Tuesday, 11 July 2017

The ‘Shadow State’: What does it mean in South Africa?


The recent “Betrayal of the Promise” report, to which I contributed, stated outright that a ‘shadow state’ was now in operation in South Africa, a product of a ‘silent coup’ (i.e. the most recent cabinet reshuffle). Although the report was a product of an eight week exercise, and as such merely presented a scoping of a more in-depth study that was yet to unfold, one would not have been amiss if one departed the launch of the report under the impression that the report was in fact the outcome of a full study.

The reality, however, is far from the truth. While the study was no doubt valuable, it merely represented heuristic ‘proof’ that the key models that were being used to assess the available information on “state capture” actually fitted the subject of the study. The key models were that of the neo-patrimonial developmental state (Tim Kelsall, 2013)[i] and the shadow state (William Reno, 1995)[ii]. These models were tested by fitting the periodised sequence of events that have occurred within the state, government, state-owned entities, and the main networks of actors that have been responsible for them (i.e. those constituting a loosely networked quasi-criminal ‘shadow state’).

By mapping the periodised sequence of events, fitting a narrative and interpretation to them, and then mapping the networks of actors to these narratives – as well as neo-patrimonial developmental state theory and the ‘controller-elite-broker’ models – heuristic, but circumstantial, proof was presented. This ‘proof’ however, was not conclusive proof of wrongdoing (even thought it may have come across to the public as such). It was merely heuristic proof that the subject – and commensurate models – was/were deserving of deeper study and inquiry.

The main value of the report to society was that it presented a whole systems framing and perspective on the various activities that have been conducted in what has come to be known as state capture in South Africa. Yet some serious questions lingered at the back of my mind after the report was released. It seemed to me that the narrative had been hastily cast and somewhat oversimplified the complexities of the subject.

As many others have pointed out, is it not true that state capture actually goes back far in South African history? Is it true that it has moved into a new phase – and escalated – under the Zuma presidency (as proposed by the report), or does that new phase reside further back in our recent history, as some have suggested? Moreover, are the models that have been applied to the subject – in particular the concept of a ‘shadow state’ (in William Reno’s conception of it as typical of failed ‘warlord’ run states) – readily applicable in the South African context?

These questions have preoccupied me since the release of the report, and in the interests of ensuring a more thorough public debate I feel compelled to share some of my thoughts on the matter. It would be irresponsible not to, as it is the prerogative of any decent academic or public intellectual to question their own work thoroughly. My central fear is that many of the suppositions of the report have been readily lapped up and propagated as fact by the media, social media, public intellectuals, academics and the like without adequate scrutiny. After all it is still an idea that has yet to be thoroughly investigated and researched. It is not yet the outcome of an in-depth study that has undergone thorough research, peer review and significant broader interrogation of its central premises.

The Shadow State, Deep State and Parallel State

The model that has bothered me the most in the report is that of the ‘shadow state’, as the model of the shadow state that was put forward in the report was initially formulated in a study of the war torn and fragile state of Sierra Leone by William Reno. Conceptually, transposing the model of shadow operations within such a context onto that of the South African state may be a leap too far. After all, the South African state – despite all its problems – is a far cry from a failing, war-torn postcolonial African state. In light of this, it is worth exploring other conceptualisations of shadow governments, in particular the “deep state”, which is compared to Reno’s shadow state in Table 1 below.

Table 1: Comparison of Reno's Shadow State with the Deep State
Reno’s Shadow State
Deep State
Colonial in nature
Bureaucratic in nature
Strong centralisation (i.e. around a leader/group)
Weak centralisation (i.e. self-organising)
Not necessarily conspiratorial (i.e. entrenched)
Unsophisticated (Sierra Leone, Angola)
Sophisticated (USA, Post-Soviet Russia, Turkey) 

The shadow state as referred to by William Reno is defined by several key features. First, it is a postcolonial state. Second, it is colonial in nature (i.e. it has undergone no radical or substantive change). Third, it is a state that is characterised by strong centralisation; typically around a patron or strongman. Fourth, it is conspiratorial in nature i.e. actions of those who act on behalf of the shadow state are conspired. Fifth, it is relatively unsophisticated (largely extractive in purpose) in relation to a functioning state (although its extractive activities may be sophisticated); Reno’s shadow state is typically invoked when discussing weak and/or fragile states.

