Friday, 30 March 2018

Democracy in Decline: The Tyranny of Self-Interest

"He proved his supreme ability for organizing the masses into total domination by assuming that most people are neither bohemians, fanatics, adventurers, sex maniacs, crackpots, nor social failures, but first and foremost job holders and good family men.

The philistine's retirement into private life, his single-minded devotion to matters of family and career was the last, and already degenerated, product of the bourgeoisie's belief in the primacy of private interest. The philistine is the bourgeois isolated from his own class, the atomized individual who is produced by the breakdown of the bourgeois class itself. []

The mass man whom Himmler organized for the greatest mass crimes ever committed in history bore the features of the philistine rather than of the mob man, and it was the bourgeois who in the midst of the ruins of his world worried about nothing so much as his private security, was ready to sacrifice everything - belief, honor, dignity - on the slightest provocation. Nothing proved easier to destroy than the privacy and private morality of people who thought of nothing but safeguarding their private lives."

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, [line space inserted]  

A Democracy Lost in Translation

The 1990s were a difficult time in South Africa. In the transition to democracy the country was on a knife edge. Many expected that civil war would break out. The 1980s had been turbulent; and it all seemed to come to a head in the years leading up to the first democratic elections in 1994. Nobody was sure of what would happen when the new era dawned. Fear and paranoia ran rampant, especially among the white populace; some people stock-piled food, others kept their guns at the ready.

But fears soon transformed into a sense of purpose. A new vision permeated the national psyche. We began to enjoy the hope of a new future; one in which we became an exception to the rule, an inspiration to the world. We became acutely aware of our moment, and its place in history. Pride replaced fear in our estimation of ourselves, even though the fear did not entirely leave us. Our history, after all, was resident deep within us, and between us, and had made its place in the world. There was an immutable intransience to it. It was resilient, enduring even if it was moved into the shadows, for however long. Our history, it would prove, was unending.

Yet we still tried to outrun it. We tried to be ‘normal’. And so we joined with a vision of ourselves that matched what we imagined normal was like. And all we had was our desperation to be part of the ‘outside world’, as we knew it then. Two decades of television shows governed our understanding of what democratic life – freedom – was like. From Dallas to the Cosby Show, we were caught up with the possibility of a life outside of our existence; one that seemed simple and actualisable because it was fiction.

“Work hard, live well and prosper!” became our reason for existence. It quickly replaced all our former aspirations for a new society, a new way of life, a pathway to a greater future. We understood the meaning of life as the well-being of all of us derived through work and play. Our reason for existing was no longer the hope of a new future for our children and theirs. It was now the simple actualisation of success through material gain.

Materialism and ‘security’ became the purpose of everyday life. Securing employment, acquiring property, and starting a family became the hallmarks of a life well lived, and the more abundance one enjoyed the better. People put a lot of time into imagining what the cars they drove and what the clothes they wore said about them. It was a fantasy of life that closely mirrored what we already had, and so we failed to detect what we were diverging from. And we were not to know the magnitude of this divergence until we had been wholly caught up in it, too far down the line to beat a quick retreat.

We became what we had never imagined we would be. We evolved into a caricature of a society, fuelled by lives lived in dislocation. Communities became less important than the individual. Individual existence came to dictate what was important, and that was simply looking out for oneself. “What’s in it for me?” and conversely, “What will it cost me?” came to dictate the terms of individual existence more than it ever had before. And in truth what was there to stop it? We no longer lived for each other, or for a future that we could mutually enjoy; we lived for the day to day, and it seduced us into an endless lull. It self-replicated ad nauseam, and that suited us just fine, for it rendered no need to reconcile the present with the overwhelming past that stuck to us like a late afternoon shadow on a sun-drenched day. There was no escape from it but to pretend it wasn’t there, or to seek shelter from it.

And it went on for a remarkably long time. Just enough so that most would forget, and be so caught up in the now as to be unable to effectively recall the past. That past which was most recent was even more obscured by the present, precisely because it was so close to it. The distant past receded, and was banished into latency, where it settled restlessly, churning away in the background of affairs like a subdued, unfinished brawl.

