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

Politics after Liberation II

Harry Guruba

Greetings to all JWTC participants and outside readers. I write in response to a set of remarks made by Harry Garuba and Steven Robins under the heading “Politics After Liberation” on Monday afternoon’s studio session.

As its title suggests, this panel inaugurated debate on one of the central questions posed by the JWTC: What forms does the practice of politics take in the post-colonial/post-apartheid period? The title of the panel, of course, begs a number of further questions. How do we define “liberation”? In what sense can contemporary South Africa be understood to exist chronologically “after” liberation (a question raised by Garuba during his presentation)? How—both descriptively and normatively—can we define “politics” (a term problematized by Kelly Gillespie in her reaction to the presentations)? But let me bracket this second set of queries, at least for the moment, to sketch the visions of politics after liberation set out by the speakers.

Garuba began by providing a helpful genealogy of the discourse of liberation struggles across Africa and the African diaspora, and pointing out that the leaders of these struggles self-consciously presented them as ethical or moral movements that were “above” politics. In part because of the compelling moral visions that they elaborated, these leaders were able to maintain a strong connection with the masses. Garuba then asked two key questions: what kinds of politics are possible in this wake of this “apolitical” struggle, and why is it that leaders are no longer connected to the masses of people they supposedly represent? The answer that Garuba provides to the first question begins to explain the troubling phenomenon of “middle class disconnect” at the heart of the second. After 1994 in South Africa, he claims, elites diverted political struggle into the realm of the legal (including the constitutional, the bureaucratic, and the notion of citizenship aligned with neo-liberal democracy). This created an enormous gap between (1) the political elite and members of the middle class more broadly, empowered as citizens to employ the language of rights, law and citizenship, and (2) the majority of the population who found themselves outside the domain of the law, and thus without access to institutional centers of power. Garuba suggests that the gap between the middle class and the poor has become so great that the only mode available to the poor for expressing demands and desires is that of spectacular, violent action. The xenophobic riots of last year can be seen as a case in point. What is needed in this situation, he powerfully argues, is the bridging of this gap through the construction of a politics stemming from the needs of people on the street.

While Robins’ presentation actually came first, I describe it second because it both reinscribed and challenges us to think in complex terms about an assumption that seems to underlie Garuba’s analysis as well as to be widely diffused in recent social theory. This is the idea that (to quote Robins’ quotation of the Comaroffs) “class action has replaced class struggle.” Like Garuba, Robins suggested that politics after liberation has increasingly migrated into the realm of the juridical, where it has been reshaped into rights-based legal claims grounded in the new constitution. In response to this situation, however, Robins posed the following questions: Does litigation always produce de-politicization? Are rights-based movements always counterproductive? He then attempted to answer these questions by drawing on his ethnographic work on social movements in South Africa. Without presenting a falsely rosy picture of the possibility of neo-liberal discourses to generate “emancipatory practices,” he suggested that the language of rights and indeed the strategy of conducting lawsuits can be helpful (at least temporarily helpful) as well as harmful. His rich analyses of social movements revolving around issues ranging from land claims of Nama-speaking people to demands for antiretroviral drugs showed that local groups can gain access to and transform global legal discourses like that of human rights, de- and re-territorializing them to actively and productively struggle for control over things ranging from natural resources to cultural identity. Does this conclusion trouble the model set out by Garuba, I wonder, or confirm it?

Perhaps what was most striking to me about the session overall was the convergence, noted above, of Garuba and Robins on the idea that contemporary politics has been displaced into legal action. To put it differently, this is the idea that politics after liberation is always what Julia Hornberger termed “politics in the shadow of the law.” This very convergence seems to call for continued interrogation from many different angles. One is historical and descriptive: How and why is politics transformed into a matter of law in the neo-liberal, post-liberation moment? How and why does neo-liberalism separate out the domains of the legal, the economic, and the political? Another is moral or normative. Building on a comment made in the discussion by Shalini Randeria, shouldn’t we be trying to find ways of revising the definition and boundaries of “the political” as created by neo-liberalism to bring other domains within it? Why shouldn’t legal or rights-based activism be considered “politics”? Finally, an analytic question: what aspects of postliberation politics are being lost or obscured by this focus on the legal or juridical?

Kerry Bystrom in conversation with Bernard Dubbeld

Mbembe’s Democracy and the Ethics of Mutuality

Achille Mbembe

The Workshop has drawn together a thrilling mix of students and teachers, initiates and sages, from south and north, for an ambitious attempt to “rethink the political”. Whether consciously or not, much is being staked not only in the concepts and conclusions of this Workshop but in the mode of conversation and the quality of mutual regard that such a commitment to this topic invites.

Achille Mbembe’s morning address on Monday 6 June has opened up an array of questions, concepts, methodologies, that will no doubt provoke us for the duration of our time together and after. I must acknowledge the richness of the discussion around the many provocations that Professor Mbembe offered with his characteristic generosity. I take up here only a tiny portion of the rich fabric that was sown collectively, in the hopes that others will pursue equally provocative lines that enrich their own thinking, and throughout the week, our collective enterprise.

