Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Politics after Liberation I

Steven Robbins and Julia Hornberger

This studio session, presented by Steven Robins and Harry Garuba, interrogated the character of politics in post-Apartheid South Africa. Both departed from the idea that mass political mobilization during the 1980s has been displaced by a transformed society, where government capacity, and the law as a mechanism to create a more just society, appears to compromise political radicalism.

Robins focused on recent local struggles. Ethnographically tracing several cases of everyday activism which he argues are not grasped by overarching theories that do not contend with the strategic and sometimes unintended ways in which the language of rights and constitutionalism have been used by activists. From the blurring of indigenous and land struggles in the Northern Cape and Kalahari, claims to rights over adequate housing and economic survival in Cape Town, to the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC)’s use of the language of biological citizenship to successfully demand state provision of Antiretrovirals (ARVs), Robins suggests local contestations that challenge the political landscape. Further, by showing how the TAC organized international and local humanitarian aid, following the 2008 attacks on foreigners, Robins implies that these local forms of politics cannot be reduced to single-issue matters, allowing him to argue that while concerns with liberation may have shifted since the Anti-Apartheid struggle, it is unjustified to dismiss the existence of a transformative politics and the law as a site for politics in contemporary South Africa.

Garuba focused more theoretically on the kind of ‘closure’ of political space following the liberation struggle. Against claims (made by some within government and on the left) that the struggle can be continued or a second stage of revolution is possible, Garuba suggested that we approach present conditions in South Africa as a moment in which the struggle has definitively ended. Analyzing post liberation politics, Garuba drew on Fanon’s essay “The pitfalls of national consciousness” to argue that political possibilities have been fundamentally compromised by the accession to political power. The postcolonial elite, by continuing to claim the moral (as distinct from political) authority from the liberation struggle, foreclose political struggle. Indeed, Garuba identifies “a disconnect” between an elite who have access to rights talk and a disenfranchised poor who have little purchase on a transformed political terrain. The gap produced by this disconnect is the realm of the spectacular, to be filled only by fundamentalisms. Garuba seems to suggest that for a (transformative?) politics to emerge it has to contest the elite’s moral hegemony, and yet he seems deeply pessimistic of this prospect.

Although pitched at different analytical levels and in different tones, both presentations suggested the value of resistance for politics. Subsequent discussion within the group revealed tensions over definitions of what the political might constitute, for instance whether politics necessarily entails some kind of threat or sacrifice, and the fragile relationships that the political may hold between the legal and the economic. For me, three comments arise:

1) The character of resistance, either in past or present South Africa, as a positive political value, cannot be taken for granted. It seems to me that the articulation between different levels of social reality, between the immediate need for ARVS and the discourse of individual responsibility, between the struggle for an actual house and a secure place in the world, far from straightforwardly calibrates into a political project. Even in struggles that we may be inclined to call ‘progressive’, we have to be aware of trajectory of forms of resistance that may subside after immediate demands are met or even produce ossified and anti-political identities. While it is easy to valorize resistance and struggle, the effects of these are not always immediately clear or adequately analyzed.

2) Following from this, more analytically, what is the place of social critique in these struggles, and what are stakes of focusing on what may be the most visible emissions of discontent without reckoning with people’s often unnoticed everyday difficulties and anxieties? Is politics predicated upon finding a language of disagreement or discontent? And further, is resistance the most useful diagnostic for politically informed social critique? Can we easily accord ‘authenticity’ to particular struggles over time?

3) How do we adequately contend with the state in “post-liberation” contexts? Although the law certainly can become a space for both contestation allowing unexpected victories and a space for hollowing out of political alternatives, as the presenters alternatively show, are there ways to think about the state outside the law? Is it given that the state will become a depoliticizing instrument? Are there ways of posing the contestations over the constitution of the state and its policies, both in the legal and extra-legal dimensions, in a manner that does not reduce the state to a progressive/reactionary binary and seeks to understand the layers and contradictions of the state practice itself?

Bernard Dubbeld in conversation with Kerry Bystrom


Unknown said...

Sorry I missed these opening days of the workshop. (My car broke down; the kids needed care; marking and teaching prep; etc!) I did make Stiglitz though.

It sounds as if the legal took a place of prominence at least in this particular session. I'm sure that its place will continue to be interrogated in Thursday's sessions with John C, Julia H, and Kelly G. I'm looking forward to that.

For the moment, let me register two quick thoughts. One is a double thought -- initially a welcoming thought that Steve Robins was there to raise the flag of the law as site of struggle line of analysis and give some good accounts of TAC and the good anti-xenophobic work done by them in the Cape (but not in Gauteng) last year -- but then the later puzzle that the legal was mentioned in the same breath with the political and the economic. Yes, law may have -- indeed does have -- its relative autonomy. But is it as fundamental as the political or the economic? I doubt one could convince any self-respecting cultural studies types of that proposition. One could argue (note the style) that only lawyers (real or would-be) really think that. Thus, the focus on the law perhaps reflects the relative prominence of the legal mode in South African society?

A second comment is around the interesting question of whether there is a state without law. The answer (any answer) must of course depend on what the/any state is and what the/any law is. Move far enough down the analytical line of what you think law is and then it becomes easier to find it -- even in places that seem lawless and are certainly in-human. But the state side of that is what struck me. As Bernard (in conversation with Kerry) says "are there ways to think about the state outside the law?" Perhaps it is even easier to claim that there is and can be "state" in extra-legal realms. Surely, this must be right since the political lies behind the state and also behind the law. And, hey, that then becomes a welcome thought -- because it holds the promise of some transcending politics.

JWTC said...

Great questions, Bernard. "Is politics predicated upon finding a language of disagreement or discontent?" This question is brilliant; so, would you agree that politics begins where language breaks down? How does agreement/disagreement work for our idea of politics? And aren't you implying too easily the grounds for collective action (as if politics operates only in the multitude)? Perhaps the concept of language here is the problem - I mean, how might we deepen it or make it more robust? What about when we lose our language, or it fails us, or find out that our terms have nothing in common? What's your sense - of agreement, language, politics, action....?
Thomas Cousins

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