THE CRISIS OF POLITICS ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION

by Aug 10, 2023Amandla 88, Feature

IN JULY, AMANDLA! BROUGHT TOGETHER A GROUP OF YOUNG, SOCIALIST ACTIVISTS TO DISCUSS THE CRISIS OF POLITICS IN AN OPEN-ENDED ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION. We chose this format because we wanted to dig deeper than usually happens in a public panel situation. We wanted a more reflective conversation, in which we listen and respond to one another, rather than delivering prepared positions. Underlying the convening of the roundtable was an understanding that, in the face of many of the particular problems that we face in this country, and our region, there seems to be a lack of a political perspective and strategy. We are acutely aware that the gender balance of the group was extremely undesirable. We tried to correct it and failed.

AMANDLA!: In South Africa, there is not just a set of intersecting and reinforcing crises of the socio-economic and ecological. There is a crisis of politics. What is your understanding of the nature of the crisis of politics in South Africa? 

Dominic Brown: While there may be some specificities around the nature of the crisis of politics in South Africa, I think it’s a global phenomenon. My understanding of it at a level of principle is that the social subjective forces and consciousness, and levels of organisation, as well as the strategy and tactics of organisations, are not at a level to address the deepening socioeconomic and intersecting ecological crises. And this intersects with a kind of delegitimisation of political institutions and traditional party forms, not least the failures and the collapse of the national liberation movements within the African context. This then creates a distrust of the institutions of representative democracy.

Trevor: For me, we must first assess the objective material conditions and how our subjective interventions have been over the period. And the organisations which represent these interventions, especially for us as working-class activists, have experienced it as a crisis. And it is, of course, the development of the conditions in the country from the triumphalism of 1994 which created these objective conditions. Upon these objective conditions, certain attitudes and behaviours and patterns in the working class movement have developed which have contributed to the crisis.

People are organised, through intermediary institutions such as trade unions, civic organisations, street committees and churches. And it is through their participation in these organisations that they develop a conception of their interests. And all of that has pretty much evaporated.

This triumphalism has led to the capitulation of the leaders of the labour movement, especially at the end of the 1990s, and early 2000s. One of those key capitulations was the establishment of investment arms for the trade union movement. And we’ve seen how these investment arms have played a very treacherous role in the cohesion of the movement itself, both organisationally and programmatically.

They have used such funds to create a patronage so that it is no longer the objective of liberating the working class that is guiding the movement. It is actually how far can we retain ourselves in power. And this goes throughout the whole trade union movement. People are capitulating to the neoliberal globalism of the 90s. And thinking that socialism has failed, they have tried to become creative.

Molaodi wa Sekake: I think it’s also a crisis of imagination globally and locally. The changes that occurred in the 1970s impacted economically. But there was a cultural and an intellectual dimension. For me, the evolution of capitalism goes beyond just an economic dimension. The vocabulary changed from the period of struggle. And the notion of imperialism disappeared from the literature of so-called progressive forces.

If your language of critique is watered down, you’re going to misdiagnose the problem. You tone down your language to accommodate different forces. So a language that offends liberal sensibilities does not find expression in academia, art or literature.

The academy itself began to espouse postmodernist ideas, the ideas of a post-class world, a post-industrial world, post this, post that. Once you accept this vocabulary of post something, there are implications for how we design institutions.

This made it easy for them to become non-executive directors and shareholders in big companies. And then the focus is dividends not development. And that is why the ANC will continue to fail to discipline capital. By disciplining capital, they will be shooting themselves in the foot.

One of the fundamental mistakes is that, as a result, we fail to question the foundational assumptions of our politics. For example, if someone were to enter here and say, guys, do you eat Chicken Licken or Nandos? And we answer either Chicken Licken or Nandos. We leave unattended the assumption that we eat chicken. There could be Dominic who is a vegetarian. Similarly, we fail to challenge cultural, political, and intellectual assumptions.