Time flowed quickly, and much water passed under the bridge. A new century arrived, and we became entrenched in what we had unwittingly absorbed and uncritically embraced. The new materialism dug its roots in deep, and flowered conspicuously.

“I’m rich bee-yach!!” went Dave Chappelle’s penultimate jingle of the Chappelle Show; the very last thing you heard after each show. Being rich became all important. It became even more important than power. Materialism entrenched itself so deeply, that everyone, whoever they were, and whatever their station, was caught up in it. We began to express our identities through our consumer choices; it gave us status, located us within the social hierarchy. Even charity became a status activity.

Families and family life became commodified. Conspicuous consumption extended to the whole family; what cars they drove; what schools their children went to, where they went on holiday, what gym memberships they had. As the world outside became more uncertain and fast changing, the more we retreated into the private realm of families, jobs and credit-fuelled extravaganza’s of spending.

This was the end of history in South Africa. Never before had such a profound rejection of and suspicion of the public realm existed, even under Apartheid. It was not simply apathy. Rather, the public realm was viewed as an intrusion into the comfort of the private realm. Fighting for the public good became increasingly viewed as an activity fuelled by an immaturity, and an idealism that bore no resemblance to the prevailing realities of the new worldview that had taken hold.

‘Homo-economicus’, the rationally self-interested, atomised and individuated everyman became the standard bearer for the new society. It was natural then that apathy in the public realm was justified as being a responsible job-holder or parent. It was natural that the very forces that negate the sustainability of community and society were elevated, and began to do their work. Introversion into the private realm served to escalate the disintegration in the public realm. And it was thus in many different parts of the world, as societies everywhere struggled to absorb and accommodate the tacit values and beliefs that underpinned the project of ‘globalisation’.

A Troubled Era: The Erosion of Democracy and the Public Realm

"The principles of monarchy and despotism - namely what keeps them going - are respectively honor and fear. What keeps democracy going is the far more demanding matter of 'a constant preference of public to private interest .... [it] limits ambition to the sole desire, to the sole happiness, of doing greater services to our country than the rest of our fellow citizens ... a self-renunciation, which is ever arduous and painful'. This is one of the main reasons why democracy does not work, Montesquieu is suggesting, because people are not that selfless."

A.C. Grayling, Democracy and Its Crisis

We now live in an era where democracy and democratic rule itself has come under scrutiny. “Democracy is not the panacea for our social and developmental ills that we thought it would be” many exclaim in frustration in the developing world. “It is failing us, just as it is failing the developed world!” they conclude.

“Look at how well China has developed itself! And it did it without democracy. Centralisation and ‘moderate’ authoritarian rule yields better outcomes that simply adopting democratic rule. It was over-sold, a lie, and we are suffering as a result of it!” 

In my travels across the African continent I have heard many versions of this theory being advanced. And to be sure, neoliberal democracies have indeed failed in many developing world countries, like my own. South Africa wholly adopted the neoliberal prescriptions after its transition to democratic rule and now boasts the ignominious honour of being the most unequal country in the world. This inequality is a social and political force for extreme polarisation, and the further we have ventured into our relatively young democracy, the more fractious and divided the once hailed ‘rainbow nation’ has become.

And so, our African counterparts regard us as a cautionary tale of sorts. Even though we unquestionably have the most advanced economy, institutions and democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa, we have replicated the very conditions that the struggle for freedom from Apartheid rule sought to achieve. We have entrenched spatial, racial and class inequality and it is tearing the nation apart. So much so, that we have no room for anybody else in our society.

My colleagues across the continent see us as a postcolonial ‘baby’, in a sense, who has yet to learn the lessons that freedom and the responsibilities that come with it, incur. “Oh we went through that too ...” I often hear, before being educated about the history of this particular country or that on the continent. Most often I am ignorant of their histories. All I know is our own. I am not uncommon in this. South Africa is a self-obsessed, self-referential nation; it was cut off from the continent for too long to truly comprehend its sense of belonging within it.

