From the Archive | Democracy as a community of life

In this second of a two-part series, Achille Mbembe interrogates the salience of wealth and property, and race and difference as central idioms in framing social struggles.

This is an excerpt of a chapter from The Humanist Imperative in South Africa (SUN Press, 2011) edited by John W De Gruchy. 

Wealth and property 

Wealth and property have acquired a new salience in public debate. They have become the key, central idioms to framing and naming ongoing social struggles – from imagining the relationship between “the good life” to redefining value itself; from claims of citizenship, rights and entitlements to the definition of the forms of property and the economy itself (whether we should nationalise or not); from matters of morality to those of lifestyle and accountability. 

The centrality of wealth in the moral discourse concerning the “human” is not new. In various parts of pre-colonial Africa, discourses on “the human”, or, on “humanity” almost always took the shape and content of discourses about “wealth”, “personhood” and “social multiplicity”. Traditional definitions of wealth usually encompassed “people”, “things” and “knowledge”. 

“People”, that is, other human beings, were not only the most important unit of measurement of ultimate value. They also formed the material basis or infrastructure of human life. “People” consisted of interpersonal dependents of all kinds – wives, children, clients and slaves. As Jane Guyer argues, they were sought, valued, and at times paid for at considerable expense in material terms. Kinship and marriage especially were critical components of accumulative strategies. But wealth also covered traded goods, including the imported goods brought from elsewhere. Things could be personalised objects. Goods could be functionally interchangeable with human beings who in turn could in certain respects be “objectified” or converted into clients or followers. 

Wealth – embodied in rights in people – remained a persistent principle of African social and moral life even in the midst of the various shifts induced by the slave trade and colonialism. Knowledge on the other hand was understood as an ever shifting spectrum of possibility. Guyer makes it clear that it was highly valued, complexly organised and plural by definition. There was no social organisation of kinship and material life that did not depend, to some extent, on a regime of distribution of knowledge – the arts, music, dance, rhetoric, spiritual life, hunting, gathering, fishing, cultivation, woodcarving, metallurgy. If certain forms of knowledge were specialised, controlled and monopolised by a small cadre of experts or a secret society hierarchy, other forms of knowledge were conceptualised as an open and unbounded repertoire. This unboundedness made it possible for such forms of knowledge to be widely distributed throughout the society and among many adepts on the basis of personal capacity or potentiality.

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Indeed, African pre-colonial discourses on the “human” allowed for personal differentiation or singularity. It was believed that certain qualities lived in the individual from his or her birth; which he or she had no need for “magic” to arouse although there was always the indispensable need for magical rites to conserve these. Personal abilities could be augmented, conserved and actualised within the person, making that person a “real person”, recognized as such by the community. Each individual person’s power was itself a composition. 

That some of these old tropes might still be at work in current controversies on wealth and property should not be entirely excluded. But that wealth, poverty and property have become essential to the self-understanding of South African society after liberation should also be read against a long history of black dispossession. In the new phase of “frontier accumulation” made possible by the 1994 negotiated settlement, they have become the new idioms for political and normative arguments about what should be the proper relation of people to things; what should be the proper relation of people to each other with respect to things; how much property is enough for one person and how much is too much; how much enjoyment is justifiable especially for the opulent in an environment where hunger and debasement are all too real for many. It is this tension between what looks like an unstoppable logic of unproductive excess on the one hand and on the other, a logic of scarcity and depletion that is turning wealth and property into dramatic sites of contestation. 

Wealth and property also operate as means of regulating access to resources that are scarce for some and plentiful for others. They are the main means by which life chances are assigned to different kinds of persons at a time when pockets of wealth and privilege are proving hard not only to account for and even less so to control, but also hard to subject to some form of accountability and redistribution. Furthermore, as Arjun Appadurai observes, the life of the poor has become a strenuous effort to produce, if not a sense of stability, then something like permanence in the face of the temporariness or volatility of almost all the arrangements of social existence. Indeed, one of the most brutal effects of neoliberalism in South Africa has been the generalisation and radicalisation of a condition of temporariness for the poor. For many people, the struggle to be alive has taken the form of a struggle against the constant corrosion of the present, both by change and by uncertainty. 

In order to reanimate the idea of “the human” in contemporary South African politics and culture, there is therefore no escape from the need to reflect on the thoroughly political and historical character of wealth and property and the extent to which wealth and property have come to be linked with bodily life. If what distinguishes the South African experiment from other such experiments elsewhere in the world is the attempt to establish a new relationship between law and life while equating democracy and the political itself with the ethical and the just, then we have to ask under what conditions can this project of human mutuality result in a broader and more ethical commensality. 