Reno’s shadow state differs from that which is referred to as the “deep state” as characterised by Mike Lofgren (2016)[iii], a more recent characterisation of ‘shadow state’ activities. First, in contrast to the Reno’s postcolonial shadow state, the deep state is modern and refers to states such as post-Soviet Russia, Turkey and the USA. Second, the ‘shadow state’ of the deep state is bureaucratic in nature. Third, it is characterised by weak centralisation and is not tightly controlled from the top; rather, it is self-organising. Consequently and fourth, it is not necessarily conspiratorial in nature; it is entrenched within the systems of the government, state, private sector and intelligence communities. Fifth it is highly sophisticated in nature and its purpose goes beyond the extraction or acquisition of wealth; it is concerned with the exercise of power locally and/or regionally and globally.

The parallel state also warrants mention, as it has relevance for the South African context. The “parallel state”, was introduced by historian Robert Paxton. The parallel state refers to a group of institutions and organisations that emulate the state in their management structures and organisation, but are not official arms (or part of) the legitimate state and government. These organisations – such as parties, youth and recreation organisations, work/labour collectives, some religious groups, unions and militias – buttress and reinforce the ideological programme of the state and/or government.

Classifying State Capture in the South African State: Shadow State, Deep State or Parallel State?

William Reno’s shadow state, the deep state, and the parallel state all find a certain amount of traction when applied to the South African context. This is because of South Africa’s unique history, transition to democracy and particular national challenges that result from these. It is worth undertaking a closer inspection of the relevance of these conceptual frameworks in order to better articulate the complexity of the phenomenon of state capture that has so readily been taken up in the South African popular discourse.

The overlooked factor – one that is central to understanding how South Africa differs from William Reno’s shadow state – is it’s long intelligence history. In contrast to Reno’s shadow state, the current dispensation is not strictly a postcolonial one; it is a post-Apartheid one. The Apartheid state was postcolonial to a large degree, but more critically it was a post-WWII state; it was formulated in the cold war and sought legitimacy through cold war arrangements. The Apartheid state undoubtedly inherited colonial features (law, culture, race, class, economic inequality, dispossession, etc.) but is also a profoundly modern state that embedded itself within cold war arrangements and depended on them for its survival. That is why the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 heralded the end of Apartheid; it lost its leverage in the global arena.

Early on in post-war South Africa (i.e. 1949), Britain was directly involved helping set up Apartheid South Africa’s intelligence systems, ostensibly to fight off “indigenous communism” in the region. Britain helped South Africa transition from its colonial intelligence arrangements into that of a modern state intelligence designed for playing a strong role in the cold war. When South Africa escalated its Apartheid program (i.e. from the 1950’s onwards) – one which steadily made it more of a global pariah – eventually declaring itself a republic and withdrawing from the Commonwealth in 1961, its need to have a strong role in the cold war as a bulwark against the spread of Soviet influence intensified (James Sanders, 2006)[iv].

South Africa had to work behind the scenes and eventually around global sanctions. It had to develop a relatively sophisticated deep state ‘shadow’ capacity in order to do so. This had to be deeply embedded within the bureaucracies of the state, private sector, military, and within society itself[v]. Thus the deep state was deeply embedded and entrenched early on in South Africa’s history and deepened and intensified over time. Strong centralised control was not necessary; the capacity for shadow activities resided – in large part – within the state itself. Hence there was no need for conspiracy to spawn out activities, and it was quite believable when latter day Apartheid politicians completely denied having any knowledge of “third force activities” conducted under their watch.

Shadow activities relating to the movement of money, diamonds, gold, arms and oil – for example – were conducted for a long time under the Apartheid government and intensified towards its end when global sanctions were imposed on the isolated Apartheid state (Hennie Van Vuuren, 2006[vi]; 2017[vii]). Under sanctions (circa 1986 till the end of Apartheid), these and other shadow activities intensified (Van Vuuren, 2017)[viii] out of necessity, and it is entirely likely that this phase left the South African state more vulnerable to leaders and actors that sought to orientate it for similar purposes later on (as has proved to be the case in the present). This is an important observation, as the uptick in corrupt activities attributed to state capture under the Zuma administration may have deeper roots; it may well be that deep state activities conducted towards the end of Apartheid (Van Vuuren, 2017)[ix] were the actual uptick that rendered the South African state particularly vulnerable to being hijacked. Indeed, this may explain (and does in my view) why the arms deal was so easily corrupted under the new democratic dispensation (even near the end of Apartheid SA was still selling arms, for example, the G5 cannons that were sold to Saddam Hussein).

