An emancipatory politics for today: Resistance & Prefiguring the future in the present

By Dominic Brown

In post-Apartheid South Africa, we see the deepening of the social and economic ills facing our society including, growing inequality, unemployment and an ecological crisis in the form of droughts and floods. These multifaceted, interconnected crises reinforce and exacerbate each other leading to the unraveling of our social fabric. This phenomenon is not unique to South Africa.


Whilst we see the deepening of the crisis facing civilisation, we also see the re-emergence of a crisis in capitalism, this is not new. However, Samir Amin and others argue that unlike previous capitalist crises, this time there is no way for capitalism to continue as it has in the past by mutating in order to extricate itself from its current impasse. Istvan Meszaros attributes this to the current crisis being a structural one, unlike previous conjunctural crises. This is because unlike previous crises, the ecological question in the epoch of the anthropocene means that any attempt by capital to extricate itself from this crisis, with its inherent insatiable need for expansion and overproduction to maximise profits will result in humanity’s total destruction. This necessitates urgent and radical change.


Unfortunately, the inner logic of capitalism means that it will do whatever it can to prolong its rule. Therefore, in order to move away from the current paradigm demands the building of a counter power that can counterpose the hegemony of capital. Building a counter power in the context of increasing concentration of corporate and financial power will require the development of a new emancipatory politics.


New Politics?

On the Left, there is nothing as old, as talking about new politics. The talk mostly bears very little real change in content or form. In order to move beyond this needs creative thinking, experimentation and a disregard for the fear of failure. In experimenting, we should be adopting multiple strategies that can work in conjunction with each other in order to move from where we are now to new ways of living.


This implies the need to support the rebuilding of independent, dynamic, strong popular movements across a pluralism of terrains, including in education and youth, the workplace and amongst the unemployed, urban and rural, arts and culture, as well as sport. In doing so it is essential that we build patiently, with an emphasis on building peoples’ power from below.


Included in these strategies should be ways of resisting oppression and exploitation, as well as attempts at building different forms of living in the present and in a sense, prefiguring the world we want, in the now. At the same time its important to recognise that qualitative changes in production and the intensification of automation has resulted in a change in the agents that can bring about radical change today.


Changing Agents

One of the main developments over the past four decades is the increased precariatisation of people in society. Underlying this is growing unemployment, but also increased casualisation of work. These dynamics in turn have important implications for social struggles against the power of capital. Seen from the perspective of the totality, these struggles do not only take place within the realm of production where workers are pitched against bosses, but it also extends to struggles in other spheres including struggles for remunicipalisation, for the expansion of the commons and in support of indigenous peoples standing up against extractivist transnational corporations. These are all examples of new forms of struggles and of new agents of change. Moving beyond a traditional understanding of the levers of change and decentring the role of the nation state.


Re-municipalism towards Radicalising Democracy

One of the ways to dismantle the power of the nation state is to look toward re-municipalism. Re-municipalism is the fight to reclaim services in order fulfill a public good, particularly at local/ municipal government level. This is important in South Africa, where in the past, many services were delivered by our municipalities. The increased privatisation of these services has meant the deterioration of service delivery and massive job losses given the rise of outsourced work instead, ultimately negatively impacting working class communities who cannot afford to turn to the private sector. Re-municipalising can roll-back many of these attacks on the standard of living in poor communities.


At the same time, over time, re-municipalism has the power to  democratise by dismantling the state’s top-down approach to delivering basic needs to its people. This is critical because when delivering services is left to the nation-state alone, it breeds patronage and corruption. The big state also enables the concentration of capital by mega corporations and thereby reduces states capacity to address citizens’ demands. Re-municipalism is therefore critical in that it changes our understanding of the role of the nation-state.


The fight for remunicipalism decentralises the power, by transferring it to local levels of government. It also promotes direct popular control of society by its citizens through achieving and sustaining a true democracy in municipal assemblies. Face-to-face assemblies of people that come together to formulate public policy on a basis that underscores the principle of each according to their needs. This empowers citizens towards a more radical participatory democracy.


I would like to suggest that vibrant and radical participatory democracy is sacrosanct and would be a fundamental pillar in bringing about real socio-economic change for social justice. Therefore, in building new, we need to safeguard ourselves from the development of a big historical figure, who often find themselves to be above reproach.


