Monday, 21 November 2016

Left-Right, Who’s Right?

“If we can see the present clearly, then we shall ask the right questions of the past.”

John Berger, Ways of Seeing

Emerging Narratives: Right-Wing Resurgence

That right wing populism and anti-immigration rhetoric is in ascendancy is no surprise. Already, in the 1990s, the signs that right wing activity was emerging began to create discomfort in the accepted political order, which had embraced globalisation as fundamental to the new global political and economic order.

Right wing sentiment has been growing in response to increased immigration, and inter-cultural and racial integration within the cities, towns and metropoles of the – white, Western – developed world (UK, Netherlands, France, Germany, Austria, Norway, Australia, USA, Russia, etc.). It has also taken root in some countries of the developing world. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – who heads up the Hindu nationalist BJP in India – and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines stand out. In South Africa, left wing populism has facilitated the rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), under the leadership of the firebrand Julius Malema, who has led the party to around 8% of the national vote in record time. The former all share right-wing ideologies and values that define their worldviews and politics. Trump’s victory has proved an inspiration to them all.

And so the Trump victory in America has on the one hand – rightly, but partially – been explained by racism and white supremacism, and a resurgence of a right wing agenda. On the other hand it has also been explained by the rise in anti-establishment sentiment all over the globe, a profound distrust of traditional and existing political and economic systems. What is of particular concern, is that these narratives are being posed as binary in relation to each other, that they are somehow mutually exclusive from each other seems – to me at least – and intellectually lazy interpretation of what is transpiring. It is important to acknowledge that the rise of the right has been mirrored by an equal rise in populism and socialist rhetoric on the left, and that these sentiments appear to have peaked in post-2008 global financial collapse world.

The most common accusation is that the emphasis on anti-establishment sentiment is a deflection away from the underlying white supremacist core of these movements (i.e. notwithstanding that right wing populism is surging in non-white countries as well). Yet to lapse into this kind of reductionism – i.e.  to accept that it is just plain racism and white supremacy at work, and that anti-establishment sentiment has nothing to do with the rise of populist rhetoric and fascist posturing (to repeat; which is evident on both the left and right wings) – is a fatally flawed analysis. In this emerging narrative, the establishment, as accounted for in simplistic terms, is a racist one, hence racists cannot be anti-establishment i.e. meaning that Trump supporters are just plain reactionaries harking back for a 20th Century status quo, and not a true anti-establishment phenomenon. Let’s unpack that narrative a bit further.

Left-Right Polarisation: It’s Global!

Firstly, this narrative conveniently relegates all Hillary supporters to the ‘non-racist’ camp, a problematic consequence of the prior assertion itself. Can anybody seriously argue that Hillary supporters are devoid of racism, and still uphold the argument that their pro-establishment stance is not de-facto showing support for a racist system? Many contradictions reside within that perspective, not all of which are necessary to expound upon at length here.

Of course, it is possible to be racist and anti-establishment at the same time, as it is possible to be racist and pro-establishment. Conversely, it is also possible to be non-racist and anti-establishment, or non-racist and pro-establishment at the same time. That is reality; simple boxes do not adequately capture human nature and/or society, no matter how tempting it may seem to relegate people to them. Racism is both inter-sectional and situational; it is not ever-present, it rises up under certain conditions, and polycrisis – which is undeniably the current global post-2008 condition, characterised by fast rates of change, and high levels of uncertainty and insecurity – provides the ideal conditions for fear and racism to thrive.

Secondly, it ignores the emergence of profoundly anti-establishment rhetoric on both the left and the right of centrist establishments. Indeed, it ignores that there has been activity at both ends of the political poles. On the left, we’ve seen the dramatic rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK – a self-avowed anti-establishment figure – and the rapid ascent of Bernie Sanders in the US elections. What are these movements about, if they are not anti-establishment, a product of frustration, not just with the neo-liberal consensus, but the actual establishment itself, which precedes neoliberalism? Are not the global calls for decolonisation, and movements such as Black Lives Matter and #FeesMustFall, expressions of profound discontent with the political establishment, as well as the societal institutions that depend on it?

On the right, anti-immigration sentiment, protectionism and isolationism has arisen across the developed and developing worlds. Whether the US, UK, Netherlands, Austria, France – or India, Burma and the Philippines – there is a clear rise of right-wing, conservative rhetoric that is profoundly nationalist, separatist, anti-immigration, Islamophobic and socially conservative.

