Democracy, the idea that each person has the same right to exercise their capacity for reason and judgement in matters of public disputation, is a profoundly radical idea. Across space and time, it emerges as a central demand in radical movements and in moments of progressive rupture with the established order.
But at least since the Athenian philosopher Plato wrote The Republic, almost four hundred years before Yeshua, hailed by Christians as the Christ, was born in Palestine, the democratic ideal has been relentlessly opposed by the view that experts of various kinds should take decisions for the people. The ascription of expertise is always mediated by class and gender, and, in many societies, is also profoundly shaped by race, caste, religion, ethnicity and origin.
In the form of liberal democracy established across much of the world after the end of the Cold War, voters were asked to choose between competing factions of their national elites at the polls. This while capital, technocrats in the state and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – calling themselves “civil society” – got on with the business of actually running things.
Attempts to build popular democratic power were repressed when they achieved some sort of critical mass, or reached the point at which they could realistically aim to subordinate the state to society. We should not forget that in 2004, the great “democratic” powers of the West, enthusiastically abetted by some of their NGOs, denied the Haitian people the right to elect a government of their choice. We should not forget that the media in South Africa overwhelmingly supported the United States-backed coup in Haiti.
From its inception, liberalism always carried the concepts of a sacred space, in which rights were awarded and respected, and a profane space, in which rights were not awarded let alone respected. In the beginning, this was structured by religious belief. By the 17th century, race was starting to replace religion as the line that separated the sacred and the profane.
Liberalism’s exclusion of the bulk of humanity from the count of the fully human was a matter of theory as well as practice. Liberal philosophers like John Locke and John Stuart Mill were explicitly racist. Mill, for instance, insisted that “despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians”.
Liberalism is as dynamic as any other form of political thought but, as the example of the Western-backed coup against an elected government in Haiti in 2004 shows, there are clear lines of continuity running through the centuries.
In contemporary South Africa, the political logic of much of the elite public sphere – including much of the media, the academy and many NGOs – is liberal. Unsurprisingly, it holds vigorously to the defence of democratic rights within its sacred circle. A break-in at an NGO or a bunch of party goons disrupting a book launch are taken as outrageous and responded to with a flood of grand pronouncements about the virtues of democracy.
But when an impoverished black person is beaten in public, has their home destroyed in broad daylight, is tortured in the local police station, shot dead during a protest or assassinated after having the temerity to engage in public disputation, there is often a complete or near complete silence. When something is said, it is not unusual for it to be bent through the prism of a set of hallucinatory colonial assumptions about the intellectual and ethical nature of people who are both impoverished and black.
It is not entirely unusual for liberal elites to perceive popular democratic action as criminal, irrational or motivated by sinister external forces. At times, liberalism and the paranoid nationalism that festers in the ANC have found common ground in their mutual desire to police the boundaries of who gets to count as a legitimate participant in public life.
There have been very different kinds of challenge to the liberal consensus established after apartheid. There have been extraordinary moments in which popular and democratic forms of organisation have insisted that democracy be more fully realised and that every person has a right to engage in collective decision-making. But there is also a current of authoritarian nationalism that – often organised around big men, frequently aiming to achieve private accumulation from public resources and generally militaristic in its political imagination – seeks to substitute itself for the interests of the nation as a whole, and to constitute itself as a counter-elite.
Outside the sphere
Until the moment of Jacob Zuma’s rape trial in 2006, this current was largely organised outside of the elite public sphere. It thrived in spaces that were spatially distinct from this sphere, such as the former Bantustans, and in spaces that were distinct in terms of race and class, spaces where impoverished black people made their lives.
Liberal freedoms were enjoyed in elite spaces while in others, sometimes not very far away in geographic terms, those freedoms were never realised. Sometimes a literal stone’s throw from where open disputation was taken for granted, a local councillor’s goons would openly issue threats to the councillor’s critics.
Because the liberal unconscious desires democracy for an elite and not the people as a whole, and because it is riven with prejudices around race and class, it seldom recognised let alone opposed the often brutal and at times murderous authoritarianism gathering its organisational strength outside of the elite public sphere.
A blind panic ensued when the project that cohered around Jacob Zuma enabled this politics to move from the bottom of society to the top, and from its periphery to its centre. The contestation between this corrupt and paranoid nationalism and the liberal establishment continues today.
It goes without saying that responding to a book that is critical of an ANC leader by sending in goons to shut down a book launch, and proposing the ritualised public burning of the book, must be resolutely opposed. Anyone, be they in the ANC, the EFF or one of the small splinter groups from the Zuma project, who refers to a journalist whose work makes them uncomfortable as “stratcom” must be resolutely opposed.
But at the same time, we do need to note how dramatically the scale and volume of the outrage around all of this in the elite public sphere differs from the altogether more muted, or even entirely absent, expressions of concern when impoverished black people – especially when they are acting autonomously from middle-class NGO networks – are subject to death threats, arbitrary arrest, assault, torture and murder when they are seen as a threat to (usually local) political elites.
Many of the people who have been making grand pronouncements about democratic values in recent days show no signs of being called to conscience or moved to action when impoverished black people are subject to far worse forms of intimidation and repression.
If we want to be serious about democracy, we need to hold firm to everyone’s right to engage in public disputation freely and in safety. And everyone really does mean everyone.