Elitism remains the enemy of democracy

For millions of people, South Africa is what Frantz Fanon called “a nonviable society”. Systemic unemployment makes it somewhere between impossible and extremely difficult for millions of young people to find a viable path into adult life.

People try to cope using anything from cheap heroin to self-help books, investing in dangerous forms of masculinity, or turning to religion to find, in Karl Marx’s words, “the heart of a heartless world”. A mother may find a way to carry her son through his 20s and into his 30s.

READ MORE: Why is democracy faltering?

For some people, patience and the support of family are eventually rewarded with some sort of work. For others, the spirals of panic attacks and depression get tighter and tighter until they go down and can’t come up again.

In most largely urbanised societies, unemployment at greatly lower rates than those that have been endured in South Africa for a very long time now has rapidly led to serious social instability. This ranges from European fascism in the 1930s and the Arab Spring in 2011 to, more recently, the election of right-wing demagogues.

It is not inevitable that when the pain and humiliation of frustrated lives is socialised it is necessarily politicised. People can turn to a gang, a congregation or some other way of making shared meaning rather than to a movement or a party, or by participating in the sort of mass rupture that was unimaginable the moment before it began. 

But it is extremely rare for millions of people, especially young people, to accept radical social exclusion as a permanent feature of their lives and their society. Usually something must give.

We have seen this in recent years. On December 16 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, repeatedly humiliated and subjected to extortion by government officials while he tried to make a living selling fruit and vegetables in the streets of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, doused himself in petrol and set himself alight outside a government office. It was reported that he shouted: “How do you expect me to make a living?” before striking the match.

His act incited mass protest and occupations that, during the course of 2011, moved from North Africa into the Middle East, southern Europe and the United States. It seemed to many that there were real possibilities of a progressive rupture with the order that had taken shape after the Cold War.

But, by early 2017, after Brexit and the election of United States President Donald Trump, those possibilities seemed well lost. The rupture was now tearing, fast and hard, to the right. Not entirely unlike parts of Europe in the 1930s, electorates were choosing chauvinism — ranging from Hindutva to white supremacy — and authoritarianism over attempts to extend democratic authority over the economy.

“Populism” became the catchphrase of the day, often with an antidemocratic implication that everything would be alright if power was handed back to the old elites in the name of technocratic excellence. But on the margins of the new debate, some people reached back to Aneurin Bevan, who left school at 13 to follow his father into the Welsh coal mines that eventually took his father’s life.

Self-educated in the workers’ libraries, he became a leader in the general strike that held out across the United Kingdom for nine days in May 1926, and the miners’ strike that continued for another six months.

He was appointed as the minister of health in the Labour government that swept to power at the conclusion of World War II and is frequently credited with building the National Health Service in the United Kingdom.

In the age of the meme, his political ideas are often reduced to a single quote taken from a book published in 1952: “Either poverty will use democracy to win the struggle against property, or property, in fear of poverty, will destroy democracy.”

In some respects, we have come a long way from fascists ranting in beer halls to Trump winning an election with lies circulated on Facebook and Brazilian president-elect Jair Bolsonaro doing the same with WhatsApp.

But, around the white world, liberalism remains fundamentally entwined with racism and, although elites generally prefer the forms of technocratic authority that were ascendant from the end of the Cold War to 2011, they often move towards the normalisation of chauvinism and authoritarianism when confronted by demands to extend democratic authority over the economy.

Not entirely unlike European fascism in the 1930s, figures such as Bolsonaro, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Trump aim to allow capital to prosper while directing popular anger at vulnerable scapegoats. In Trump’s US, the white man working two or three shitty jobs to get by, and taking way too many painkillers, is encouraged to see his Mexican neighbour and his ex-wife’s moderate feminism as the cause of his problems rather than the massive concentration of wealth and power in elite hands.

In South Africa, the monomaniacal focus on corruption, unthinkingly encouraged by much of the media, has created a situation in which there is a general elite consensus that corruption is our central problem and clean government the central solution to our problems. It should, of course, go without saying that corruption is an urgent and serious problem that must be swiftly and effectively addressed. It is undeniable that the scale of corruption under Jacob Zuma has seriously damaged our society and many of our institutions.

But, as serious as the problem of corruption is, it is not our only problem. When our complex social and economic problems are reduced to a question of corruption, President Cyril Ramaphosa, an oligarch bereft of any political imagination who, in some ways, seems increasingly invested in something like a self-imposed structural adjustment programme as the solution to our economic problems, can appear to be a salvific figure.

Despite his participation in the extraordinary political experiments in popular democracy in the United Democratic Front and the trade union movement in the 1980s, Ramaphosa today is an uncritical and unimaginative insider to the liberal elitism that, around much of the world, is no longer sustainable.

Despite being forced into making unorthodox comments and vague commitments about land reform, in economic terms he is an equally uncritical and unimaginative insider to the liberal fantasies about the virtues of the market that ended in the financial crisis of 2008 and, after the unrealised possibilities of the 2011 moment, a turn by many electorates to forms of authoritarian right-wing politics that now pose a serious threat to democracy.

In global terms Ramaphosa is more Tony Blair, or Hilary Clinton, than, say, Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders on the left, or Bolsonaro, Modi or Trump on the right. The only reason Ramaphosa sustains support in an era when people like Blair and Clinton are unelectable is that Zuma’s reign was so disastrous that, by comparison, Ramaphosa is, for many people, a real relief.

But we should not forget that Zuma rose to power in the name of opposition to the elitism of an economic and political consensus that excluded the majority. Even if Ramaphosa is able to establish more emphatic control over the ANC and to marginalise the forces that have reduced the promise of collective emancipation to personal advancement by predation on the state, he will only take us back to where we were before Zuma’s rise to power.

As is happening around the world, there will again be ruptures with the liberal consensus in the name of the people. When this happens, we should not assume that elites, whether enriched by the state, like the leaders of the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Zuma faction of the ANC, or the market, like Ramaphosa and many of his supporters, will not turn to authoritarianism to protect their material interests against popular demands for inclusion.

READ MORE: Keep defending democracy

There is an urgent imperative to act against corruption. But there is also an urgent imperative for us to find ways to deepen democracy, to extend its authority over the economic realm, and to find practical and effective ways to ensure that access to collective decision-making, land, the cities and wealth is radically expanded. 

But until the fact that millions of people have to make their lives without work, that for many others work is precarious, exploitative and degrading, and that millions must still live in shacks is taken as a crisis, as an urgent crisis, we’ll remain on the road to ruin.

Perhaps we could repurpose Bevan’s words a little for our time: either impoverishment will use democracy to win the struggle against the enclaves of wealth and power, or wealth and power, in fear of the encircling desperation of impoverishment, will destroy democracy.

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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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