In Africa, postcolonial liberation era establishments are also coming under scrutiny. These establishments, more than any others, have entrenched inequality, sowed division and exercised totalitarian and authoritarian power, supporting dictatorships and minority-led governments that echo and mirror colonial era elites and oppression. It is unclear how left or right these anti-establishment movements are at present, however. Speaking from the South African context, it may well prove that the centre-right opposition may win out over the centre-left ANC over time (albeit in coalition with far-left and left parties).

It is worth remembering that Obama also originally ran on an anti-establishment ticket. He was the outsider, and also ran against Hillary, who promised that “change has come to America”. And while he did bring changes, they were incremental, tagged on to a system that is undeniably a source of great frustration. Obama promised change in 2008. In turn, US society sensed that change was possible – and necessary – but he delivered very incrementally on those changes, with the exception of Obamacare. He also failed to adequately tackle systemic racism, working and middle class insecurity and marginalisation from opportunities for advancement, as well as the extraordinary unaccountability and power of Wall Street and global elites, multinationals and corporations. Even Obamacare – viewed as a major change in the American system – is largely a norm in first world developed countries; even though it drew major opposition within America, it is essentially a moderate reform.

By comparison, the Trump presidency threatens to be an unmitigated disaster. He’s a bigot, he’s sexist, he’s politically illiterate, and he thinks protectionism and isolationism are the answers to America’s problems. He sees the purpose of leadership as a business and managerial one, and sees the public good as deriving from that premise i.e. he does not view the public good as the essential and primary duty of public service; instead running the country as a business is his prescription for public leadership. This central irony – that his prescription still fits within establishment norms, only deviating in respect of economic globalisation – was lost on his followers. Indeed, it is not his economics, but his bigotry and disregard for political conventions and norms that has made him appear to be anti-establishment.

As the resentment and ire towards his presidency grows, it is not unforeseeable that he will manufacture a series of wars to “unite” Americans behind. He’s already stoked Islamophobic fears beyond the pale, and adopted an adversarial stance towards Latin American neighbouring countries such as Mexico. His tough rhetoric also threatens to alienate an important key player in the new global order i.e. China, which the American economy is strongly coupled with, and cannot survive without. He’s aligned himself with Putin, a move which poses a threat to Western European security. And after he’s stoked all fears and resentments, his demands that NATO allies pay up or lose protection (i.e. simply put a global protection racket in the making) seem calculated and cynical and is bound to embolden NATO’s adversaries.

When one considers the global upset the Trump presidency is sure to spawn, amongst both allies and adversaries, as well as the widespread discontent at home (remember that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by over 200,000 votes) it is not inconceivable to envision a new “axis of evil” declaration emerging from the lips of President Trump. Indeed, stoking fears and making declarations of war – and demanding unity behind his leadership thereby – is a well-worn route for superpowers such as America and Russia.

Globally, the rise of populist politics and fascist rhetoric, has a lot to do with general disenchantment and active disregard for traditional establishment politics. And the ‘establishment’ in this sense, does not only refer to the neoliberal consensus, it refers to 20th century modes of leadership, governance, policy and decision-making that has persisted from the post-War, cold war period into the new, more complex socio-political and economic territory of the 21st Century.

There’s no doubt that the left – and the liberal centre – now has a major fight on its hands, but that fight is not – and should not be – for an establishment that has dismally failed people of all political persuasions all over the world, and benefited only the wealthy elites and private sector global pirateers. It should not be simply an anti-racist, anti-xenophobic campaign. It should be a campaign to dispel (or radically reform) the entire economic and bureaucratic system – replete with its systemic privileges, racisms and prejudices – from the general polis of the 21st Century.

A New Left Consensus: Challenging the Establishment

The world needs a left politics that serves the purposes and the context of the 21st Century. It should be a campaign that makes a serious effort to generate a new left body of thought and practise – one that draws on everything from sustainability (environmental protection, climate change, etc.) to new modes of local production, decentralised infrastructure, technology and modes of governance, the revival of grassroots activism(s), a new trade union philosophy (one that is appropriate for the changing nature of employment and work), as well as identity politics and indigeneity, and emerging new economies in the knowledge and informational ages – to formulate or sow the seeds of a transition to wholly new societal vision.

The challenge of this era is not one-dimensional, and one dimensional diagnoses will lead to inappropriate one-dimensional prognoses. Polycrisis and global hegemony are serious, intractable challenges that characterise this century, and any response to the rise of populist forces that fails to grasp this reality is bound to fail. The key to dealing with the complexity of the 21st Century is to go beyond reductionism and the false dichotomies that political philosophy lapses into so regularly and predictably. This century requires more consideration of the “and”, and less consideration of the “or”. The reason is simple; emergence (i.e. outcomes that are unpredictable beforehand) and catastrophic failure, results most often from unforeseen combinatorial effects; they are rarely the outcome of single causes or single variables.

