All who live in it

Thoughts on Inequality, Biopolitics and Democracy

Category: theory

‘Without the Blanket of the Land’ (New Journal Article)

My latest journal article (‘Without the Blanket of the Land:  agrarian change and biopolitics in post–Apartheid South Africa’) is out at last, available now in the latest issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies.  (You can access it here:  a great issue, by the way, with thoughtful and important contributions on the current state of agrarian Marxism  from a range of international scholars).

jps-coverIt’s been quite a while in the writing  — the central ideas it tries to express crystallized for me listening to Antjie Krog read aloud St J Page Yako’s bitter poem The Contraction and Enclosure of the Land at the PLAAS commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the 1913 land act at the University of the Western Cape on 19 June 2013.  In that poem, Yako likens the fencing-in of the land that resulted from ‘Betterment’ and Apartheid homeland policies to the folding up of a blanket that had previously afforded protection and shelter but is now not even big enough to stretch out on.  Yako furthermore links the loss of the land to black South Africans’ unwilling incorporation into a social order defined by the centrality of money.  Our girls‘ he says ‘Will have their lobola paid with paper, / Coins that come and go.’  For Krog, Yako’s poem was making an essentially moral point: about the way the loss of the land undermined the specific ethical relations between people that were central to Xhosa culture.  Krog is probably correct, but I think the poem also raises much more general questions about the wider social and political implications of land loss.  If the ‘blanket of the land’ is lost, what takes its place? How do we understand the new social order that has enfolded the landless poor in South Africa instead?   To what extent is inclusion in the formal economy and the social systems of the modern state able to support meaningful forms of political belonging?

Exploring those thoughts, I found that a number of other scholars had been there before; so in the end I think the paper became more of an exercise in connecting the dots than in original theorising.  

At the same time, there seemed to be some things left to say worth saying.

One of my central purposes in writing the paper was to try to escape the ‘agrarian ghetto’ to which so much public discourse about land in South Africa seems to be confined: firstly, in the tendency to conceive of the problematic of landlessness (and the policy of land reform) mainly as an agricultural and a rural one; and secondly in the tendency for land loss, its consequences, and solutions for it still to be framed within an essentially backward-looking, nostalgic lens: as if the idea is not only to ‘return’ the land but to ‘return toit: as if the point of land reform is to reconstitute the  authentic forms of community that have been lost and destroyed as a result of Apartheid dispossession and capitalist transformation.

A proper understanding of the implications of land loss and land dispossession, I believe, needs to be able to transcend the false dichotomy between ‘rural and ‘urban’  — the tendency to see them as distinct, disjunct worlds — on which so much of Apartheid ideology was built (and which the workings of South African capitalism has done so much to undermine!) Much of the argument in the article is aimed at showing the deep linkages between the path of South Africa’s agrarian transition and the problems at the heart of South Africa’s present-day socio-political order more broadly: the content and boundaries of the distributional regime, and the nature and definition of citizenship and political belonging.  While the origins of South Africa’s agrarian crisis certainly lay in the rural areas, I argue, its outcomes lie in the townships and cities, and in the marginalised economic landscapes (‘post-agrarian and post industrial’ as I keep saying) created by Apartheid planning and post-Apartheid economic growth. Here South Africa’s landless poor people exist in a limbo between rural subsistence and urban survival; straddling the rural and the urban worlds, reliant on both, but able to prosper from neither.   

The questions posed by this situation go far beyond those of agricultural production or even economic survival: if people are no longer to be enfolded in the encompassing blanket of an agrarian order, what kind of political belonging is possible at all? My rather pessimistic conclusion is that our current situation is confined by two central limitations.  Firstly,  the path of economic growth and agro-food restructuring  since the 1970s means that no easy solution based on a return to agrarian forms of production is possible: as John Sender memorably put it, there is no ‘weapon of mass production in the countryside.’  The concentration of power in the hands of supermarket retailers, agrochemical companies, food processors and financial services and logistics companies means that primary producers have very little leverage in the system.  (Unfortunately, Sender’s own exploration of these issues is still too much influenced by his tendency to see a sharp dichotomy between ‘backward’ peasant and subsistence producers and ‘dynamic’ commercial agriculture;  this causes him to miss the point that commercial agriculture has a pretty dreadful track record in livelihood creation as well.)    Secondly, the attempt to create forms of biopolitical incorporation — either through employment in the non-farm economy or through the provision of social services and public goods — has largely failed.   Large numbers of South Africans find themselves surplus to the requirements of the core economy, and the state has not succeeded in creating forms of government that can meaningfully include ‘each and all’ in South Africa as a political community.  And in the context of this failure of incorporation, new forms of contentious politics arise;  discourses and narratives that are not only premised on demands for more radical forms of change, but that question the very basis of South African political coexistence as such.   

That’s a grim conclusion, but not an overly pessimistic one.  For one thing, land reform can still make a useful contribution — but only if policymakers abandon their current obsession with restructuring commercial agriculture.   Using land reform to create a new class of medium-to-large scale black capitalist farmers is sure to end in disaster.  Firstly, because macro-economic conditions make success almost impossible, and secondly because it will make absolutely no difference to inequality, poverty, or the situation of the landless poor.  But land reform aimed at addressing the needs of smallholder and subsistence farmers and providing tenure security to people in communal areas, township settlements and the informal economy can make a difference: not by creating magical paths to prosperity, but by supporting social safety networks, broadening and diversifying livelihood portfolios, and ameliorating the terms of adverse incorporation into the mainstream economy.   (And, needless to say, land reform of this kind can only work as part of a bigger portfolio of pro-poor policies that allow people to participate to their advantage in South Africa’s urban and rural economy.  But that’s another story).

Secondly, while the JPS article does not explore this point, it seems to me that democratic visions of political belonging — visions that are based on an inclusive definition of citizenship,  horizontal relationships of solidarity, and shared visions of equitable change and transformation — still have a lot to offer.  Much of the political ferment taking shape around the presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa and the struggle to end political gangsterism  and  state capture pivot on attempts to define and contest the content of such visions— and, I should add, on the question of whether they are possible at all.   There is much to argue about.  It is clear that a ‘thin’ liberalism premised simply on ‘colour blind’ non-racialism and a hope for ‘win-win’ solutions is dead in the water.  But none of the ready-made alternatives that are on offer seem to offer a clear way forward either — or even to have much to do with reality.

So, we are in uncertain territory.   The political order that was put in place at the end of Apartheid will either slide into dysfunction and ruin (indeed, it is well on the way there already) or we’ll have to make something up, and find a way to invigorate South African democracy.  What that looks like, I am not sure.  But I have one suspicion: whatever workable answers are found will not be based in nostalgia for what has gone —  whether for the imagined authenticity of an agrarian past, or for the lost opportunities of a social-democratic dream that never made landfall on these shores in any case.

Time to think

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.

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