The deep state (in Lofgren’s conception) is characterised by closely intertwined networks between sections of the political class, the intelligence community, defence, the judiciary, national treasury and private sector actors (e.g. especially the defence industry in the case of the USA, but also Wall Street and Silicone Valley). Under Apartheid the deep state exerted control over precisely these functions and sectors in service of the Apartheid project and the accumulation of wealth in private (white) hands.

Figure 1: Comparison of Historical and Current South African Deep State

A comparison of the historical Apartheid era deep state and the current era deep state is illustrated in Figure 1 above. The parallels between the evolution of the Afrikaans Nationalist agenda under Apartheid and the Black Nationalist Agenda (i.e. radical economic transformation) under the Zuma administration are striking. The adage that history repeats itself may ring true, and would indicate that ignoring or miscasting the role of the deep state may lead to an incomplete diagnosis of what is transpiring in relation to state capture and how to go about tackling it.

Under Apartheid the deep state was – for a long time – closely aligned with the prevailing establishment (i.e. the political and business classes). It continued until the Apartheid deep state became untenable in the global arena and fell afoul of the establishment, resulting in the end of Apartheid. The new deep state agenda, by contrast, is in reaction to the prevailing establishment and seeks to depose it. The deep state is increasingly being aligned with the agenda of radical economic transformation (RET).

One key factor here – that relating to National Treasury – is important in this context, as the deep state – in Lofgren’s conception – also exerts control over some of the functions of the national Treasury (his conception is in relation to the USA). The efforts to gain control over National Treasury in South Africa has thus far been cast as simply the objective of a patronage network that is driven by self-interest and/or a political project to bring about radical economic transformation. However, viewed from the perspective of the deep state, efforts to gain control over National Treasury may indicate a deeper movement i.e. an effort to consolidate and strengthen the deep state so that it may drive a longer term agenda.

Note that while the stated outcome of this longer term agenda may be professed as a transformative, equity-driven agenda in reality, yielding control over this agenda to the deep state is more likely to further entrench the close relationship between the political and business classes and result in deepening inequality and enhanced oligopoly (i.e. if the USA model of the deep state is actualised in SA). Misdiagnosing the driving force behind state capture as mainly resulting from the Gupta-linked network is to focus on the symptoms of state capture rather than its root causes. In order to remedy the situation over the long term it is necessary to understand what historical arrangements and bureaucratic orientations hep reproduce the phenomenon that has been described as state capture.


It goes without saying that the South African state itself bears no comparison to the weak or fragile states of post-colonial war-torn African states. It is a state characterised by strong institutions and organisations and the separation of powers within the state still holds (despite attempts to subvert it). South Africa has strong societal institutions – private sector, academia and civil society – that remain outspoken, active and engaged in holding power to account.

It is true that significant polarisation currently characterises the South African polis. However, much of this can be attributed to the parallel state activities that have been undertaken by organisations and groups such as the ANC Youth League, the ANC Women’s league, the MKMVA (ANC military wing veterans association), parties such as Black First Land First, and the like, who – aided by propaganda machines such as Bell-Pottinger and the Gupta-owned newspaper the New Age and satellite television channel ANN7 – have contributed to spreading divisive ideological rhetoric in service of a political project designed to retain power within the ANC. It must be noted that these activities have split the ANC internally as well, and many dissenters have voiced their objections, some even calling for the current President, Jacob Zuma, to resign.

It would be ludicrous to suggest, however, that socio-political polarisation of this nature rendered the South African state a weak or failed state. It is still the strongest state in sub-Saharan Africa. It has inherited the institutional memory, organisational structures and modes of practise of the Apartheid state and has struggled to shake these characteristic features in the new dispensation. Moreover, it has inherited the legacy of strong intelligence capacity of the Apartheid government and has, in many ways, wielded this capacity similarly.

