Last month, in an interview published in the Mail & Guardian, Achille Mbembe argued that “we should take seriously the question of the future world, reactivate our critical faculties and rehabilitate reason”.
In the time of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi and the rest of the increasingly grim cast of characters winning elections around the world, the global urgency of Mbembe’s affirmation of the emancipatory potential of democratic forms of reason couldn’t be clearer.
We all know the broad outlines of the planetary crisis that we confront. We have the resources and technologies to stop the destruction of the environment, and to ensure that the vast accumulation of wealth is directed towards universal human flourishing rather than ever more excessive forms of private accumulation by a tiny minority.
But electorates continue to be seduced by charlatans offering the psychological comfort of counting themselves as, say, white, Hindu or Hungarian, while the world burns, life gets harder for the majority and the billionaires pursue the accumulation of more and more private wealth with all the manic and destructive obsession of Captain Ahab’s hunt for Moby Dick.
There are many aspects of the current crisis that are new. Some feel like dystopian science fiction. No previous generation has had to confront the individually calibrated circulation of dishonesty through social media. There has never before been a global sense of environmental crisis in the way that there is now. But the urgencies of the present — the sheer horror of figures such as Trump, Bolsonaro and Modi, the sheer scale of environmental devastation — should not lead us into the delusion that the distortion of reason is something new, that there is some form of redemptive return.
In 1784, Immanuel Kant argued that enlightenment is the emergence from the immaturity that results from the laziness and cowardice that prevents people from thinking for themselves. He asserted, against forces in the state and the church, the imperative to respect “the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters”.
Taking this affirmation seriously requires us to take seriously the ways in which access to the public sphere has been regulated. In the Odyssey, probably composed towards the end of the 8th century BCE, Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope, instructs his mother to physically leave a significant public space, to “go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff … speech will be the business of men”.
Even the most deliberate affirmations of the value of reason have often been exclusionary. Silvia Federici writes that in the Europe of the Age of Reason, reason was explicitly not extended to women, who were considered “unreasonable, vain, wild, wasteful”.
Neither Kant, nor the European Enlightenment and the liberal order that followed, counted all human beings as fully or equally human. Kant expressed this view plainly in a collection of lectures published in 1802, but given well before this date: “Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites.” He was equally clear that his commitment to the public exercise of reason did not extend to all classes. In an essay published in 1793 he insisted that property was a qualification for citizenship, and that the “domestic servant, the shop assistant, the labourer … are … unqualified to be citizens”.
In 1844, Karl Marx wrote that “lack of property and the estate of direct labour, of concrete labour, form not so much an estate of civil society as the ground upon which its circles rest and move”. In other words, the bourgeois public sphere depends, materially, on the impoverishment of the people that it excludes from participation. In the black radical tradition, a similar point has frequently been made with regard to people dispossessed and enslaved by European colonialism.
In 1952, Frantz Fanon, in a famous passage in his first book, Black Skin, White Masks, which describes his experience as a student in France, wrote, speaking of reason, that “when I was present, it was not; when it was there, I was no longer”. He could not, in a French university, an institution that imagined itself as dedicated to reason, be recognised as simultaneously black and equipped with a capacity for reason. As recent events have demonstrated all too well, South African universities continue to harbour fundamentally unreasonable ideas and practices.
The desire to return to the way things were before Bell Pottinger, Facebook, Fox News and Trump can only be, even if unconsciously, a desire to return to older forms of domination. Trump knew exactly what he was doing when he promised to make America great again. We inhabit a world more interconnected and interdependent than ever before. There’s no way back to any lost innocence. The affirmation of reason must, as Mbembe insists, be open to the world and to the future.
But neither Trump nor his corporate backers are threatened by even the most brilliant ideas. For the democratic exercise of reason to become an effective force it must, ultimately, become a material force, and that requires a political project, the construction of counter-publics and counter-power.
Reaching forward requires all of us to reach from, and through, our particular situation. In South Africa right now that requires us, among other things, to see through and beyond the factional battle in the ANC that has come to dominate much of our public sphere.
The faction of the ANC organised around accumulation through the state relentlessly conflates itself, and its interests, with the people as a whole in a manner that is, in terms of empirical rigour, often farcical. It has frequently, as with the Bell Pottinger episode, resorted to flagrant dishonesty. The support that it is now receiving from the Economic Freedom Fighters often shows similar disregard for empirical reality.
At the same time many of the enthusiasts of the faction of the ANC led by a man whose fortune comes from an accommodation with racial capitalism, and is backed to the hilt by much of the media, have collapsed into an increasingly hysterical and, at times, even apocalyptic cacophony of paranoia. In some quarters there are attempts to present the rational discussion of alternatives to economic orthodoxy as inherently sinister. One manner of the public refusal of reason in any form confronts another.
A significant dimension of how we ended up in this mess pertains to a shared feature of both factions. When memory of the resistance to apartheid is overly personalised, or dominated by the military aspect, it is often forgotten that the trade union movement, built from the Durban strikes in 1973, and the community struggles that mobilised millions of people by the 1980s, both enabled real forms of popular and, to a significant degree, democratic forms of power to be built from below.
These experiments were not without their limits, and flaws, some of them deeply serious. But in the 1970s and 1980s South Africa became a globally significant site of important experiments in building counter-power and counter-publics from below. Innovation and movement from below often exceeded the achievements of the ANC. It became routine for people who would today be seen by a wide range of elite actors as unfit to be full and equal participants in public deliberation and decision-making to become significant political actors.
But, the return of the ANC from exile, underground and prison rapidly led to the sweeping restoration and normalisation of a relentless elitism in our politics. The people were, to use Fanon’s phrase, “sent back to their caves”. Protagonists within an insurgent and often, although not always, democratic sphere of reason become subjects of instrumental reason exercised from above.
It is not just the ANC that largely ignores this history and its democratic possibilities for the present. The media abounds with hopes that elites in the political class, business and “civil society” (usually taken to mean nongovernmental organisations) will form some sort of compact for effective governance. More ominously, influential figures in the judiciary, the Cabinet and journalism are increasingly expressing their enthusiasm for the dictatorship in Kigali.
For as long as our public sphere is fixated on the battle between two factions of the ruling party, both of which represent interests directly opposed to those of the impoverished majority, there is no possibility of grounding public discussion in the exercise of democratic reason. Both sides must retreat from democratic reason because both sides depend on the silencing of the impoverished majority, and the ongoing absence of a national political force strong enough to shift the ground of reason, to sustain their already limited legitimacy.
The return of the repressed, the insurgent return of popular and democratic counter-power to the centre of political discourse is a necessary condition for breaking this logjam. But make no mistake. If this possibility were ever to be realised, both factions of the ANC would unite, as they did in Marikana, to respond with paranoia, slander and violence.
There is no easy road ahead.
Richard Pithouse is an associate professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research