At the end of the Cold War, liberal hubris announced “the end of history”. In theory and in practice, the rights that liberalism asserted against feudalism in Europe were never universal. Liberalism was always the political philosophy of racial capitalism.
In the 17th century, beginning in the English colony of Virginia, religion began to give way to a new concept – race – as the primary mechanism by which a monopoly was claimed over the count of the human. With blood and iron, the majority of humanity, excluded from the count of the human, were forced into subjection and marked as backward and not yet ready for the responsibilities of freedom.
Neither the liberal philosophers, beginning with John Locke in 1689, nor the great liberal revolutions in the United States in 1783 and France in 1789, opposed slavery. It was only the revolution in Haiti, which declared the first modern black republic on New Year’s day 1804, that took on, and defeated, slavery.
Cities like Marseilles in France and Liverpool in England were built on the profits wrung from dispossession and enslavement. The vast scale of the planetary suffering that enabled liberal progress in Europe, and later its settler colonies, was openly embraced. When the Liverpool Exchange, described as a fortification for finance capital, was built in 1754, it was circled with series of friezes containing representations of African heads. “Despotism,” the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in 1859, “is a legitimate form of government in dealing with barbarians.”
At the end of the American Civil War, racism, as WEB du Bois famously argued, drove a profound “wedge between the white and black workers” by offering white workers “a sort of public and psychological wage”, in the form of “public deference and titles of courtesy” as compensation for low wages. In time, and after considerable struggle, the white working class would win access to liberal rights, and social democratic gains, in much of the world.
But liberalism would not extend even the most abstract rights to Africans in the American South, or in Africa, until forced to do so by the great movements of the 1950s and 1960s. The incorporation of elites from among racialised people into liberal circuits of recognition, opportunity and power was always limited, and never extended to the majority, who continued to be exploited and excluded.
In the period between the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1961, and the military coup against the elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, both backed by the United States, the foundations were laid for a major containment of anti-colonial opposition to liberal imperialism. By the 1980s, countries across the formerly colonised world, particularly in Africa, were politically subordinated to the West and economically subordinated to capital via the imposition of structural adjustment programmes. In the US, mass incarceration had become a key technique to sustain racial oppression.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, imperialism largely shifted its support from outright dictators, such as PW Botha in South Africa, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, the Duvaliers in Haiti, and Mobutu Sese Seko in the Congo, to politicians willing to operate within the limits of liberal democracy. “Civil society”, often a euphemism for the power of Western states and corporations mediated through donors and NGOs, came to be a key component of the new consensus, one in which capital was increasingly liberated from democratic regulation.
The beginning of the end of apartheid followed the new script closely. But, in 1992, a frenzied Hindu mob, 150 000 strong, destroyed the 16th-century Babri mosque in the city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, India. Fascism was stirring.
As capital rapidly gained more power and captured more of the means to basic life, rebellion quickly returned to the global stage. The Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, in 1994 was the first major shot across the bows of the new order. But the genocide in Rwanda that same year was a grim reminder that enthusiastic pronouncements of a new and perpetual peace had been more than a little naive.
By 1998, it was clear that the liberal consensus was going to tear to the left and the right. The election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela marked the beginning of a major swing to the left in electoral politics across Latin America. But in the same year the Hindu right, with its synthesis of hyper-capitalism and hyper-nationalism, took control of India.
In December 1999, a major rebellion broke out against water privatisation in Cochabamba, Bolivia. In the coming years popular movements would continue to emerge in Latin America, sometimes propelling leftist governments into office. The road blockade became a key tool in the new forms of rebellion emerging from the urban peripheries of the global South.
At the same time, clear limits were set to the turn to liberal democracy. In 2004, on the bicentenary of the Haitian Revolution, the US military removed Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the elected and widely popular president of Haiti, from office. Western NGOs acting in the name of “civil society” played a significant role in the brazen and intensely racialised denial of the most basic democratic rights in Haiti.