While it is reasonable to argue that William Reno’s shadow state model – dependent on strong controls, the prevalence of a patron-elite-broker model that fixes deals and facilitates illicit transnational financial flows – may apply to the Gupta-linked network (as proposed in the Betrayal of the Promise report), to tender this as an explanation for activities that underpin state capture as a phenomenon in the South African state may be too much of a stretch. Indeed, one of the areas in which this model falls flat is that – to date – no clear direct evidence linking the supposed patron (i.e. the President) to the activities of the shadow network has emerged despite many whistle-blowing efforts, including the latest massive tranche of insider information that has resulted from the leaked Gupta emails scandal.

That the president escapes direct and clear blame may have more to do with the activation of South Africa’s deep state potentials. This would explain the self-organisation within government and the state around the President’s agenda a whole lot better. It would explain why he does not necessarily have to act and instruct in the typical manner of a warlord or strongman; he would have no need to engage in direct messaging and top-down command and control in order to activate the cooperation of the deep state. 

Moreover, the President’s experience as an underground anti-Apartheid operative and intelligence boss (however exaggerated) may well explain that his learnt management style may actually gel well with the deep state itself. An intelligence boss manages cell groups that are distributed, and who have no contact with each other. In contrast to top-down military styled command and control and intelligence boss manages through indirect contacts, messaging and responds to signals that may appear benign to others.

In complexity language an intelligence boss manages through non-linear signals, often exerting indirect command and control across a distributed network of cell groups – while a conventional military command and control structure manages through top-down command and control where the ideal is if every unit has good situational awareness of each other’s activities and progress. They are fundamentally different models, and the activities of the deep state align more closely with the former, while the activities of Reno’s shadow state align more closely with the latter in terms of strong top-down command and control (i.e. even though distributed cell groups would still be in operation they would be strongly controlled by the strongman leader or controller).

What was not adequately appreciated in the Betrayal of the Promise report was that the president exerts strategic control over a system that is much broader than the Gupta-linked network. He enjoys the cooperation of many arms of the government, state and societal institutions (e.g. media, academia, private sector, etc.). President Zuma may not be university educated, but he is nonetheless a master strategist; indeed he is reputed to have been the chess champion amongst political prisoners held on Robben Island. The statement made at the launch of the Betrayal of the Promise report about the President’s intelligence – i.e. “he wants to be a Dos Santos but he doesn’t have the grey matter” – revealed a startling lack of insight into President Zuma’s strategic ability as a leader who has survived myriad efforts to displace him from power. Indeed, such a statement was not only academically irresponsible and grossly subjective (some interpreted it as racist); it revealed a lack of broader perspective within the project itself about what the capture of the state actually entails.

Indeed, a singular focus on the Gupta-linked network, to the exclusion of other elite groups who wield undue influence over government, the state and the economy is unlikely to reveal the full complexity of arrangements and mechanisms that facilitate capture of decision-making in government, the state, quasi-state and private sector organisations and institutions. Indeed, it is a bit like the puzzle of the blind men feeling different parts of the elephant while trying to figure out what it is; if all you took hold of was the elephant’s trunk you would reasonably assume it was a snake of some kind. Squeezing the analysis of an elephant by drawing exclusively on evidence of its trunk is bound to reveal only a partial perspective on the elephant.

Implications for Study of State Capture

Understanding a phenomenon as complex as state capture – given the complexity of the South African state and its history – is not a simple matter of transposing William Reno’s warlord model onto the President and the Gupta-linked network and marrying it with a theoretical understanding of neo-patrimonial developmentalism. While this approach yields a valuable analysis, and a starting point, it will not get to the root of state capture as a phenomenon.

While there may be a mix of models at work in explaining state capture in South Africa as a phenomenon, it is important to recognise that the platform for more recent shadow activities is the deep state itself. Any systemic view on the subject must acknowledge this. In particular, the uptick in activities in the latter day Apartheid era deep state – in response to global sanctions – may well explain why the now vilified arms deal was so effectively hijacked by corruption and intrigue.

It is important to distinguish between the importance of the deep state and Reno’s shadow state in diagnosing state capture as a phenomenon. The program to exert broader control and influence over the deep state is about harnessing broad-based support for the black nationalist agenda as a long term political project, whereas the shadow state network articulated by the Gupta-linked network is geared towards exerting control in service of a program of wealth and resource extraction. In simple terms, the deep state is where the war is being fought, while the Gupta-linked network is where a serious – perhaps decisive – battle is being fought i.e. the Gupta-linked network may be battling on the front lines, but it is not the war.