We struggle with our African identity despite our professed Pan-Africanism. We are a contradiction. We stand both with and against our African kin; we are simultaneously of Africa and apart from it. We desperately want to be a part of it, but we do not want it to be part of us. We are the prodigal nation of Africa, and while it celebrated our return to it, we bore menace upon those who came across the borders to settle with us; we hacked them to pieces, burnt and stabbed them to death, plundering and raping without pause for thought.

Our Afro-phobia is inescapable; we do not kill Europeans and Americans, we kill those who mirror us the most. Their dark skins, their desperate escapes from tyranny and war, their poverty and suffering do not move us. What is missing in us that we turn to violence against those who we should be longing to rejoin with? Where did the struggle die, and our freedom become cause for a viciousness and callousness that our conquerors once wielded over us? Where did we go wrong?

Perhaps we should have slowed it all down further than we did. Perhaps we should have transferred power to a socialist government who would have taken care of all, and gradually migrated society to a greater equality. Perhaps we should have done as China did. Perhaps we should have kept our heads down and plotted a more gradual, sensible way forward ... and forced the system to yield a more equitable and fair society. Perhaps then we would not be so resentful of our African brothers and sisters living amongst us, who spend their time eking out a living, staying below the radar of the increasingly paranoid and xenophobic South African state. Perhaps, perhaps not ... who knows? We are here now.

We are adrift in the new democratic dispensation. We have scarcely an understanding of what it means to act in accordance with democratic principles. Neither do we comprehend what changes need to be made in our society and its institutions in order to actualise democratic governance and order.

To be sure we are not alone in this. Many countries around the world are suffering the same ignorance and despair at their democratic conditions. Yet what is particularly disturbing is that our democracy is premised on one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. Surely our democratic project deserves more than just polarising rhetoric, populist promises, un-principled power-brokers acting as though they are above the law, and dumb silence where clear violations of ethics, principles and the law are identified?

We are now reaping what we sowed early on in our democracy. The ‘honeymoon’ period – and the euphoria of new freedoms – blinded us to the future we were making. Our aspirations to modernity left us hankering after a kind of life we had only witnessed on television screens and in the movies. We had no idea what we were ushering in to our society. And we have lost the fundamental threads that held us together as a society as a result. Trust has evaporated, and we have no social contract left to speak of, except that which services our own self-interest.

Without a healthy society democracy becomes very difficult to enact faithfully. Democracy becomes a house without foundations, devoid of principles, ethics and accountability. It becomes mere bureaucracy at best, or it becomes ochlocracy (mob rule) or oligarchy (elite rule) at worst; where Machiavellian power dominates societal and political activity, further eroding the very basis of democratic leadership and governance. Real-politik, it its worst, serves more to undermine democracy than to uphold it. It breeds distrust, provokes intrigue and in reality promotes duplicity, where what is professed goes contrary to how one acts.

When hypocrisy reigns in the public realm, you can be sure that the private realm becomes a safe-haven for many. Yet it is precisely this retreat into the private realm that catalyses the rise of the superficial in the public realm. Without genuine engagement in the public realm, without real transparency and accountability, what hope is there for a public realm that can effectively regulate power, politicians and elites?    

Awakening Democracy: Enacting Freedoms

So what is left to us? It is rather simple. It is to actively engage in the public realm with whatever is at our disposal to do so with. It is to enact our freedoms. As Hannah Arendt puts it,

“Men are free - as distinguished from their possessing the gift for freedom - as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.”

Hannah Arendt, What is Freedom? Between Past and Future

Whether on a large scale or a small scale we can all make our voices heard, and make our contributions to ensuring a healthy society. We can all endeavour to service our social contracts; simple things like keeping our word, servicing our obligations and agreements, helping out where we can, and raising our voices when clear wrongs are committed. We can also organise ourselves into small groups, even large groups, to raise our voices up loudly and clearly so that the powerful cannot ignore us.