Acknowledging that, is key to understanding how to prepare for, cope with, and harness complexity. As long as reductionism and dualism win out in how we diagnose the problems we are facing we will only ever be dealing with singular dimensions of a multi-dimensional problem; the head will always elude us; as we cut off one, another will pop up elsewhere, and we will grow exhausted and eventually be defeated. There is a system that underlies the seething discontent that has exploded on both the right and the left. That system is in the centre, and it has proven itself to be one that fosters inequality and uncertainty, threatens the sustainability of the natural environment and the ability of future generations to live in comfort and security.

So if the response to Trump is solely a moral cause, one that targets only his bigotry, I’m afraid little will be achieved in the global struggle to establish new models of society, ones that accommodate the multi-dimensional nature of society and carefully considers how systemic reproduction of gross inequalities and a fractured polis is engendered by the system itself. Indeed, I don’t think it is possible to address the moral imagination of society through one set of filters alone. It is not just race, but xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, the persecution of indigenous peoples, environmental destruction, climate change and a global economic system that need to be addressed at its root i.e. the system that produces and reproduces all these phenomena. 

I would argue that the great failing of civil society in the late 20th Century was to divide itself up along funding channels and advocate specific causes without adequately addressing the intricate linkages that sustain each great injustice through a set of others. The plight of indigenous peoples cannot be separated from that of environmental justice, the plight of the working and lower middle classes cannot be separated from the economic systems that are now ‘glocal’ in nature, just as the plethora of prejudices that prevail in societies across the world cannot be dealt with from a non-intersectional perspective.

To be clear, I think that an antagonistic and direct confrontation to the new right-wing Republican ‘consensus’ – if one can all it that – is warranted and necessary. However, the left is going to have to fight like hell on a number of fronts, and if it cannot make the links between the various struggles that require support, the danger is that it will amount to nothing more than an uncoordinated set of antagonisms that fizzle out, effectively remaining divided and conquered. There needs to be a coherent way – or set of ways – of making the links between these struggles, and addressing the core systems that underlie them. I see no other intelligent way forward but to acknowledge this, and to act from it.

That is, the economic system that produces and reproduces inordinate wealth amongst urban elites while generating gross inequalities – i.e. highly indebted households, large-scale unemployment and job insecurity, and poverty and near-poverty conditions, especially within the poor, working and middle classes, and entrenches marginalisation, limiting mobility and accessibility to those who do not possess the means to navigate the new economy and changing employment trends – needs to be revised.

The Threat of Fascism

However, it has to be clearly stated that waiting for medium and long-term changes that can result in a more desirable, equitable system that distributes wealth and opportunity more fairly is important, in the short term it is important to acknowledge and recognise the dangerously divisive forces that are in play. The socio-cultural threat that has arisen – accompanied by alt-right rhetoric and misinformation – may very well result in the targeting of minorities such as Hispanics, Jews, Asians and Muslims, as well as people of colour and immigrants, to the detriment of long-term societal cohesion. The forces of division are never easily assuaged, and once entrenched, take a long time to overcome.

It is not enough to hope for the best. Concerted, clear action is necessary from the outset, action that confronts the forces of racism, neo-colonialism and xenophobia head on, and to refuse to give an inch to it. There should be no “appeasement”, no “wait-and-see”.

We must always take the racists, xenophobes, misogynists, homophobes and supremacists by their word; it is folly indeed to attempt to read deeper into their rhetoric in the hope of deciphering a more palatable sub-text. For this kind of racism – according to Hannah Arendt – is banal, superficial and has no roots. Rather it spreads as a fungus, attaching itself easily to whatever surface it can grow on. It is not radical, because radical implies having deep roots (i.e. if one considers the etymology of the word).

It is one thing to hope for the best, it is quite another to allow the conditions for a murderous society and regime to emerge in one’s midst. It is necessary to fight it directly – and unrelentingly – from he outset, that way it will be forced to show its true face, and if its face is that of true ultra-fascism and hope soon begins to dwindle, you will know that it is time to leave that society and begin life elsewhere. Too many have suffered disastrous loss under fascist regimes that are emboldened by popular support to ignore this reality, and anyone who does so, does so at their peril.