Also in 2004, mass protest, much of it taking the form of the road blockade, emerged across South Africa. By the end of the following year, the widening cracks in liberal hegemony in South Africa had enabled both the emergence of Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban and the grotesque scenes in support of Jacob Zuma after he was charged with rape.
By the time that the global financial crisis hit in 2008, it was evident that the working class in the US, and much of Europe, would no longer be immune to the devastation long wrought across the formerly colonised world by capital. For millions, it became clear that access to secure employment and decent housing, education and healthcare was slipping away. Riots in Greece offered a clear indication that popular rebellion would not be contained to the global South.
Although often lubricated with the language of the Left, Zuma’s ascension to the South African Presidency in 2009 proved to be the triumph of a form of corrupt and often authoritarian nationalism marked by a brazenly predatory relation to society.
In 2011, following the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, rebellion rushed from North Africa into the Middle East, Southern Europe and North America. The occupation of public spaces, particularly historic squares in city centres, became a key tactic in the new sequence of dissent. New, and at times insurgent possibilities, political and economic, filled the air.
Widening cracks in the ANC’s hegemony
But this moment passed South Africa by. It was the massacre at Marikana the following year, 2012, a crime that left a permanent stain on both of the major factions of the ANC, that drove developments here.
The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) rapidly displaced the formerly dominant and ANC aligned National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) across the platinum belt in the North West. Land occupations, a number of them named “Marikana”, became bolder, more explicitly political and more frequent. By 2014, NUMSA, the metalworkers union, had been expelled from the ANC aligned union federation Cosatu.
But in 2014, as the cracks in the ANC’s moral authority and organisational reach widened, Narendra Modi, often referred to as a fascist, won power in India. For the first six months of the following year, the rise of the leftist political party Syriza in Greece, after sustained popular mobilisation, incited considerable progressive optimism. After a quick climbdown by Syriza progressive hopes continued to cohere around Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders in the United Kingdom and the US, respectively.
But in 2016, the British voted for Brexit, Rodrigo Duterte came to power in the Philippines and, to the horror of millions around the world, Donald Trump took control of the Oval Office. The march of the far right continued in 2018 with the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. The success of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico was an isolated, but significant electoral win for the Left.
Back in South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa’s ascension to the presidency of the ruling ANC, and the country, ran against an international current in which populists on both ends of the political spectrum have routed candidates of the liberal centre. It is not just electorates that no longer have faith in that project. In 2018, for imperialism, and capital, it is Paul Kagame’s totalitarian regime in Rwanda, with its commitment to an authoritarian capitalism, that is heralded as the way forward for Africa.
Ramaphosa’s attempt to restore a form of liberal hegemony is under sustained attack from the form of corrupt and authoritarian nationalism once led by Zuma, and now most vociferously championed by Julius Malema, with the buffoonery of the likes of Andile Mngxitama, Hlaudi Motsoeneng and Carl Niehaus shrieking in the wings.
But even if Ramaphosa is able to secure his hold over the ANC, and the state, he will not be able to restore liberal hegemony. No visit from Beyoncé, no matter how dazzling, can disguise the fact that South Africa is a country in which millions must make their lives amid systemic impoverishment under the rule of a state that is often contemptuous of their dignity, not infrequently sadistic in its day-to-day operations, and habitually repressive when confronted with open dissent.
Popular dissent will continue, and it will continue to burst liberal banks. But the form that it will take, and how it will relate to elite politics, are yet to be determined.
Will the dissent to come be democratic or authoritarian? Will it seek to build popular democratic power or be seduced by the lure of the “big man” promising to drain the swamp, impose order and return respect to the denigrated? Will it cohere around xenophobic and ethnic impulses, or will it seek to build progressive forms of solidarity?
Will it aim to offer men subject to systemic social disregard the perverse consolations of male chauvinism or will it commit itself to the full equality of women? Will it seek to discipline the impoverished majority in the interests of capital, or to discipline capital in the interests of the impoverished majority?
These questions, each of them urgent, will be answered on the terrain of the real, in struggle.