We can also stand with and by those who are wronged. We can get out in our numbers and make our support unequivocal and difficult to ignore. We can make a stand against those who sweep things under the carpet and hold them to account. We can give of our time and money in service of good causes that enhance society’s capacity to absorb social ills and turn them around. We can find a way to look beyond our personal lives and securities, and act within society itself to safeguard it against abuses of power.

If this is too much for us to do, then we must reconcile ourselves to being effectively powerless in the face of the myriad abuses of power that our absence from the public realm creates room for. There is no way around this central reality. It is not just the price we pay for a healthy democracy; it is the right and privilege – or entitlement – that democracy affords us. It gives us the power to engage, take action and change the things we are unhappy with. In short, our engagement in the public realm entitles us to power, and what greater freedom do we enjoy than the exercise of power, especially in light of how long and hard the fight for it was?

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Ramaphoria and the South African ‘Shock Doctrine’: A New Future, or More of the Same?

Leadership in a Divided Society

The new president of South Africa and the African National Congress, Cyril Ramaphosa, has a difficult leadership challenge on his hands. He has inherited a divided ANC, an at-times dysfunctional government and state, a polarised polis and a largely disgruntled society. Perhaps it is precisely because of these tensions that his leadership has appeared contradictory.

On the one hand, President Ramaphosa has courted the private sector and middle classes and won their trust and affection. On the other hand he is pandering to the proponents of radical economic transformation and sent the middle classes and elites into a panic by embracing the call for the expropriation of land without compensation. In doing so, he is pandering to those who remain marginal in South African society, both in terms of societal power, as well as in terms of massive and deeply entrenched inequality. Inequality, one might add, that hails from an unquestionably long history of theft, exploitation and injustice.

According to the World Bank, South Africa’s levels of inequality are the highest in the world. So when President Ramaphosa plays to both sides of the gallery – so to speak – he is playing to audiences that are relative extremes in relation to each other. On the one hand, the comfortably ensconced middle and upper middle classes enjoy first world levels of quality of life. On the other hand, the working classes and the poor essentially suffer the precarity and insecurity that is typical of developing world existence. South Africa is, and remains, a tale of two societies.

So while President Ramaphosa has echoed the anti-corruption, good governance and pro-economic growth sentiments that remain the central issues of concern for the middle classes, he has also sought to harness the current of deep dissatisfaction with the status quo that has emerged and intensified among the working classes and the poor over the past decade. Yet, there exist key differences between those who occupy these ‘two societies’.

On the one hand, the middle classes largely believe that the status quo is working for the country, and that all that is required is a return to the policies and practises of the early democratic government under Presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. While a strong sense of the need for social welfare styled service provision and so forth is acknowledged as necessary in South Africa, there is also a streak of meritocratic bias in the values that persist within the middle classes and the elite. That is, the belief that South African society provides ample opportunity for anybody who is willing to work hard enough to be able to enter the middle classes and enjoy a relatively high quality of life.

On the other hand, the working classes and the poor – who have seen large increases in socio-economic inequality unfold in the democratic dispensation, and their incomes stagnate while prices have increased – have come to fundamentally question the status quo of South African society. Their plight is characterised by service delivery failures, lack of socio-economic mobility and high levels of local corruption, poverty and unemployment.

There is a pervasive sense that poverty and debt traps have become entrenched, while policies such as affirmative action and land reclamation have failed to deliver the upward social mobility that many dreamed would become a reality in the new post-Apartheid society. Instead of the intergenerational upward mobility that was promised to those who were oppressed under Apartheid, it is poverty, inadequate service delivery, crime, corruption and all manner of social ills that is being transferred – and even intensified – from one generation to the next. Hope is fast becoming a fool’s promise.

To be fair, reconciling and bridging the great divide between these two ‘sides’ of South African society presents a vastly difficult leadership challenge for whomever occupies power in South Africa. It is plainly impossible to court both with the same levels of devotion. Bridging the divide necessitates a fair amount of give and take. Compromise and negotiation is necessary to chart a way forward that all of society is generally comfortable with.