Race and difference 

Another major challenge to any reimagination of “the human” in contemporary conditions is race. South Africa’s democracy asserts the equality of all human beings and seeks to derive powers of government from the consent of the governed. Yet, this is a democracy founded on deep and entrenched forms of racial dispossession and inequality inherited from a past of racial brutality. The country’s entire modern history is spliced around and fractured by the question of the relationship between its parts – whether they should exist alone, separate, or whether they should exist with other parts, together. This dialectic between with and without played itself out dramatically during the years of apartheid. It is being played out again, in no less dramatic fashion, between those with and those without property. The end of apartheid has not resolved the old question of difference. It has simply shifted the terms of the difference and of the dispute. In order to make decisions about issues of distribution and sharing in such a way that the social body does not turn against itself, the new democracy must find an adequate language of claims, liabilities, or debts – a proper language to keep putting forth the demand for justice, compensation, redress, restitution and reparation our history places before us. 

To these challenges must be added yet another, represented by the stranger in our midst. In contemporary South Africa, “undocumented” or “illegal migrants” are people whose fundamental rights are in jeopardy. They are halfheartedly protected in the confines of the national territory where they reside. Postapartheid South Africa has inherited a long tradition of a “politics of separation”. For centuries, this country was ruled according to that principle – to physically separate itself from all kinds of “other humans”; the refusal to share the same space with these “other humans” or to live with them. 

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Worldwide, a global regime of walling is fast contributing to the manufacturing of entire categories of unwanted people of which the illegal migrant, the undocumented worker, and more and more the refugee and the asylum seeker, are the prototypes. This global regime is characterised by the differential treatment of individuals, groups or communities with respect to movement or circulation. This differential treatment raises, at a deeper level, questions about the way in which the “quality of being human” as such is instituted in a globalised society; the way in which the quality of being human becomes once again categorised and hierarchised so that its selective reproduction can be controlled; so that some human beings can be hunted by the police of certain states and their freedom of circulation subjected to massive controls and restrictions. 

The gigantic inequality with regard to the right of circulation and the mobility of persons nowadays constitutes a transnational social relationship in and of itself. It is fuelled by an anthropological crisis of the category of “the human person” as a “universal” category. It is also at the roots of new, global forms of racialisation, in the name of security. 

The category of the future 

The “human” is another name for the future. In the political history of South Africa, the future has always been the term by which the struggle to produce a meaningful life has been named. What gave the category of the future its power was the hope that we might bring into being – as a concrete social possibility – a radically different temporal experience; that a systemic transformation in the logic of our social life and in the logic of our being-in-common as human beings might happen as a result of historical praxis. 

For many, the process of producing life now tends to take the form of a struggle to make it from today to tomorrow, and to cross the boundary from today to tomorrow can no longer be taken for granted. In fact, it has become eminently hazardous, risky. To be alive is to constantly be at risk; to constantly have to take risks because the penalty for not taking risks is to not be able to make it from today to tomorrow. As the possibility of the event recedes, South Africa is faced with the “liquid” character both of the present and of the future, their dizziness, their mirage-like qualities, the weakness in our grip on the future. 

We should wonder whether there is a direct relationship between the liquidity of the present and the overwhelming feeling of the elusiveness of the future – and therefore the apparent foreclosure of any plausible form of radical politics. In fact, many live as if the present, democracy, the law and the Constitution, had unexpectedly betrayed them. What consequences this feeling of betrayal entails for our imagination of the future is far from having been properly assessed. On the one hand, it manifests itself via the constant re-apparition of the past in almost every single act that aims at bringing a different future into being. On the other hand, it is as if for many people too much has changed and yet not enough has changed. There is a feeling (especially among the poor) that they are now not merely deprived of wealth and power, but even of life possibilities as such. Throughout the entire society, there is a widely shared belief that in order to further one’s claims, it might be better and more efficient to resort to violence rather than to invoke the law. This accelerated turn to an everyday politics of expediency rather than a demanding, disciplined politics of principle is fuelled by the inability to open freedom onto the unchartered territories of the future. 

Many have the feeling that they might never really fulfill their lives; that their lives will always be somewhat truncated; that these lives will never achieve the status of lives that are accounted for, inhabited as they are by a “ghost”. Beyond the repetition of dead paradigms, any new form of radical politics will have to deal with this ghost in life, the pain of disappointment and the sharp experience of defeat, of palpable powerlessness and dashed hopes. 

Many have the feeling that they might never really fulfill their lives. The period after apartheid is a period of “reconstruction” and “redesign”. The challenge ahead is nothing less than the refoundation of democracy as a community of life. The end of apartheid, just as decolonisation in other parts of Africa, has opened the door to internal partition. It has not entirely resolved the question of difference; of how to make decisions about issues of redistribution and sharing. Yet the need to experiment with new forms of ethical relations has never been as acute as now. The question this country is therefore facing today as yesterday is under what conditions can South Africa reimagine democracy not only as a form of human mutuality and freedom, but also as a community of life. In order to confront the ghost in the life of so many, the concepts of “the human”, or of “humanism”, inherited from the West will not suffice. We will have to take seriously the anthropological embeddedness of such terms in long histories of “the human” as waste.

Part one:

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