And even those who may think that they are safe from harm, because they ‘fit in’ with fascist movements should think again, because pure is never pure enough, and it is the way of fascists to devour their own young once they’ve feasted on the flesh of others. Where fascism appears, war is never far off. This much is always guaranteed whenever fascism raises its ugly head, irrespective of whatever society it does so in. Fascism is totalitarian in nature, it seeks absolute control and endures in its quest precisely to attain the kind of power that allows it to achieve this. It is not a system that can survive the globalised world we live in, and the question that we should all be concerned with is whether globalisation can survive the rise of a global right-wing crypto-fascist consensus that masquerades as a conservative agenda.

Concluding Note

In conclusion, the dichotomy between the emerging narratives – i.e. it is either right wing resurgence or an emergent anti-establishment sentiment – is false.  Clearly both phenomena are emerging, and both require appropriate responses i.e. according to their weight and significance. Merely focusing on one, without paying adequate attention to the other, constitutes a partial strategy that – in the end – may do more harm than good. It is not enough to address one and not the other. The complexity of the 21st Century is revealing itself, and we must respond to it with all the tools we have, if we are to bring about a world where everyone has a place, and all can thrive within it without fear of hate and socio-economic insecurity.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

After the Sun Sets: A Country Divided

The stark contrast between the protest actions taken yesterday is itself indicative of the real threat that South Africa needs saving from. Instead of cross-class and non-partisan unity the fragmented polis of South Africa exposed itself for what is has become. The split screens on television were revealing; corporate, political and civil society leaders, whose silence for so long enabled this crisis on the one hand, and the marginal and excluded working class on the other, with the DA firing off tangentially to it all. 

We need to quit the addiction to momentous moments - as desirable and inspiring as they are - and put in the real work to build real broad-based unity, even if it is issue and interest based. I'm not keen to rain on the parade, but it's worth remembering that sustained effort, rather than momentary expressions of discontent, is what is actually missing in this country. To be frank, we need to save South Africa not only from its current leadership, but from ourselves; as we are the society that has allowed this mess to spiral out of control. We need to spend a lot of time looking in the mirror as a nation before this ship gets turned around.

Yesterday’s events, saw the launching of the new Save South Africa campaign, as well as an attempt by the Economic Freedom Fighters to occupy the Union Buildings and Pretoria in a bid to force the resignation of the President, and a largely tangential gathering by the Democratic Alliance that also called for the President’s head. The race, class and political ‘geography’ or territories ascribed by these movements reveals a great deal about the profound divisions within South African society.

The newly launched Save South Africa campaign largely consists of a temporary alliance of old activists and political leaders with corporate and civil society leaders. That is, it clearly consists of the elite of the political and business classes, who until very recently remained reticent to enter the fray and denounce the president and his current leadership. Until now, they have largely played a game of self-interest, extracting what benefits they could from the derailed and dysfunctional political leadership of the country.

It is worth mentioning that they have only ‘come to the party’ – so to speak – and found their political voices when the economic and institutional decline of the country teeters on a precipice. It remains to be seen whether their efforts will result in the revision of state and government policy that is required to address the deeply entrenched socio-political and economic challenges facing the country. Over the past ten years, protest action at grassroots level and amongst workers has grown exponentially, yet they have been largely ignored by the middle classes who, secure in comfort in their gated enclaves, remained largely unaffected by failures in service delivery and access to the law and justice. Only in recent years, have problems with services such as energy and water impacted them directly, if temporarily and intermittently.

Widespread ‘service delivery’ protests in poor and marginal communities rarely deserved mention in the press; indeed, South Africans are more likely to hear about service delivery protests on traffic reports rather than in the reports of the mainstream media. It is only when the student protest movement brought that level of disruption, disorder and violence to the hallowed halls of the tertiary education sector did it provoke a response from the enduringly silent middle classes and elite. And their responses have been largely reactive and unreflective, unable to integrate the discontent that has been building amongst the poor in this society into their analysis of the moment.

This profound disconnect – which lies at the core of the troubles of the new South Africa – and which is reflected in the drastically high levels of inequality within it, played out with uneasy predictability in the protest actions that were undertaken yesterday. The fractures along which the ‘rainbow nation’ is split was revealed in plain sight.

While the Save South Africa and Democratic Alliance events were characteristically outspoken, they remained measured and typically benign. They voiced their discontent in an orderly fashion, and did not undertake any direct action; they made demands, but there was no exercise of power (e.g. sit-ins, occupations, confrontations) apart from the political and economic power they hold as the elite of the political and business classes, and the middle classes, respectively. That is, the power they have is self-evident enough not to have to engage in drastic action; they have the luxury of being able to express discontent and be ensured that it will ripple across society and the world.

