From the Archive | Democracy as a community of life

In this first of a two-part series, Achille Mbembe considers what it would take to reimagine the human in the South African context, looking to retrieve life from a history of waste.

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

Preliminary observations 

During the last quarter of the 20th century we have witnessed the development of modes of ethical reasoning which dealt with the difficult question: what is “the human” – or what remains of “the human” or even of “humanism” – in an age of violence, fear and torture; war, terror and vulnerability. Propelled by the repetition of violent events and human-made catastrophes and disasters, this critique has profoundly shifted the manner in which we used to define law and life, sovereignty and the political. It is now understood that if life itself has become the prime medium for exerting power, power in turn is fundamentally the capacity to control and redistribute the means of human survival and ecological sustainability. 

Some of these forms of political and cultural critique are not simply paying incidental attention to the religious. A number of secular intellectuals have moved beyond a time, not so long ago, when generation after generation of leftist revolutionaries denounced religion as a force of alienation which threatened human freedom. To a large extent, this new critique has also taken the form of witnessing. As has long been the case in black radical intellectual traditions, to witness is the attempt to disrupt and destabilise the prevalent order of things. The task of the witness is to reopen the emancipatory possibilities which, as a consequence of the structured blindness and collective self-deception of the age, are in danger of foreclosing the future. Propelled by the belief that history can be made possible again, late 20th-century forms of critique have posited the pursuit of truth as a form of struggle in and of itself. Furthermore, the turn to the politico-theological has been the cornerstone of a renewed drive to expand our definition of “the human” and to reimagine democracy as a community of life – life itself understood as a relentlessly regenerative force and possibility. 

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The emergence of late 20th-century forms of theologico-political critique has coincided with our disjointed world experiencing a radical uncertainty. This sense of uncertainty particularly affects three domains of social life: one, the nature of historical praxis; two, the categorical foundations of experience; and three, the moral economies of signification. We no longer have ready-made answers to such fundamental questions as: Who am I? Who is my neighbour? What should we do with our (former) enemies? How should we treat the migrant, the asylum seeker, the stranger or the prisoner, the widow and the orphan? Can we forgive the unforgivable? What is the relationship between the quality of persons on the one hand and material wealth, poverty, hunger and disease on the other? Is there anything that can be considered to be so priceless as to be immune from sacrifice? If the possibilities of utopian thinking have receded, what are the conditions of a radical, future-oriented politics in this world and in these times? 

Africa is a particularly revealing site from which to reframe these renewed interrogations of “the human”, of “life” and of “possibility”. Here, under conditions of slavery, colonisation and apartheid, brutal forms of dehumanisation have raised, in the starkest terms possible, the political and moral dilemmas of human difference. A racially exclusive ideological discourse in the heyday of conquest and occupation, “humanism” was predicated on the belief that a difference of colour was a difference of species. Race in particular did not simply become a crucial, pervasive dimension of colonial domination and capitalist exploitation. Turned into law, it was also used as a privileged mechanism for turning black life into waste – a race doomed to wretchedness, degradation, abjection and servitude. 

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This is why, in their effort to vindicate their race, black intellectuals devoted most of their energies drawing complex portraits of themselves as actors in the history of humankind. As a result, two perspectives have historically dominated modern African discourses on “the human”. The first – a substantivist perspective that used blackness as a strategic concept in a broader economy of self-affirmation and reinvention – ended up giving priority to an ontology of difference. To the colonial negation of black humanity, it substituted a narrative of black collective identity born of a common historical experience of subjugation and suffering. But even in the most radical forms of black self-assertion, race consciousness was always a transitional move on the way to universal or planetary humanism. Although always keen to provide a full account of “the lived experience of the black” as Fanon put it, the second – a political and future-oriented perspective – sought to move away from racialism and toward seeing each human being as only a human being in a future shared community. Such a community was usually envisaged as a community of life, freedom and possibility. It included everyone equally and was produced through struggle. 