There were a number of themes that struck me on Monday morning. The first was the possibility of rethinking the political. The immediate challenge of delimiting the political – ie. What is the political? did not settle despite many a plea and return to the question, and much dispute as to its limits, paradoxes, and bleeds. Are we correct to assume that the proper object of the political is the state and attendant contests of inclusion? What other forms of life might be given to the political? Secondly, in this formulation, what is it to “re-think” the political? I would like to see more attention to the question, for us, of what is called “thinking”. Following from this, what is it to re-think? A confession of earlier hastiness? Of newfound inadequacy? Acknowledgement of doubt and incompleteness of the project? Empirical insistence? This return, this (re)doubling of thought, feels to be critical to the formulation of time that Professor Mbembe offered as vital to the problem of the human and its rendering as expendable under “late” capitalism. The return of the repressed, perhaps, in this double-motion, as if we what we had first thought had now become excrement, spent, wasted, unto our (re)new(ed) commitments, sensibilities, compassionate entanglements.

The problematic most provocatively outlined by Mbembe, of the necessity of redeeming the human from capitalism’s capacity (and tendency) to make waste of human material, was the springboard for multiple lines of flight. He suggested that South Africa offers us a privileged place from which to ask about the human because of the centrality of race to the history of capitalism here. What is crucial here is the specific configuration of capitalism in which the human takes the form of waste. Not only waste as produced bodily and socially by humans, but waste as result of a process of excretion; of the capacity of capitalism to waste human life; of waste as that which is other than human.

(Central to the imaginary of waste here is Marx’s sense of the fate of the human: Marx, Capital Volume 3, the Transformation of Surplus-Value into Profit, p. 182: “If we consider capitalist production in the narrow sense and ignore the process of circulation and the excesses of competition, it (capitalist production) is extremely sparing with the realised labour that is objectified in commodities. Yet it squanders human beings, living labour, more readily than does any other mode of production, squandering not only flesh and blood, but nerves and brain as well. In fact it is only through the most tremendous waste of individual development that the development of humanity in general is secured and pursued, in that epoch of history that directly precedes the conscious reconstruction of human society. Since the whole of the economising we are discussing here arises from the social character of labour, it is in fact precisely this directly social character of labour that produces this waste of the workers' life and health”.)

Thus Mbembe’s project, namely how to retrieve the human from a history of waste, is hinged crucially on the possibility of the event – as singularity, as newness – as that which allows the future itself to be imagined, staked, redeemed – and it relies on a formulation of human and political that deserves further excavation. What is the picture of the human here? What is excessive or exceeds (and can therefore be disposed of)? What difference does it make to think in terms of “becoming human”, ie, what are the ontological stakes of “the human” in this vision of politics? Mbembe’s suggestion that we are no longer able to live with difference, and hence we build walls to live only with ourselves, speaks to a sense of “ontological insecurity” that some have suggested marks relations in South Africa. I wonder whether we might ask instead (additionally, excessively) what our notion of human is here, as an epistemological challenge immanent to a politics of hope, and whether other histories and alternative forms of life might not be at work beneath our attention? Thus, ethnographically, what could we learn from the ways in which the worlds under our study produce relations, novelty, perdurance?

As enriching to our conceptual and political armoury as the image of human-as-waste might be, what would an archaeology of waste reveal? What other possibilities ride on the coat-tails of this notion? A European history of the humoral body and our late “forgotten fear of excrement”, as Kuriyama suggests, might be the beginnings of a history of waste that takes into account, archaeologically, the psychoanalytic, the social, the ethical, and the political. (Cf. Dominic Laporte’s History of Shit, in which he suggests that the management of human waste is crucial to our identities as modern individuals—including the organization of the city, the rise of the nation-state, the development of capitalism, and the mandate for clean and proper language).

Talk of disposability and excess inevitably raised the spectre of sacrifice in our conversation. I wonder if proved a source of great misunderstanding and site of superficial agreement as to the importance of the unaccountability of sacrifice, of the logic of sacrifice to all concepts of value. Bataille’s much-appreciated reflections on the notion of excess themselves draw foundationally on the ethnographic material that has inspired the massive literature on the irrationality, and impossibility, of the gift, of the madness of the destruction of value as a form of politics.

Thus, after our first faltering steps toward a mutually shared language, what place are we to give the notion of sacrifice? What is its status in Mbembe’s formulation of hope and a redemptive, almost messianic desire for retrieval of the human from the waste-dumps of capitalism? How are we to accommodate the ethnographic record of sacrifice and its importance to politico-religious life for many people, even those not of the Abrahamic traditions? What are we to do with the new secular theodicies that circumscribe our “late” sensibilities, that make us wary/weary of reminders of the importance of the religious in our thinking “neighbour”, “enemy”, “future”, “hope”... ?

A last thought on the rich notion of excrement: Rendering the human as waste must actively destroy not only the relations of production that render the poor (once “fortunately”) exploitable (which presumably leaves only relations of consumption as inadequate grounds for any kinds of politics or possibilities for the human) but also must discount, even destroy again and again, analytically at the very least, the actual forms of value that arise in everyday life, the actual survival of real flesh and blood human relations in some form or another, however brutish they appear to our sensitive dispositions. The material gestures, at least to this anthropologist, to the importance of paying attention to the humble, mundane, impure complexities of lives borne up and sometimes jettisoned in these “late” times. Comments, additions and subtractions are welcomed. Mutuality in/deed.

Thomas Cousins