The EFF effectively uses Twitter, the politics of spectacle and statements that push the boundaries of what is ordinarily considered to be acceptable speech to win a large space in the public sphere.
There is no doubt that the EFF often speaks to urgent injustices. But it is equally clear that the party’s public posture is authoritarian and masculinist with overtones of militarism. It has often been described as authoritarian populism, a designation that is clearly accurate.
Democratic forms of populism present “the people” as worthy participants in deliberation outside of the representative politics of electoral democracy. Whether in the workplace, the neighbourhood or elsewhere, democratic forms of populism place the meeting – and participation in the meeting, participation that is open to all – at the centre of their politics. This kind of politics can emerge without a central figure around which to cohere, such as the piquetero – in Spanish meaning “picketer” – movement that developed in Argentina as the country’s economy collapsed in December 2001. But it can also be led, authorised or held together by a charismatic figure who, to at least some degree, opens the political terrain to popular deliberation and power.
In the past two decades, popular politics of this type, sometimes linked to the state and sometimes at a distance from the state, has emerged in countries like Bolivia, Haiti and Venezuela, in moments such as the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011, and in movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter.
Authoritarian populism is very different. Orders are given by a charismatic leader on to whom the followers project libidinal bonds. The leader’s posture is that of the commander rather than the listener, and participation is limited to what has been called the “participatory ecstasy” of the rally, the protest or the street battle directed from above. Historically, this form of politics has had a particular appeal to people, often but not always young men, who experience a deep sense of social humiliation and are attracted to the idea of putting on a uniform, and becoming part of a collective that can transgress social norms and exercise power on the streets with impunity.
Disrupting for gain
In recent years authoritarian populism has frequently been enabled by social media, or what political theorist Richard Seymour calls the “social industries” given that these corporate-owned and regulated spaces are designed to manipulate emotions in pursuit of profit. For Seymour, there is “something about the way in which we interact on the platforms which, whatever else it does, magnifies our mobbishness, our demand for conformity, our sadism”.
Authoritarian populism enabled by the social industries has taken state power in Brazil, India, Poland, the United States and elsewhere, and become a significant force in many other societies.
Populism, by definition, exceeds the established political terrain of liberal democracy. It is frequently disruptive and, in its progressive forms, has won major political and social gains. In the cities of the Global South, road blockades, land occupations and self-organised access to basic services are key tactics. The road blockade has also been used in the US, as well as more confrontational action, such as the attack earlier this year on a police station in Minneapolis. In countries such as Egypt, Spain, Greece and the US, the sustained occupation of public space has been important. And the riot is a constant feature, across space and time, of moments of popular rupture with state authority.
A blanket rejection of forms of popular politics that engage in direct action, including disruptive action, is inherently conservative and inherently weighted towards shoring up the power of elites. But this does not mean that everything is permitted in the name of a just cause. It is common to see the view that anger should never be policed, and that no one but the oppressed can determine what counts as an acceptable mode of struggle, circulating as confirmed wisdom on the social industries. These trite homilies are not compatible with a politics of principle.
When people sinking further into impoverishment – whether in the US, India, South Africa or elsewhere – turn their anger against their neighbours on the grounds that they are “foreigners” or Muslims, we are in the presence of a form of oppression that must be confronted directly and effectively.
A young man in the US, whose family never recovered after his father was laid off from his factory job and now finds himself working three exhausting jobs under abusive bosses, who still has to take payday loans to buy food for the last week of the month, who sees no way to make a decent life for himself and his family, has every right to take direct and militant action against the elites who devastated the American working class while fabulously enriching themselves. But he has no right to project the anger that grows from his desperation on to his neighbour who grew up in Mexico.
No justification for sexism
Just as no form of oppression or suffering justifies xenophobia, there is nothing, including oppression, that justifies sexism.
The EFF has always had a gender problem. Party leader Julius Malema has a long history of sexism and hypermasculinity. Before the party was formed, his conduct during Jacob Zuma’s rape trial was disgraceful. While president of the ANC Youth League, he attacked a male journalist, declaring that he had “rubbish” in his pants.
The EFF proclaims an opposition to sexism in its founding documents. But in practice, it has repeatedly issued online attacks against women journalists in sexist and threatening terms. The party has incited its supporters to threaten women journalists, and many have been threatened with violence and rape.
In 2018, Mbuyiseni Ndlozi defamed respected journalist Thandeka Gqubule in a scurrilous manner. In 2019, Malema shared well-known journalist Karima Brown’s phone number on Twitter, after which she was subjected to an avalanche of sexist threats and abuse. This week, Ndlozi declared that eNCA journalist Nobesuthu Hejana had not been subjected to harassment by members of his party because “touching her is not harassment. The touch has to be violent, invasive or harmful to become harassment.”
The EFF does not only subject women journalists to deeply sexist forms of abuse. Also this week, Floyd Shivambu attacked former public protector Thuli Madonsela in a revoltingly sexist manner.
All public figures, and all journalists, must be liable to rigorous and public scrutiny and critique. But sexist abuse, threats and incitement are a deeply reactionary and dangerous form of authoritarian populism.
The EFF does speak in the name of a significant number of oppressed people. But that fact gives them no right to engage in grossly sexist and threatening behaviour towards women. Their conduct cannot be tolerated. A line needs to be drawn. On this matter, the Left needs to take a shared stand across sectarian lines.