Lastly, to link business unionism and the whole thing of BEE. Comrades don’t want to talk about how there was a failure to design institutions that are responsive to our conditions, to the working class, to people who are victims of anti-black racism, of patriarchal power relations. This made it easy for them to become non-executive directors and shareholders in big companies. And then the focus is dividends not development. And that is why the ANC will continue to fail to discipline capital. By disciplining capital, they will be shooting themselves in the foot. And therefore, as a result, the notions of popular power, and everything else which was popular-based, ceased to exist. And this is where we are now. And the price is great. Until we challenge the foundational assumptions, then we will continue in this way.

Alex Hotz: When you say crisis of imagination, it implies that for some people who were part of movements for liberation, there was an imagination of something different, something other than capitalism. And I don’t think that existed, actually, in the ANC. And so you find the likes of Johnny Copelyn, Marcel Golding and Cyril Ramaphosa himself in the machinery of, and the foundation of, a neoliberal capitalism.

And I also think it’s a crisis because young people seem to be stuck with old questions – is it race first or is it class? Are we not asking new questions or different questions about where we are at in the country and globe? And then there’s a problem of localisation. We are so focused on the crisis in South Africa, which I think is fundamentally important, that we don’t begin to think what it means if we say we’re a Pan African, for example, or we’re socialist, what does it mean for Africa in general, and globally? I don’t even want to talk about the crisis of a lack of a feminist movement that is outside the ivory towers in South Africa, that has a mass working-class base. It doesn’t exist, unfortunately.

And where are the younger people? You see the building of EFF student command, you see a renewal of the Youth League or YCL, but where are young people organising outside of those spaces?

Will Shoki: To me, this question of what is the crisis of politics and how do we respond to it begs the question of what is politics, or what politics ought to be. I think the prevailing idea is of mass politics. So people are organized through intermediary institutions such as trade unions, civic organisations, street committees and churches. And it is through their participation in these organisations that they develop a conception of their interests, their place in society, the agency and power that they have to change their individual circumstances.

And all of that has pretty much evaporated. You have a period of sustained demobilisation. People are not only disorganized, they’re atomized. They have no conception of group identity or group solidarity. They can only conceive of political activity in very individualised terms. And so politics becomes impossible. Politics is done through collectives, through collective interest formation. And there is the neoliberal assault on those traditionally left-wing organisations, which have now been bleeding membership numbers and collapsed under the weight of the assault.

And so you see the birth of populist movements which have emerged to fill the void. That’s the only resource that political organisation has at its disposal at the moment. Because people are disorganised. And I think that the crisis of politics today is one where the typical vocabulary that we would have used has become obscured. Class is more and more remote in our lexicon. And in place of class, we have different identities, under the rise of identity politics.

It’s a global phenomenon. It’s very hard to answer how we respond to it because so much of it is the result of historical and deep structural forces that are difficult to undo. How do you mobilise in the age of demobilisation and organise in the age of disorganisation?

Dominic Brown: In South Africa there’s also this kind of disaffection. For example, if you speak to many working-class people, there will be a consciousness that privatisation is a problem. But at the same time, there’s a defeatist, fatalist attitude, that there’s no real alternative. And I think organization and consciousness connect in this way, and it raises the question of strategy and tactics.

There are other objective factors to consider. For example, the premature deindustrialization of the South African economy. And that relates to the hollowing out of the trade union movement. Then there’s the precariatisation of work and the failure to think about strategy and tactics and organisational form. How do you organize these new kinds of people in these new kinds of work?

AMANDLA!: But don’t you think, when we think about the crisis of the Left, it’s also about not coming to terms with some of those structural systemic changes within capitalism? Is it a failure by us to come to terms with the changing nature of imperialism? Neoliberal globalisation is the force that’s against us. What are our perspectives and strategies to deal with that? And maybe thinking this through within the confines of the nation state is somehow limiting, and contributing to the challenges we face.

Dominic Brown: I think that’s quite critical. We don’t do a thorough analysis, We become very formulaic – we need to have socialism, we say. But we don’t have any sense of what it would take to win it, in a context where the balance of forces is so daunting.

I also think that, because of the nightmare of Stalinism, we as the Left have become post-statists. We’re scared the state inherently means authoritarianism. So the state isn’t even seen as an arena within which to engage anymore. But how are you going to resolve the ecological crisis or achieve a basic income grant without the state?

