Protesters in Mahikeng, protesting against the failure of provincial government. Picture by Simphiwe Nkwali

Sometimes, events can move so fast, problems press so urgently, the future seem so unknowable, that stopping to think feels like an unaffordable luxury.

South Africa is a case in point. Here, politics has entered a long-drawn paroxysm, centred around the struggling presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa, who is trying to impart a degree of coherence and focus to a government which has spent the last ten years sliding into misrule.   Many of the central policy questions of the day appear to have morphed into irresolvable quandaries — how to nudge the economy into an  employment-creating growth path in times  when the civil service is contemplating job cuts ;   how to resolve South Africa’s land question while  macro-economic and agricultural policy ensure  adverse conditions for land reform;  how to create inclusive forms of political belonging when white racism  and black anger feed increasingly rancorous forms of racialised politics.

But this is only part of the problem. The challenges facing our country have broadened well beyond anything that can be contained within the framework of normal policy debate.  The very coherence of the South African state — its ability to act as an institution of government in the first place— seems to be in question.   Front and centre, of course, is the ongoing drama about state capture: the deliberate repurposing of key segments of the machinery of government to facilitate the illicit enrichment of politicians and their cronies;  all this happening not simply as criminal activity but as part of a deliberate political project by segments of the ANC.  At the same time a  less obvious but equally important problem is becoming visible: the steadily worsening crisis of ungovernability within the institutions of government more generally. Not only do whole line departments — the Departments of Health, of Basic Education,  of Home Affairs,  of Public Enterprises — appear to be dysfunctional, but large sections of the local state, particularly the poorest rural municipalities,  are no longer even performing their most basic role.

In this context, the intense attention lavished on policy and ideological battles sometimes appears to be misdirected. For policies to matter, you need to have a government capable of implementing them in the first place.   

Most seriously, this general crisis of governability in South Africa is intricately connected to a larger problem of national politics.  The political narratives that have sustained the post-Apartheid political order since its hopeful inception in 1994 are increasingly in question.  While politicians and policymakers keep mouthing the familiar  policy platitudes — the need for inclusive economic growth; the desire for a social compact that can support broad-based economic empowerment;  the hope that the right mix of education, investment and sacrifice can open the door to a brighter and shared future —  these expressions of faith ring hollow these days.  More and more, it appears that  South African capitalism as it currently exists is unable to deliver on the promises of broad-based socio-economic inclusion on which the legitimacy of the post-Apartheid political order depends.

Julius Malema of South Africa’s EFF at a press conference after the resignation of Jacob Zuma. Photograph: Brenton Geech

This casts into question the very viability of South Africa as a democratic political community, bound together by a shared commitment to a rule-based and rights-based constitutional order.  As I have argued recently, the demand for the expropriation of white-owned land without compensation challenges the very notion of South Africa as a country in which white and black people can exist as political equals at all.  In this debate,  the idea of land figures, not as a factor of production, not as an economic resource for economic growth or food security, but as a symbol of the violated black body of a colonized people.  The amendment of our constitution and the redistribution of land is framed as a central part of  a redemptive process of land return aimed at restoring the integrity and sovereignty of a people violated by the experience of colonisation.

Anti-eviction protest, August 2018

These visions, at least in the way they are commonly articulated by the ANC’s nationalist critics, often  have a strongly chauvinist and authoritarian character.  In my view, they have little chance of supporting genuine democratic transformation or broad-based economic empowerment.  Rather, they often seem to provide ideological cover fire for projects of elite enrichment every bit as kleptocratic as the Zuma faction’s.  But against the moral force of expressions of nationalist anger and  demands for ‘radical’ change, the incrementalist vision embedded in our Constitution of the progressive realisation of socio-economic rights in a multicultural society seems inadequate and  politically vulnerable.

And this is just in South Africa.  Similar processes are unfolding  elsewhere in the world.

Not only in  Brexit Britain and Trump’s America but also in central Europe, the Philippines, India and now Brazil, new forms of contentious politics are emerging that are challenging the governmental, political and institutional arrangements of the post-cold war period.  These developments are diverse in form and content, but one striking and repeated motif is the rejection of the narratives of gradualist, progressive change within a transnational economic framework that have been central to the global political order since the late 1980s.  These narratives are being replaced with myths that evoke more immediate and direct forms of political community: myths that centre on race, on ethnicity, religious faith, on the moral virtues of direct democracy in local, face to face communities, on local sovereignty and anarchist autarky. These are all forms of politics that in one way or another are premised on the privileging of Gemeinschaft over Gesellschaft; face-to-face  community as opposed to the disconnected, mediated world of modern capitalism; forms of politics that aim, not at finding ways in which cultural difference and political disagreement desire can coexist within a shared institutional framework, but rather,  at creating new ‘Republics of Gilead’ on the right or the left.

Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in São Paolo, May 2018 (Photograph by Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the most interesting features of these new forms of contentious politics is they often seem to present progressive commentators with a kind of crisis of political legibility.  Or, to put it differently, they appear to trouble the criteria that have been used (for example) to distinguished ‘right’ from ‘left’, or ‘progressive’ from ‘reactionary’  in the categorisation of political forms for many years.  Are South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) a revolutionary socialist party of the kind familiar from sixty years of anti-colonial struggle — or hypermasculine chauvinists, dressing up their agendas of private enrichment in anti-establishment garb?  Is red-state support for Donald Trump simply an expression of white supremacist resentment and resurgent racism —  or is it the response of a politically marginalised working class, bitter at its abandonment by the Democratic Party?    Is Maduro a beleaguered socialist, holding out against neoconservative and elite reaction? Or is he just a populist kleptocrat, using petrodollars to buy political patronage? Over and over, the political categories that have organized the way we have thought about ideological contention at least since the middle of the twentieth century — the battle between ‘free markets’ and government in the name of the common good; the confrontation between local communities and the impersonal logic of capital accumulation —  don’t seem to help clarify what is at stake or what is going on; indeed, very often they are used in ways that contribute to the problem.

At the heart of these quandaries lie unresolved questions about the nature of government and political belonging in a world transformed by globalized, financialised capitalism.   How can democratic sovereignty be given effect in a context where value chains and production networks no longer fit neatly within national boundaries,  and where traditional balance-of-payment accounting can’t keep up with the interdependencies created by interbank flows?  How can economic policy create conditions for ‘inclusive growth’ in economies where the largest and most powerful corporations are beholden to activist shareholders who care nothing for employment creation?  How can states govern in the name of the common good when the content of citizenship and the boundaries of national community are fiercely contested?

These are not simply questions about control, or about desirable policy mixes, or even about outcomes.  They are also questions about the nature and content of governmental deliberation.  By what means can such questions be framed, addressed and resolved? What kinds of reasoning are called for — and who should be at the table?   What is the connection between the secluded forums of technical politics and policy making, and the public spaces of ‘movement politics’ and mobilising around demands? The forms of technocratic policy deliberation that were typical of ‘Third Wave’ neoliberalism (and of Keynesianism before that)  don’t seem to be up to the task. But the received approaches to governmental reason offered up by older forms of radical politics — visions of government and administration based on simplistic assumptions of social transparency, or dependent on authoritarian forms of vanguardism  — don’t offer much of an answer either.

Slavoj Žižek at Occupy Wall Street, October 2011

Secondly, what kinds of political community are possible in these contexts of deep inequality and geographic entanglement?   What, for example, can citizenship mean for people who might be politically included, but who find themselves excluded from participation in the economy,  surplus to the requirements of present-day capitalism?  What is the scope for imagining forms of nationhood that are not reduced cultural, linguistic, religious, or racial membership?  To what extent can class-based solidarity support progressive politics in a time when full-time employment is declining and many people find themselves as members of the precariat, living in the gig economy?  What other forms of local and transnational solidarity are possible that can sustain people in their struggles to survive, thrive and belong?

In this blog, I want to explore some these questions.  My most immediate concern is with the politics of land, poverty and democracy in South Africa, and what looks to me like a looming confrontation around the value and place of our constitution itself.    But my take on these issues is also shaped by an interest in the  crisis of progressive politics in the world more broadly  — and by curiosity about the forms of political and intellectual innovation that are taking place in response.

Lynette Maart of the Black Sash, at a meeting challenging involuntary deductions from social grants by financial giant Net1

Most of all, I am writing out of a sense that it is necessary to think anew.  Writing is for me a way of thinking aloud. Indeed,  sometimes it seems to me that the only way I can have a new thought at all is by sitting down at my desk and heading into the unknown. So this is a somewhat experimental blog: the thoughts I want to explore here are exploratory and unformed.

I hope you’ll take time to share your feedback and comments.   Even as the governable world lurches deeper into what appears to be irresolvable crisis, I hope it may still be possible to create spaces for critical reflection and generous debate.