Acknowledging the role of the deep state as a platform for state capture in South Africa, and the role of a parallel state in generating and maintaining an ideological and political project, is hence critical for any honest academic analysis of state capture that seeks to delve into its complexities. Moreover, it is important because it has massive implications for how remedies are formulated to address the phenomenon of state capture. For one, it makes it plainly obvious that averting state capture is not simply a matter of removing the President, and neither is it simply a matter of breaking up the elite and patronage networks that have gathered around the President.

These measures may, in the end, only yield a temporary reprieve from the phenomenon of state capture. Indeed, if another network and leadership established itself it may well revive the same behavioural patterns. This is not to negate the symbolic value of the removal of the current leadership and compromised networks associated with it; it would no doubt send a signal to society and the political class that democratic institutions are robust and active citizenship is alive and well in South Africa.

Yet while symbolism is important, it is far more important – when probing a matter as serious as state capture – to avoid lapsing into popular discursive biases when conceptualising state capture as a phenomenon with a view to identifying the areas and mechanisms (i.e. the networks, controls, functions and processes) that would have to be addressed in order to bring it to an end. It is critical that any study of state capture undertake to understand it in its broader complexity and avoid reducing it to a point where the study is in fact grasping only the trunk of the elephant. Indeed, it is entirely unlikely that such an approach can reveal much of any use beyond temporary uptake as a convenient narrative that inserts itself in the spaces where political interventions are being hatched.

What is critical moving forward is to apply the different lenses through which shadow activities can be understood (i.e. Reno’s shadow state, the deep state and the parallel state) and provide an evidence-based account of how these interweave to produce the current circumstances the South African state finds itself in. This requires delving into both the long-term and short-term history of shadow, deep and parallel state activities conducted within the Apartheid state and the new dispensation. It also requires that the new political project – i.e. radical economic transformation – be contextualised in terms of its historical precedents in South African history (in particular, the efforts of the National Party government to establish an Afrikaans business class using the state).

Understanding what latencies and potentials reside within the South African state that support shadow, deep and parallel state activities, and which have developed and been inherited through its historical evolution, is critical, as breaking the cycle requires that these propensities are dealt with at their roots. In order to create a new history a breaking of cycles is necessary, but first we have to recognise that what we see and experience in the present has historical precedent and is not simply the emergence of something new. To scholars and enthusiasts of history there should be a strong sense of history repeating itself under the Zuma presidency, and in order to break with that history we need to acknowledge it and understand it deeply, lest we merely offer up superficial and symptomatic treatments for a disease that we carry deep within our veins and our bones; treatments that distract us from the reality of our condition and eventually brings about our end nonetheless.

Note - 08 February 2018:

Since writing this piece, two key readings lend support to the notions of; (1) a the predominance of "deep state activities" over "shadow state" activities in South Africa, and (2) the need to probe South Africa's fraught Apartheid history to understand how "state capture" can so easily take root in current day South Africa. They are:

[1] Book (2017): The President's Keepers, Author Jacques Pauw: This book details the role of the "deep state" (although the author does not use that term explicitly) - i.e. the state security and intelligence machinery -  in understanding exactly how "state capture" has unfolded in South Africa. It is a great read, and puts the phenomenon of state capture into perspective.

[2]The findings of the Peoples Tribunal on Economic Crime that was presented on 08 February 2018, which stated that "the panel believes evidence heard regarding contemporary state capture, too, was just the tip of the iceberg", and recommended an "immediate investigation into state capture in all its forms". The panel made heavy reference to Apartheid era economic crimes - both by local and international players - in helping create the environment for the normalisation of "state capture". The Tribunal is headed by former Constitutional Court Justice Zac Yacoob.