Alex Hotz:  I think it’s a mistake to assume that the working-class masses perceive privatization as inherently a problem. It presupposes that a mass of people understand how we are formulating the role of the state. And I don’t think that people have that grasp. So when mining companies come to people and say, we are going to build a road for you. We are going to build a school for you. They say yes, yes, because the state is not doing that. We make assumptions, but the groundwork and the actual building of consciousness and organising is not happening, to challenge basic assumptions.

Will Shoki: I think there’s another assumption that is entrenched in South African left histories. I often wonder how embedded the organisations of the anti-apartheid movement actually were in working-class life and communities. They certainly mobilized communities against apartheid. But it seems inexplicable that masses that were previously mobilised will become so quickly demobilized.

A lot of the challenges that we’re facing today, we associate with the democratic moment and the demobilizing tendencies of the ANC’s neoliberal project. But what if it predates that? It seems to me for a long time “the Left” has related to “the working class” as this amorphous mass that is out there, that is our responsibility to organise and conscientise. But it’s never reached that level of penetration.

Trevor Shaku: I think the level of mobilisation never really saturates to the very deep roots in any historical period. But in the 70s and 80s, I think the ideas of liberation saturated to a significant extent, although not as deep as was needed. There was this level of consciousness in the working class. I see it by observing the different generations of shop stewards. The older generation, who now may be organisers, are quite armed with those ideas. If you compare them with the shop stewards of today, they are qualitatively different.

When people feel that they’ve arrived where they were going, necessarily they can begin to get integrated in the structures of the particular political, economic institutions which emerge with that triumphalism. And post-1994 it meant, therefore, that those who were fighting were absorbed into the economic, cultural and political institutions.

The crisis for me is a crisis of organisation, and it’s a crisis of leadership. And, of course, these two crises are underpinned by the objective factors, the historical, practical, and even economic changes which have occurred since 1994. In this context, when we say that there is disorganization, I think we are making a mistaken assumption. The right-wing populism, the rise of various groupings in our communities, represent organisation. It’s a question of what type of organisation. What is missing here is an organisation that is armed with a proper programme. And as a result, those types of organisations are taking the space.

AMANDLA!: When you talk about the working class, what are we talking about today in the world and in South Africa? You can organise a class much easier when there’s a big industrial base. But the kind of de- classed society that is the so called working class today, I think is a major challenge for us.

Molaodi wa Sekake: I think you are correct. People are talking about advances in technology which profoundly change the world of work, where there is no need for labour in the traditional sense. We really need to apply our minds to what is occurring with digitalisation, AI, etc.

As far as our as our organising capacity as left groups is concerned, we collectively agree that we have a crisis. People were making a mockery of the Cosatu stay away. Was it a stay-away or what? There is an inability to organise the working class. And it goes back to the nature of the working class that we want to organise. There is the changing nature of work. The traditional working class that has to wake up at four or five, go to work and come back, is dissipating. Of course, in our country that’s not yet as ripe as it is in other states.

But I just want to go to the notion of consciousness and political action. We tend to think the lived experience of being exploited automatically imbues one with political consciousness. Capitalism exploits the entire working-class population. But even those who are exploited do not have that political sensibility of exploitation. So there is no automatic connection between exploitation and political consciousness. If there was, then we wouldn’t be sitting here. And that is why that gap has to be filled by political education, and ideological training. 

Dominic Brown: I agree with you that we can’t take for granted that the working class has a working-class consciousness. But if your organisation cannot provide a response to improve the material conditions and material benefits to those individuals, then it’s a rational decision for them then to say, I’m going to fend for myself.

Alex Hotz: I don’t know if that’s the reason people join organisations. I don’t know if that’s correct.

Will Shoki: I think it’s not just a matter of presenting. I think we’ve often thought that it’s the alternative that we present to people that’s going to convince them. I think that the alternative is important, the programme is important, but it’s also the work of organizing, and the hard graft of trying to do political education.

Dominic Brown:  I’m not disagreeing with you. But we’re not going to be able to do political education with anybody, because no one’s going to come to me for political education, except the people coming for a meal. They want to know what you are going to offer. So it’s the way to organise. And that’s why people join trade unions because they can have their work protected.