Reconciling the Great Divide

However, there is a limit to what can be reconciled. Reconciliation requires that some middle ground can be brokered over a set of competing perspectives and beliefs. It becomes far more difficult to negotiate compromise when the views that are in opposition reside at the extremes. And in this case, that is what President Cyril Ramaphosa is attempting to do; he is attempting to broker a shared understanding between sectors of society that hold extreme, opposite views. He is attempting to create a complex duality out of a stark dualism.

The middle class view that the status quo is adequate and that all that is needed is more of the same neoliberal oriented economic growth to put the country on the right track is an extreme view. The fact that neoliberalism has become the status quo over the past three or four decades should not detract from the fact that over the past two centuries or so neoliberalism, historically; remains a predominantly out-rider philosophy. Moreover, the notion that the current status quo is adequate is a deeply disturbing one. How can a country with South Africa’s history pander to a status quo that has reinforced and entrenched – in many ways – the racial and class inequality that was cultivated under colonialism and Apartheid?

Moreover, when we consider the push for radical economic transformation, it is clear that it also hosts some deeply questionable and extreme positions. Its first major proposition is to grow black inclusion in the productive economy through the creation of “100 black industrialists” by prioritising the reallocation of state procurement funds to the tune of ZAR 500Bn/year. This approach is problematic, in that it functions on more of the same neoliberal logic and closely mirrors Apartheid era strategies for growing white Afrikaner capital. It may well serve only to reinforce the black elite rather than uplifting the marginalised majority. It may also ultimately degrade the ability of the government and state to deliver on its mandate effectively and reliably. Moreover, it also stands a good chance of failing outright, and compromising the very basis of South Africa’s stability and success as a transitional economy.

The second major proposition that falls under the umbrella of radical economic transformation is the expropriation of land without compensation. It has been widely sold as requiring a majority parliamentary vote to change the constitution. The push for land expropriation without compensation is a rather cynical one. As explained by Prof Steven Friedman, the constitutional provisions for land expropriation without compensation already exist. The narrative that has emerged, and been seized upon by the ANC (who previously always argued against it), is a far more cynical political ruse to shore up the support of its frustrated support base in the run-up to the 2019 national elections. It is a narrative that enables the poor and marginal to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo, and to draw attention to the wounds of the past that continue to haunt the vast majority of South African society.

Crisis and Compromise: South Africa’s Very Own ‘Shock Doctrine’

Professor Friedman explains that South Africa has a long history of ‘creating a crisis’ and then ‘standing by to negotiate a way out of it’ in order to bring about economic change. It is true that this approach characterises how change has historically been brokered in South African society.

Forcing crisis remains the central strategy of local ‘service delivery’ protests in poor municipalities that have escalated drastically over the past ten years. It is also the logic behind the brutal attacks that have been meted out to foreign shop owners and the illegal settlements that have been imposed on them. Some civil society and political actors have also embraced crisis as a catalyst for change. Crisis draws attention to matters that would otherwise go unaddressed or ignored, and elevates an agenda to the highest levels of government and society.

Yet the question remains, can President Ramaphosa and his leadership successfully chart a way towards compromise, given the current state of division in the nation, as well as within parliament and the African National Congress itself?

In a society where the middle classes and the poor and working classes have been talking past each other for most of the past decade, is the strategy of creating a crisis to expedite compromise a wise one? First, will it work or will it only deepen polarisation and division? Second, do we want to perpetuate a politics that is stuck in the crisis-compromise mode of operation?

In respect of the former question, it is important to question whether a deeply divided and fractured ANC leadership that is largely incapable of compromise itself, can in fact lead the country down the road to a mutually agreeable way forward? When the positions are so far apart, what kind of compromise is actually possible? Under President Jacob Zuma, democratic rule was largely viewed as a “winner takes all” one. What has changed within the ANC that provides sufficient cause to believe that this view has changed?

I would argue that very little cause for hope exists in this respect. There is very little reason to believe that the ANC is capable of conducting honest introspection into its shortcomings by itself, let alone those of the country. The ANC is duplicitous, self-referential, bellicose and allergic to an honest appreciation of its own flaws. It can’t even openly admit what its flaws are.