[i] Kelsall, T. (2013) Business, Politics and the State in Africa: Challenging the Orthodoxies on Growth and Transformation, Zed Books.
[ii] Reno, W. (1995). Corruption and State Politics in Sierra Leone, Cambridge University Press.
[iii] Lofgren, M. (2016). The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, Penguin Books.
[iv] Sanders, J. (2006). Apartheid’s Friends: The Rise and Fall of South Africa’s Secret Service, John Murray Publishers (UK).
[v] Sanders, J. (2006). Apartheid’s Friends: The Rise and Fall of South Africa’s Secret Service, John Murray Publishers (UK).
[vi] Van Vuuren, H (2006). Apartheid Grand Corruption: Assessing the scale of crimes of profit from 1976 to 1994, A report prepared by civil society at the request of the Second National Anti-Corruption Summit, May 2006, Institute for Security Studies, Cape Town.
[vii] Van Vuuren, H. (2017) Apartheid Guns and Money: A Tale of Profit, Jacana Media, South Africa.
[viii] Van Vuuren, H. (2017) Apartheid Guns and Money: A Tale of Profit, Jacana Media, South Africa.
[ix] Van Vuuren, H. (2017) Apartheid Guns and Money: A Tale of Profit, Jacana Media, South Africa.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Beyond Revolution: Thinking the Future, Acting on the Present!

Adding to the Paralysis: Branded Academia and the Proliferation of Noise

In this era the need to brand and market everything as stylized ‘products’ has become pervasive. Whether we speak of technologies, services, goods, recreation, art, literature, food, information or knowledge, the need to ‘package’ for broader consumption has become ubiquitous. We live in the era of the ‘product’, and nothing escapes it. It is an era where people have come to view themselves, and each other, as products of one kind or another.

For many people this value system has become normative, unquestioned. Many of them argue that they are not putting form before content, but rather giving form to good content in order to ensure its greater absorption. This is understandable when it comes to regular products that are bought and sold in the marketplace, but when it comes to information, knowledge, art, literature and intellectual and academic work some distinct dangers emerge.

Indeed, there is a profound difference between letting a piece of work speak for itself and engaging in a drawn out campaign of speaking for the work or gift-wrapping it in the paraphernalia of the zeitgeist. This is because efforts to distill form (read “brand” proposition) and content (read substance) often follow very different processes. While distilling form focuses on the ‘elevator pitch’ to describe a work, distillation of content must necessarily proceed with care. Content is misrepresented by the need to generate consumable form. Letting the market dictate your choices about a piece of work compromises it from the outset.

The significance of a piece of academic or intellectual work should ideally rise to authority by virtue of how well its content is received by a readership – whether it consists of peers or not – rather than the amount of effort and money that is invested in a marketing campaign to promote it. The drive to brand and market a piece of academic or intellectual work often leads to disingenuous representation of the value of the work. Heuristic arguments are presented as proof. Hypotheses are presented as conclusions, and correlative evidence is presented as causal.

Props are employed to lend legitimacy to the work. Big names and big titles – that serve as brands themselves – are brought in to endorse the product. The complexities in the work are reduced to produce an easily consumable narrative. Simplistic terminology and phrases are deployed as sound bites to be taken up and spread through the ether of social and conventional media, to be thoughtlessly regurgitated and reiterated in the macro and micro interactions that make up society. It must penetrate and become normative, everyday, banal, in order to be regarded as relevant. Here and there real theoretical terminology and phraseology are sprinkled like holy water throughout the text to lend it a false legitimacy as an intellectual product.

The aim is to plant phrases, terms and a simple narrative into the mainstream discourse. The aim is not to faithfully delve into the complexities of the subject matter and emerge with an understanding that either crystallizes a vast amount of information, theoretical knowledge and perspectives on them, or acknowledges the irreducibility of the subject matter and works honestly with that.

Knowledge and theory take a back seat to rhetoric and posturing. Much is lost when content is displaced for form. Content then becomes unqualified, malleable; wielded for whatever purpose it is directed towards. It becomes anything to anyone. Today, words such as “resilience” and “sustainability” have become precisely that despite their rigorous academic and intellectual definitions. They have become mere jargon, spread out into different spaces and places and wielded in order to create a facade of meaning and authoritative perspective.

When it comes to books, one has to wonder what exactly is being sold. Is it the author or the book? If you’ve ever submitted a book proposal to a publisher you quickly learn that having a “social media platform” or “public image” is often more important than whatever content you propose. Celebrity sells. Kim Kardashian can sell a ghostwritten cookbook or ‘life philosophy’ book today and it would outsell any book by Sartre or Albert Camus. In fact they would likely not even get published in the first place. Only pop philosophy has a place in the ‘market’ for books today.