AMANDLA!: Zwelinzima Vavi says we must organise the unorganised. We must stop fighting over the 27% already organised. And the leaders of Cosatu, and Irvin Jim, say the same. But nothing happens. And then we hear that we must solve the problem with political education. Comrades have said it today. We don’t seem to attach our analysis of what the problem is to a strategic way of beginning to address it. 

Trevor Shaku: We need to move from the abstract to our own social and historical reality. Firstly, the source of the crisis of organisation of the Left is the SACP. It continuously justifies the tying of workers to an organisation that has become openly capitalist, the ANC. And that is causing confusion. When I was Regional Secretary of Sadtu, they added me to a group called Cosatu NDR. In that group, they erected a Chinese or Berlin wall between the ANC and government. So workers end up thinking that the privatisation, the austerity measures, the problems of corruption are just a problem of government, not of the ANC. The ANC is still the champion of the NDR. We will not see any other route towards socialism, except that.

The second problem is these other left organisations which have been divided by minute differences on ideological grounds. That actually leads to fragmentation at the level of leadership. Currently, for instance, the differences continue to fragment the Working Class Summit, which Saftu is spearheading.

And then there is an encroachment of identitarian politics into the movement. There is a need to strike a balance between recognising that the struggles intersect, and intersectional politics. In my view, these are qualitatively different. As a Marxist, I acknowledge that struggles intersect. But I’m not an intersectionalist. An intersectionalist is a person who subscribes to identitarian politics. And fragmentation is embedded inherently in that ideology.

Alex Hotz: Thank you Comrade Shaku, because I am an intersectionalist. I think that there is a problem in our historical conception of who left organisations are, because we understand it from the perspective that we are Marxist or socialist. And we don’t want to deal with other organisations who have been able to mobilise working-class people maybe ideologically somewhat differently.

So if we look pre-94, why is there a rise of the BCM or Pan African organisations which attract black working-class people, instead of an SACP or Wasp? We don’t group these organisations as potentially left. And we don’t really interact with them. We say they’re identitarian, so we reject them.

Often traditional Marxists have a position that it is either class or it’s race. You say, as a Marxist, we must distinguish between understanding that there are intersecting power dynamics, and being intersectional. As feminist Marxists, we have to say that men, and particularly the Marxist tradition, haven’t always been able to grapple with the crisis of social reproduction, and the ways in which women are exploited, especially working-class black women. That is often missing in our conceptions of work and exploitation – the idea of care work and the free labour of women.

Black radical politics have grappled with the question of dehumanisation. The Marxist tradition, a very doctrinal Marxist tradition in this country, has not been able to deal with how racial capitalism has dehumanized black people, and black women in particular. So the intersectional and intersecting have emerged as a tension to fight that, by talking bout intersecting power dynamics. 

Molaodi wa Sekake: I think Trevor was pointing to the implications of the cultural logic of post-modernism, which results in a crisis of organisation where reality is something you can’t pin down. History is not so important, class solidarity is irrelevant. Without having this comprehensive, coherent understanding of the power structure of oppression, it becomes very difficult to organise.

So, we will be more like issue-based organisations. Say we have three demands, water, electricity and sewage. We are ten people. We are marching. The first three are for a crisis of sewage. We resolve the case of sewage. We go ahead. Electricity crisis, we resolve it. Those who were crying about water remain behind. We arrive there, two of us. So it creates a crisis of organisation because we don’t have a coherent understanding of the neoliberal capitalist system.

But we must not discount the need for black people to express their pain, if that’s what we mean by an identity kind of politics. The reality is that colonialism and slavery considered certain people non-beings. What are the implications of that for us organising our society? What form should our politics take to respond to that? I think that is what we need to come up with.

Will Shoki: I think all of us subscribe to an idea that the way to build left politics and a counter-hegemonic political project in this country is to discern what is the minimum social programme that we all envision. It needs to be a pole of attraction for all of us in the diversity of our traditions and experiences. What is the minimum programme? What is our theory of change?