In contrast, the Economic Freedom Fighters march was an exercise in disruption, intended to bring all of Pretoria – the administrative capital of South Africa – to a complete standstill. There was no overall plan for the protest action undertaken by the EFF; marchers split into groups to disrupt business and traffic through the city (some looting ensued), and converged again at certain points, eventually marching on the Union Buildings in an attempt to occupy its lawns and force the president’s resignation thereby. The EFF’s power has not come automatically. That is, it is not derived from unquestionable political and economic power; rather, its power has been derived, from its very inception, from its willingness and capacity to disrupt the status quo with revolutionary fervour and zeal.

It is worth remembering that the political status quo proved very difficult to shift and destabilise until the EFF entered parliament and embarked upon its program of disruption at the very highest levels of power. They’ve held parliament ransom with relentless filibustering, open protest action (e.g. singing “pay back the money!”) and refusal to back down, often resulting in them being physically thrown out of parliament.

They’ve taken occupy protest styled practises directly to parliament, and have shaken up South African politics immeasurably; the opposition, as well as dissenters within the ANC have benefited from their antics. Hence it must be stated that it is the EFF who called out the large elephant in the chambers of parliament and relentlessly stuck to their guns, drawing the attention of broader South African society to its pressing political challenges. They disrupted the status quo and demonstrated that direct challenge to those in power was not only possible, but effective.

This method – of direct confrontation – is also what lay at the heart of the student movement, as it pushed for changes and won out against institutions of higher education and government. They’ve effectively shut down the national system of higher education, and forced its agenda to the very highest levels of power, yet not without enduring great controversy and disdain towards their methods. Both their willingness to engage in disruption, which veers into intimidation and occasional flare-ups of violence, has been roundly condemned. Yet the condemnations have conflated disruptive protest with violent protest, and conveniently ignored the fact that institutional brinkmanship and heavily securitised responses have led to a breakdown in communication and have scuppered efforts to channel discontent in useful and positive directions.

Yet it is all too easy to level harsh criticism of the EFF and the student movement(s); criticisms range from fascism to anti-poor accusations of ‘entitlement’ and sneering disdain at demands for radical change such as “decolonisation” of curricula and institutions. Notwithstanding, the fact remains that it is precisely these direct confrontations with power that have elevated the agenda to unseat President Zuma and his compromised leadership, and have created the climate of direct confrontation that has emboldened the previously silent middle class, as well as political and business elites, to make their voices heard.

While the engagement and participation of the middle classes and business and political elites are welcome, it would be wholly disingenuous to present the actions of Save South Africa and the Democratic Alliance as that which underlies the push for change in South Africa. As the euphoria of this moment does its rounds, and hyperbolic claims are made about ‘the people taking to the streets’, it is worth remembering who has been out in the streets dodging bullets and batons to create the potential for this moment to be actualised.

It is worth remembering that it is not just a call for the current leadership of the country to resign, but for deep structural changes to be made within the state and economy, so that the combination of structural and system racism and inequality that is tearing this nation apart is addressed. It is worth remembering that there are dual systems of service provision, access to infrastructure, education, policing, access to justice and employment in this country, and that this dual system perpetuates the division that lies at the heart of South African society i.e. between the poor and the middle classes and elites. That the neo-Apartheid spatiality of South Africa only serves to entrench and reproduce these divisions, and that as a society we remain divided.

We are ironically united only in our disunity; in our inability to reach across class and race divides to build a cohesive society that cares for all equally within it. It is worth remembering that the last time we took our eyes off the substantive issues we fought for, and fell prey to sentiment and adopted compromises that went too far, our national political project was compromised and the status quo prevailed. The late arrivals into the space of action in South Africa, bring with them the risk of ensuring that the status quo is preserved and the potential for radical transformative change is lost in this historic moment.

If there is to be unity, it needs to be built on the common understanding that it is our divided, fractured and ailing society that lies at the heart of the problems we are experiencing as a country, that we can change leaderships like we change underwear and still end up perpetuating more of the same. It is time for those who are entering the space of action in South African society to begin listening to each other, and building consensus around a key set of issues (e.g. access to services, education, poverty and inequality for starters) and to formulate a programme of action that it puts before the state. Irrespective of what party is in power, there is a clear need for a state-led set of priorities that South African society stands to benefit from, and this needs to be the first priority of the protest actions that are currently being undertaken. Merely toppling the president and all his ‘men’, will not cut it in the long term, because as the sun sets on each new day in this country, the all too entrenched realities of sharp inequalities, social divisions and tensions remains and festers into the next.