New terms, phrases, concepts, conceptual frameworks, ideas penetrate the popular discourse and become entrenched, without any rigour first being applied to them. They become the feedstock for tropes that multiply across the media and social media spectrum. There is great pressure to stay up to date with the latest terminology. It has become colloquial and is readily consumed in the same way as the 52 season fashion year (i.e. weekly) is. Amidst the constant stream of noise clarity becomes more distant. Meaning is not only relative; it becomes lost. There isn’t even an educated sense of its relativity. Facts become untrustworthy. Events become fleeting. Attention spans become shorter. Focus is lost. The polis and society are rendered bamboozled, confused, indifferent and apathetic. With nothing to hold on to there is no capacity to act.

Under these circumstances action is more likely to emerge from those who disengage. Only those who are capable of detachment can gain perspective and the traction to act. And so it is those who retreat from the milieu, whether into minimalism, anarchism, spiritualism, extremism, popular lifestyle cults, and the like, who – rightly or wrongly – consolidate the capacity to act. For in order to act in opposition to the status quo one requires a perspective that enables one to do so.

And so it is with groups like ‘hacktivists” (e.g. Anonymous), whistleblowers ( e.g. Wikileaks), extremists such as Al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, sustainable lifestyle enthusiasts, traditionalist and religious groups, doomsday preppers etc. that are taking action – whether at micro or macro-scales – in defiance of the prevailing global system. Conservative groups and anarchist and hard left groups are more present in the space of political action. Political action is coming from the poles not the middle (with some exceptions).

The broader spectrum of society (i.e. those in the middle), however, are caught in an un-chartable sea of information and half-baked knowledge offerings. Academics, experts and intellectuals emphasize the performative over the substantive and render their offerings as snake-oil salesmen do. They prepare Ted talks, stage performances, use subliminal messaging and appeal to the lowest common denominator in their quest for recognition. It no longer matters whom the recognition comes from, as long as they are many. Success is having an audience. It is not necessarily related to the quality of their offerings. So the audience is wooed, seduced, but left with little of real value in their hands, and are largely unable to act upon the knowledge they have been sold. It is a benign disposable product, bereft of the power to transform worldviews, lives and societies. It is easily cast aside for a new one. It does not root. It is, in this sense, not truly radical, and so cannot bring about anything new.

There are exceptions of course, but one has to wade through a tsunami of bogus intellectual content to find them, or one has to “be in the know” – part of a select group who filter out the crap for you – in essence a ‘knowledge elite’ of sorts. This needs to change, but in order for it to change there needs to be a mounting rejection of the modes of production through which academic and intellectual thought is transmitted into the popular domain. There is already a clearly discernible rejection emerging and this is reflected in the movements towards alternative media sources and intellectual opinions. Online journalism, blogging and fact-checking platforms are more sought after today as distrust of conventional media and academic and popular intellectual expert opinion – i.e. the establishment – has grown. Information and knowledge economy offerings are facilitating this movement and will likely play a key role in facilitating the full transition to a post-media society. The question is; how will this decentralised, distributed set of movements play out? 

Indeed, what will it result in?  Will it facilitate the emergence of yet more confusion? Will it serve as a liberating force that diverges and coalesces but nonetheless provides the basis for coherent action? Will it grow into a polarised virtual polis or will it facilitate greater understanding and consensus building?

Disengagment: Getting Unstuck and Taking Action

This evolution depends, in large part, on how self-organisation within the new spaces unfolds, as well as how controls are exercised on these newly emerging spaces. In particular, how closely emerging forms of self-organization couples with organisation within society itself – i.e. at the grassroots – will likely determine how effective the new and emerging spaces are at seeding and catalysing broader societal transformation and transition. And currently, in this era, that coupling is growing closer as society increasingly decouples from the conventional establishment and societal institutions that service it i.e. governments, media, experts, academics and public intellectuals alike.

Whether they are virtual or physical, the spaces in which new offerings and capabilities are emerging need to be carefully guarded, lest they be sabotaged or co-opted to reproduce more of the same as that which has come before. Currently there are no clear signals that indicate what exactly will emerge in this space. Instead, a duality has emerged where right and left poles have been energised.