Part of the crisis is that we don’t have an answer to that. In fact there’s disagreement about some things that maybe 20 or 30 years ago would have been taken for granted. For example, I think people of good sense now wouldn’t discount the importance of acknowledging the experience of anti-black racism. You can organise around class in ways that acknowledge the importance of race, gender, and patriarchy, acknowledging that class is not merely social location in an economic system. It’s all of the different identities you bring to bear in that position. But that wouldn’t have been taken for granted in the past.

There was a time when people would take for granted that to be on the Left means that you believe that class is the main point of social antagonism in society. The agent of revolution is the industrialised working class, or the working class in general. The agents of revolution move through a class in itself to a class for itself. But I think now that’s what’s obscured.

Dominic Brown: Firstly, for me what’s critical is that class permeates throughout all forms of oppression. And of course oppression can take place without class being central to it. But if you address that form of oppression without dealing with the issue of class, you may end up reproducing or perpetuating iniquitous power structures.

Secondly, race, particularly in the South African context, is a major issue of consciousness of people. And it’s connected to the issue of oppression and exploitation in a deep way. Is it therefore not easier to attract people on the basis of their blackness, and organise around that, as opposed to the issue of class? If you see your oppression and exploitation through your identity, let’s organise around identity.

Thirdly, I don’t think you’ll ever see a point where the majority is in organisation, or in left organisation in particular. The question must be what is the critical mass. Because outside of organisation, how are you able to transform things, shift the hegemony within a society, and change the consciousness? It’s not just going to happen spontaneously.

Fourthly, I think we need to be more rigorous in our analysis of capitalism. We use easy terms that have been used for 50 or 100 years without actually saying what we mean. What role does finance capital play, in terms of its implications for our struggles? How does the state work in relation to transnational capital? And what does that mean for our struggle nationally, regionally and internationally?

Lastly, I do believe at some level, you need to have what you’re calling for, Will. A kind of united front approach. But I don’t think it’s enough.

Will Shoki: I’m asking what is the minimum programme that we think defines the Left’s identity? I think the Left should have a lot more confidence in saying that in substance what the EFF is saying, that’s not left. We acknowledge that and we move on. It’s that kind of abstract definitional work that informs the programmatic strategic work on who we think we can approach as allies. Otherwise, we may make a category mistake of thinking certain things are left when actually they are not.

Alex Hotz: I also want to challenge a lot of left people who say that the EFF is fascist. I think that’s deeply problematic. If we are saying the position of the EFF is anti-democratic, we could make the same diagnosis actually of many left formations – the SRWP and Numsa, for example.

I also think it’s problematic to equate Blackwash, September National Imbizo and such organisations with the Patriotic Alliance. You might disagree with people like Andile Mngxitama, but there were many progressive positions to push people, especially in the

Left, to think about race much more theoretically and thoroughly than they have been. I don’t think the Patriotic Alliance has an intellectual capacity.

There’s not an anti-capitalist bone in their body. Maybe thuggery is their theoretical basis.

On the intersectionality debate, let’s stop using the word intersectionality because it’s intellectually lazy. We use it as a scapegoat instead of dealing with the theoretical issues of feminism and how it actually also deeply challenges our understanding of oppression and power within a capitalist, racist, patriarchal society.

There are important contributions that decolonial feminism, Marxist feminism, that a black radical feminism have made to push a socialist, anti-capitalist politics, internationally. The Combahee River Collective, for example, pushes our understanding about capitalism and patriarchy as a system of oppression that is deeply embedded and rooted in capitalism.

We’re talking about the crisis of capitalism and trying to understand capitalism. But we haven’t even begun to grapple with why gender-based violence is so deeply embedded in neoliberal capitalism currently.

I think this is a particular moment. I think we have to think about how to organise and not just theoretically.

Dominic Brown: I think the moment requires us to think quite deeply and to discuss quite a bit about what form of organisation, how are we going to do things, not to deal with just the abstraction.

Trevor Shaku: The conversation must continue, I agree. But it should be clear that we want to organise.

Race, particularly in the South African context, is a major issue of consciousness of people. And it’s connected to the issue of oppression and exploitation in a deep way. Is it therefore not easier to attract people on the basis of their blackness, and organise around that, as opposed to the issue of class? 

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