a point at which containment is no longer viable and the only feasible route to some sort of resolution is the emergence of a new order.
It is often argued that, in Germany in the early 1930s, the Social Democrats made a critical mistake in deciding to support the governments of conservative leaders, such as the aristocrat Franz von Papen, as a bulwark against the Nazis. The communists, in turn, have been excoriated for accepting an instruction for Moscow to refrain from seeking to build a united front with the Social Democrats against the fascists.
More recently, it has been asserted that the Democrats could have defeated Trump if they had offered the electorate Bernie Sanders rather than Hillary Clinton. Similarly, in the United Kingdom it is Jeremy Corbyn, not another avatar of Tony Blair’s New Labour, that, to many, seems to be the real alternative to the Tories. This is not a universal phenomenon. Angela Merkel won the election in Germany last September as an “anti-populist” candidate.
But it is a broad feature of the moment that is often taken to indicate that, when consent for the economic and political order established after the Cold War breaks down, the most effective rival to forms of right-wing populism is not restoring the authority of old elites but affirming a democratic left-wing populism. The former tends to mobilise horizontal antagonisms by affirming a racially, ethnically or religiously exclusive conception of the people against vulnerable minorities. The latter tends to mobilise vertical antagonisms by affirming a more inclusive conception of the people against elites.
This vertical antagonism is seldom solely a matter of economics. From the movements that emerged in Latin America from the mid-1990s onwards to the Arab Spring, the popular mobilisations in Greece and Spain, and Occupy and Black Lives Matter, much recent progressive mobilisation has often contested inequalities in political power as well as economic inequality and other forms of oppression. To note just one example, the platform adopted by the Movement for Black Lives in 2016 demands direct community control over law enforcement and education, as well as participatory budgeting.
In South Africa, the attempt to build an authoritarian kleptocracy around Zuma followed a well-worn path insofar as it was legitimated by an increasingly crude and paranoid nationalism, and secured with escalating party and state violence, along with the now-standard weaponisation of social media.
But in the elite public sphere the dominant understanding of opposition to this project has little interest in the idea of a popular alternative seeking to build democratic authority from below, and to use that authority to build a more egalitarian society.
When there have been experiments in forms of popular democratic politics, brutally repressed in some instances, they have seldom been of much interest to the elite public sphere. Here, the opposition to Zuma has often been primarily understood in terms of the media, business, electoral politics and civil society, the latter usually understood to be professional nongovernmental organisations, including Save South Africa, a project clearly entwined with corporate power.
The best alternative to the Zuma debacle is frequently imagined in terms of a restoration of the rule of law and greater obeisance to the sovereignty of the market under the management of enlightened elites. It is not unusual to encounter formulations that suggest a new partnership between government, business and civil society.
These kinds of formulations function to erase the fundamental, ancient and still subversive democratic idea that the people, the demos, should rule themselves.
Despite the ascent of Ace Magashule and David Mabuza to the commanding heights of the ANC, both of whom have often been described as gangsters, there has been real euphoria in some quarters following the election of Cyril Ramaphosa to the presidency of the party. It has not been unusual for this euphoria to assume that Ramaphosa will rapidly assume the presidency of the country, act against corruption, restore the integrity of state institutions and enable economic progress.
This kind of vision frequently eschews both the rapacious and authoritarian party elites presenting themselves as the authentic representatives of the people and the prospect of popular democratic organisation and authority. It often substitutes “civil society” for popular organisation precisely because the former is largely taken to be a form of professionalised and donor-backed authority, often implicitly raced as significantly white, rather than a democratically constituted form of popular authority.
It is assumed that what is required is fundamentally a matter of restoration rather than innovation. There is certainly a long list of things that once worked but that have been broken and now need to be fixed. But for millions of us, post-apartheid South Africa has never worked. The failures to address the crises in education, housing and land reform, the persistence of mass unemployment and, above all, the enduring catastrophe of mass racialised impoverishment all predated, and to a significant degree enabled, Zuma’s rise to power.
Zuma ascended to power on the back of a crisis that, although not felt by elites, has weighed on the majority without respite. That crisis is so profound that it will be impossible for Ramaphosa, or anyone else, to continue to manage it without real innovation.
This innovation could take many forms — reactionary, progressive and contradictory. We could, for instance, see the emergence of the synthesis of authoritarian nationalism and capital that has cohered in countries such as Rwanda and India.
At the time of writing, Ramaphosa’s utterances offer little clarity in terms of his intentions. He, not entirely unlike Zuma at the outset of his presidency, is saying contradictory things in an attempt to appease contradictory interests. At some point choices will have to made. But it is also important to realise that no president ever realises his or her intentions in full. Politics is about the balance of forces as well as the will of the people in office.
The contestation between elites in the party and elsewhere will play a crucial role in how our future unfolds. But the contestation in wider society is also critical. Our democracy cannot be viable without a significant attempt to renegotiate the social contract in a manner that awards greater weight to the interests of the dispossessed and the impoverished.
All kinds of actors will mobilise rhetoric in support of these interests to legitimate themselves and their projects. But concrete and persistent progress will not be possible without sustained organisation and pressure from the dispossessed and the impoverished.
We would do well to pay much more attention to the myriad, dynamic and often acutely contradictory forms of political contestation within the realm of the popular.
Richard Pithouse is an associate professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research