Popular revolt has often sought to subvert authority by presenting it as grotesque. But when authority manifests in the shape of figures such as former Italian president Silvio Berlusconi, South Africa’s former leader Jacob Zuma or the United States’s President Donald Trump the grotesque is a mode of rule, not subversion.
When authority leers like Berlusconi, laughs like Zuma or tweets like Trump, the work of critique must exceed the necessity to take the measure of the distance between what authority claims for itself and what it actually is. Under these circumstances we need to ask why people have knowingly embraced the grotesque.
People often remember the precise circumstances in which they found themselves at the moment at which Trump won the presidency. Many intellectuals recall that, once they had gathered some strength, their first response was to reach for WEB du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America.
This book, written in 1935, and often rightly described as magisterial, is an account of the American Civil War and the period of reconstruction that followed. Among its many insights is that racism, by a “carefully planned and slowly evolved method”, drove a profound “wedge between the white and black workers” by offering white workers “a sort of public and psychological wage”, in the form of “public deference and titles of courtesy” as compensation for low wages.
Contrary to contemporary fashions, Du Bois understood race in historical rather than ontological terms, and as inherently entwined with the interests of the ruling class. He argued that: “The race element was emphasised in order that property-holders could get the support of the majority of white labourers and make it more possible to exploit Negro labour. But the race philosophy came as a new and terrible thing to make labour unity or labour class-consciousness impossible. So long as the Southern white labourers could be induced to prefer poverty to equality with the Negro, just so long was a labour movement in the South made impossible.”
A week after Trump’s election, historian Robin Kelley observed that “the vast majority of white men and a majority of white women, across class lines, voted for a platform and a message of white supremacy, Islamophobia, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-science, anti-Earth, militarism, torture, and policies that blatantly maintain income inequality”.
The claim that this was some sort of class-based backlash against the political elites cannot account for the fact that an overwhelming majority of black women, 93%, voted for Hillary Clinton. The white women who voted for Trump and all his grotesqueness chose their investment in the wages of whiteness over all else. They chose, in full knowledge of what they were doing, a president, and a party, that would, in turn, choose Brett Kavanaugh over Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez, who accused the Supreme Court nominee of sexual misconduct.
Our own encounter with an embrace of the grotesque, an embrace that would place it at the centre of public life for almost a decade, began with a different bargain. It began outside the high court in Johannesburg in 2006, with men who claimed to speak for the nation, for the working class and for communism, rallying against a deeply vulnerable woman. An investment in the entitlements of patriarchy trumped any concern for Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo as a concrete person, or even women as a more abstract concept.
Zuma’s key allies were men who, despite their origins, had accumulated significant institutional power. At the time it must have seemed that they would have significant prospects for further advancement if their patron was to ascend, as he did in the end, to the presidency.
But, of course, no group of men has a monopoly on the investment in patriarchy. As Silvia Federici reminds us in her new book, Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women, there is, across the planet, an escalation of forms of violence against women, often imposed with a “pedagogic cruelty”, that are perpetrated from within oppressed communities. For Federici, gender is as historical as race is for Du Bois, and is fundamentally entangled with modes of exploitation and labour. She is careful to draw the connections between forms of violence perpetrated within and against oppressed communities.
When men who are exploited or rendered superfluous by global capitalism find themselves without paths into a viable life and, subject to social scorn, they can experience a sense of power by an investment in patriarchy.
When this becomes entwined with the militarisation of daily life, and the contempt of a state and wider society that ascribe no real value to the lives of impoverished people, the stage is set for the performance of sadism, violation, torture and murder.
Every morning, across the planet, the sun rises on the mutilated bodies of women. Roberto Bolaño’s harrowing account, in his novel 2666, of a relentless accumulation of murders in a lightly fictionalised version of Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican city across the Rio Grande from El Paso in Texas, is all too global, and all too contemporary, in its resonance.
The rise of new forms of often genuinely popular right-wing politics, some, as in India, plainly fascist, is also a global story. That politics is invariably an offer of a sense of some status by participation in race, caste, the nation or religion, along with various other forms of chauvinism.
Deeply reactionary ideas and practices of gender always fester at its centre. A form of politics is constructed, from above and below, in which a person who is scorned, exploited or without work, may take some comfort in the standing and entitlements that are given to men.
A demand for inclusion, even if merely at the level of recognition, can simultaneously be a demand for the domination or exclusion of others. At times the demand to participate in horizontal forms of domination and exclusion is expressed with far more seriousness than any challenge to vertical forms of power and authority. Sometimes claims to the latter are little more than a mask for the former. Under these circumstances a genuinely radical politics needs, as a fundamental task, to refuse all attempts to turn the oppressed on each other. This requires, among other things, placing feminist commitments at the centre of any progressive project.
On March 8 last year (International Women’s Day),millions of women took to the streets in more than 50 countries. Opposition to violence was often at the centre of the extraordinary mobilisation. Mexican academic Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar argues that this moment was “forged from the most neglected, attacked, and obscure locations of the social world in Latin America” — from the urban peripheries that have generated much of the dissident political energies across Latin America in recent years.
She describes the “massive presence of women in these struggles”, which often begin as a “defence of life” but soon find that they “must confront domestic violence in their homes” and “aggression in public spaces by ‘comrades’ who attack those women who dare take the floor” as “a resurgence of reinvigorated ‘popular feminisms’”. These “popular feminisms” have, she argues, exceeded “the practices of containment of women’s insurgence, organised by the … institutionalised agendas of official feminism”.
In South Africa there are equally vibrant, although often dispersed, political energies in the urban peripheries, and women are frequently in the majority, and often the leaders, of these struggles. But they usually operate at a more or less unbridgeable distance from the institutionalised left and institutionalised feminism. Nonetheless, and despite their vulnerability to the internal and external forces that seek to discipline them, these spaces provide a significant opportunity to bring women’s agency into the centre of popular political contestation.
In any society, declining employment and rising prices are likely to lead to a breakdown in established forms of authority. When political authority is as compromised as the ANC is as a result of the Zuma debacle, the gangsterism in KwaZulu-Natal,endemic corruption,the divisions in its leadership and the corrosion of the established terms of order seem almost inevitable.
The urgent question is: What comes next? Are we condemned to a tightening spiral into further degeneration, or is there some prospect of a progressive resolution of the gathering crisis? Any chance of attaining the latter will require new forms of organisation capable of winning the support of a critical mass of society to a credible emancipatory vision.
The construction of a politics that can enable a critical mass of people to choose the work of emancipation, rather than complicity with oppression and affiliation with another avatar of the grotesque, requires, among many other things, a break with the masculinisation of the political.
The assumption, in theory or in practice, that women should have a subordinate role in the nation or the working class is fundamentally complicit with the logic of oppression.
Richard Pithouse is an associate professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research