Today, questions concerning the place of race in capitalism and capitalism’s intrinsic capacity to generate “the human” as waste are being raised anew, at a time when radical shifts can be observed in the way neoliberalism operates. In many places, the continent is witnessing the consolidation of rapacious and predatory modes of wealth extraction. As Jean Comaroff writes, a new scramble for Africa is underway. Many of the investments currently being made flirt with forms of deregulation that pave the way for criminal economic transactions – trade in blood diamonds, contraband substances, protected species, sex workers, toxic dumping. Privatisation is being carried out in the midst of acute levels of material deprivation. Both the logic of privatisation and that of extraction are underpinned and buttressed by various processes of militarisation. In order to raise profitability levels, capital and power manufacture wars and disasters, feeding off situations of extremity which then allow for “indirect forms of private government” of which “humanitarian interventions” are but the most visible. Where access to wage labour is still a – remote – possibility, it is more and more embedded in a logic of disposability.

The “human” in the South African context 

Whether there is anything which is still to be rediscovered or to be reanimated from the term “the human” takes on a paradoxical resonance in contemporary South Africa. With the end of apartheid, South African culture and society was confronted with the urgency of engaging in affirmative politics in lieu of the politics of destruction of the years of racial segregation. Affirmative politics entailed the production of social horizons of hope. At the same time, it meant resisting both the inertia of the present and the nostalgia of the past. To reconstruct what centuries of racial brutality had destroyed, a balance had to be found between the mobilisation, actualisation and deployment of cognitive, affective and creative possibilities which had not so far been activated, along with a necessary dose of oppositional consciousness. 

Critical humanism in this new context would have meant a persistent commitment to the possibilities and powers of life. There is substantial evidence that a return to the question of the possibilities and powers of life as a precondition for the reconstitution of “the human” in politics and culture was recognised as a matter of ethical and political urgency during the first decade of democracy. During this decade, South Africa became a model of how to dismantle a racial mode of rule, strike down race-based frameworks of citizenship and the law while striving to create racial equality through positive state action. The post-apartheid state fostered a normative project with the aim of achieving justice through reconciliation, equality through economic redress, democracy through the transformation of the law and the restoration of a variety of rights, including the right to a dignified life. This normative project was enshrined in a utopian Constitution that attempts to establish a new relationship between law and society on the one hand and law and life on the other, while equating democracy and the political itself with the ethical and the just. This Constitution’s underlying principle is ubuntu or human mutuality. It promises a transcendence of the old politics of racial difference and an affirmation of a shared humanity. Underpinning the Constitution is the hope that, after centuries of attempts by white power to contain blacks, South Africa could become the speech-act of a certain way of being-in-common rather than side by side. 

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This drive to “re-humanise” society and culture and to institutionalise a new political community that defines itself as an ethical community is nevertheless unfolding against various odds. Perhaps to a degree hardly achieved in the rest of the continent, the human has consistently taken on the form of waste within the peculiar trajectory race and capitalism espoused in South Africa. Traditionally, we speak of “waste” as something produced bodily or socially by humans. In this sense, “waste” is that which is other than the human. Traditionally too, we speak of the intrinsic capacity of capitalism to waste human lives. We speak of how workers are wasted under capitalism in comparable fashion to natural resources. Marx in particular characterises capitalist production as thoroughly wasteful with what he calls “human material” just as it is with “material resources”. It squanders “human beings, living labour”, “squandering not only flesh and blood, but nerves and brain, life and health as well”, he writes. In order to grasp the particular drama of the human in the history of South Africa, we should broaden this traditional definition of “waste” and consider the human itself as a waste product at the interface of race and capitalism. Squandering and wasting black lives has been an intrinsic part of the logic of capitalism, especially in those contexts in which race is central to the simultaneous production of wealth and of superfluous people. 

Today, this logic of waste is particularly dramatised by the dilemmas of unemployment and disposability, survival and subsistence, and the expansion in every arena of everyday life of spaces of vulnerability. Despite the emergence of a solid black middle class, a rising superfluous population is becoming a permanent fixture of the South African social landscape with little possibility of ever being exploited by capital. Only a dwindling number of individuals can now claim to be workers in the traditional sense of the term. How to govern the poor has therefore become one of the biggest moral questions facing the nascent democracy. Behind policy debates on “welfare” and “service delivery” loom fundamental ethical choices that will determine the nature of the South African experiment in democracy – questions of how to right historical wrongs; what is the relationship between personal or collective injury and larger problems of equality, justice and the law; hunger and morality; owning and sharing; or even truth, hope and reconciliation. The urgency of these new moral dilemmas is such that, for the democratic project to have any future at all, it should necessarily take the form of a conscious attempt to retrieve life and “the human” from a history of waste.

Part two:

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