At the same time there is also profound anti-ideological sentiment growing. Movements such as the Occupy movement, and the Five Star movement in Italy, are anti-elitist movements, but they also exhibit profound discontent with prevailing ideological approaches towards political life, work, consumption, ecological and environmental sustainability, lifestyle choices, ownership, and much more.

The critical factor is disengagement from the mechanisms that reinforce the status quo – conventional media, traditional establishment politics, advertising, academia, popular intellectualism, trade and commerce, banking, food, agriculture and so forth – and mounting a fresh attack on them from a position of disengagement.

It is not enough to work within the system. The system needs to be confronted on all sides and forced to change. It needs to steadily be given less and less degrees of freedom to manoeuvre and self-replicate itself, for it is in the nature of the system to maintain itself, to retain its basic identity and to adapt only where forced to, all the while seeking to preserve itself. It will meet movements and attempt to absorb them where it cannot crush or thwart them. That is how it survives.

So the offerings that are formulated from the outside need to resist being co-opted; they need to proceed from a view that it seeks to replace conventional systems entirely. They may originally be forced into some kind of symbiosis with existing systems but it must always remain clear on the need to displace and replace the system. Offerings that target the functions, controls and processes by which the system propagates are critical in this battle, as only by effectively replacing and displacing these can the system eventually be defeated.

This approach is one that seeks to establish an evolutionary approach to revolution, one that embraces innovation and emergence as the sources of change rather than attempting to simply tear down and replace systems in a top-down manner. It is an approach that seeks to let emergence and innovation from the bottom up lead the charge rather than grand ideological or theoretical impositions from the top-down. Whereas the former relies on the broader participation of society and its many groups and individuals the latter typically revolves around rallying a populist movement around the designs of a tiny political and intellectual elite.

The key strength of this approach is that it draws on society itself to seed and catalyse change and is hence owned by society itself. It is not the preserve of intellectual, political and wealthy elites to engineer as they see fit. It devolves power, even if imperfectly, and opens up room for the prevailing power hierarchies to be challenged and undermined. Elite power, wealth and influence is set against the choices of the broader majority – enabled by innovative and new mechanisms – forcing elites to adapt instead.

Systemic change is possible. It has the potential to emerge from peer-to-peer interactions, transactions and the like, which can spawn new vehicles through which society administers its various functions and processes. It can cut out the middlemen and render the power-bases of elites outdated and defunct. It can bring services and benefits to a broader range of the citizenry. It can eradicate borders, boundaries and constraints and introduce new ways to work, live, learn and contribute.

The possibilities are endless and a new era beckons. However, we need to begin rejecting the systems that stand in the way. Branded academia and intellectualism cannot forge a new way forward for us because it is fundamentally dependent on and constrained by the very same system that is standing in the way of change. Even a return to more traditional academia and intellectualism will likely fail to provide the kind of vision that is required for 21st Century society; it simply cannot go beyond its limited silos and entrenched disciplinary constraints to deal with the complexity of 21st Century life or its challenges.

What is needed is a new era of knowledge production and absorption entirely; one that breaks with the systems of the past four centuries and the post-war consensus to open up new spaces where knowledge creation is assessed, valued and disseminated differently. Disengagement is the first step - a purging of sorts is necessary – and the second step is to begin to envision and create new vehicles for society to interact with. How society responds will be the determining factor, and not how the market or elites respond.

In this framing, freedom of choice will matter as much as the abundance of choice, if not more, as true freedom is not just having an abundance of choice but having diverse choices available to society. When society’s choices begin to shape the future, and are not exclusively shaped by prevailing power structures, then freedom – at a societal scale – becomes realisable. We need to go beyond the notion of freedom as purely that of the individual – even though it is critically important – and envision freedom of society as a whole if we are to speak coherently about freedom.

The role of knowledge in enabling diverse choice is undeniable, but the current systems of knowledge are compromised, outdated and ill-fitted to the challenges of the 21st Century and the future. A shift in the modes of knowledge production is necessary, and can potentially help generate broader transition towards a substantively different kind of society. The first step is to disengage, but then we must act. It is not enough to merely disengage. We must begin building the new. And it has never been clearer that the time to begin is now.