In respect of the latter question, it is imperative at this critical juncture in the relatively short history of South African democracy, to ask whether we should uncritically perpetuate the politics of desperation that seeded under colonialism, escalated under Apartheid, and reproduced itself in the democratic dispensation. Surely it must be acknowledged that one of the main motivations behind the anti-Apartheid struggle was to break with the destructive and divisive cycles of the past? What does it mean when we diagnose the ‘crisis-compromise’ doctrine as part of the ‘DNA’ of South African politics and uncritically embrace and perpetuate it? Even if it is true that we have endured our very own political ‘shock-doctrine’, so to speak, is that what we want? And if the answer is ‘no’, then should we not be expecting far more of our leadership than simply more of the same?

This South African variation on the ‘shock doctrine’ – one where crises are falsely created, allowing for a leadership (or “big leader”) to take the gap and cast themselves in heroic terms – has already emerged as a destructive form of politics that has taken hold in many parts of the world. Whether we look to the US President Donald Trump, the Phillipino President Rodrigo Duterte, Indian President Narendra Modi, or the emergence of anti-multiculturalism and anti-immigration right in Europe and the UK, it cannot be ignored that a socially divisive and polarising rhetoric has fuelled their political discourse. Simply put, they scare people so they can manipulate them into acting from their worst fears and impulses.

In this sense, the kind of visionary leadership and emancipatory politics that South Africa now requires is a far cry from what we are seeing emerge under President Cyril Ramaphosa. The moment that he helped create – by riding the wave created by the opposition, civil society and many concerned and outraged citizens – is being lost in this latter day ‘gameification’ of the South African political realm. We need sincere leadership that is deeply committed to actualising a better society than we are; not leadership that merely works within the current and historical constraints that have held South African society back.

The Path to a New Future: Breaking the Cycles of the Past!

The main task of leadership in the democratic dispensation is – and remains – to break with the past. And while there are many threads of the past that need still need to be broken, the question of whether we are actually breaking with the past, or merely reproducing it, needs to be closely scrutinised. Many nations have only reinforced the conditions they have sought to undo by unconsciously adopting the political strategies, tactics and rhetoric that hold them back.

An appropriate analogy here is the United States of America’s inability to tackle its gun violence problem; precisely because its fallback position – and indeed its ‘land of the free’ identity – has become entangled with the rhetoric that the solution to gun violence is “more guns in society” (i.e. if more people had guns they would be more empowered to stop mass shooters from carrying out attacks). The fact of America’s relationship to guns is that gun sales surge after every new mass shooting. America’s addiction to guns has proven very difficult to break, and crisis only reinforces it. The crisis is inverted; it is not the proliferation of guns, but the lack of it, that is the problem.

When a false crisis is precipitated to force a compromise, that compromise is then a product of manipulation, and not a genuine compromise that emerges from real reconciliation of differing perspectives and desires. It is, in many ways, a strategy employed by cynical political operators who view society as ‘children’ to be manipulated into doing ‘what is good for them’. The problem with this approach is that it perpetuates the kind of leadership and governance that negates the evolution of society towards greater freedoms.

Instead, society lurches from crisis to crisis, from one adrenalin rush to another, and it is never able to settle and stabilise. Instead of a more predictable society, politics and economy we end up with more uncertainty and surprise by going down this road. The illusion of momentary ‘reconciliations’ is cast as progress, when in reality we remain stuck in cycles that, over time, tighten like a noose around the neck of the nation, strangling the possibility of change, and of a new future.

The famous saying, “give me liberty, or give me death” has some relevance in this respect. Instead of moving towards a future of greater freedom we are slowly strangling ourselves with the cycles of the past, inching towards our inevitable political death. As a nation that is constitutionally founded on the hope of actualising a new future, we are enjoined by an aspiration to establish a new kind of society. It is high time that our leaders and politicians began to act like it again. We have had enough of cheap tactics and staid rhetoric. We need to build a compelling vision for how to actualise the new future we fought so hard for.