Re-municipalism is also important because in removing the state as the main focus of our efforts to change the world, we start looking toward other sites of entry and change.


However, re-municipalism cannot be the only strategy for change. The state will still have an important role to play in addressing major inequality, as well as climate change, issues far too large for local government to do on its own in a just way. Therefore, we cannot ignore the nation state in its entirety but rather, we should be building within the state, outside the state and beyond the state and in doing so hollowing out the state over time.


Tragedy of the commodity, increasing the commons

Re-municipalism promotes the rolling back of the private sector to the public. This is critical in the context of a world that has become increasingly commodified as a result of the growing power of corporations, in what has essentially become the tragedy of the commodity.


The tragedy of the commodity is where nature and the fruits of nature are considered to be a free gift, rather than a tangible part of wealth. This is inherent in a system of production organised around producing for exchange, and the insatiable need to accumulate unabated. This creates and deepens a rift between the way production is organised and the universal ecological metabolism and ultimately results in the depletion of our natural resources, including human beings. In forging a new political practice, it is essential to radically break from a productivist mentality, where the more we produce and the more we accumulate is a measure of wealth and development.


One of the ways  to do this is to reclaim the commons in the fight against increased privatisation so that our resources serve the collective interest of nature of which people are a part. In our efforts to do this, we will be able to decentralise and democratise our natural resources toward decommodifying nature. This is an important step in restoring the harmony between people and our natural environment, and the ecological metabolism of the world. Under these conditions the quality of all life will be improved, increasing the possibility for humans and the world in which we live in to flourish.


These are long term struggles. Given growing unemployment, hunger and the deepening of alienation requires us to develop and struggle for alternatives in the here and now. Demanding urgent radical reforms in key areas that can dramatically alleviate the plight of the oppressed classes towards longer term struggles. Included in this is the need for a just transition from fossil fuels to socially-owned renewable energy, the development of consumer-producer cooperatives, the push for a social wage including a universal basic income grant and intensifying the fight for food sovereignty, etc. These initiatives are also important in changing the forms of ownership in society, transferring it from the individual to social ownership; putting the control over production in the hands of the collective.


The roadmap to Change: False Dichotomies

In charting the way forward it is critical that new social formations are able to develop and entrench new methods of social and political organisation at multiple levels including building movements of social resistance as well as establishing ways of contesting and attaining power today – the latter means that we cannot ignore the role of electoral politics. Real change in the 21st century will require a number of factors, including an electoral vehicle. Elections are not an end itself but should be seen as an integral part in the rebuilding strategy. Particularly in a South African context where there is still belief in going to the polls.


An essential element of party work would be to facilitate the creative and productive inclusion of citizens who are not party members. In so doing, strengthening links between the party and grassroots organisation. The idea is that the party should support and encourage grassroots mobilisation and participation, not in a way that promotes a reciprocal relation between support for the party and social reforms but instead by creating space for grassroots movements to shape parties political programme. More fundamentally radical change will require pressure from below, that starts somewhere and spreads globally.


The problem is that this pressure from below cannot be some horizontal structure because even though this appears to be very democratic, the problem is that it dispenses with any form of accountability, because at the end of the day no one is prepared to take responsibility for a decision that they did not make. Moreover, this kind of structure is limited, in its ability to coordinate systematic and tactical actions on a much broader scale towards its strategic objectives.


This does not mean we need a vanguard. In looking forward, we should also look back. An example of the kind of movement that can inspire us today is the 1905 Revolution and the formation of soviet councils. The soviet councils brought together different sections of Russian society: peasants, soldiers and workers. Today, the building of alliances between workers and the unemployed is critical.


The attack on labour and the right to strike, coupled with increasing business unionism has simultaneously weakened trade unions, whilst also creating extremely hierarchical and bureaucratic structures. Given this, some want to throw the baby out with the bathwater and abandon organising workers altogether. In my view this is a fundamental mistake, instead of giving up on trade unions, its important to support the transformation of trade unions towards a social unionism that connects the struggles of the workplace to the struggles of the community.


In conclusion:


  1. The left is in retreat, many hard fought gains have been rolled back. The balance of forces is not in our favour. Climate change is a major threat and we are one and a half minutes to midnight, the moment when our time runs up. To turn the tide will require a continuous effort, over a consistent period of time. There are no shortcuts, but at the same time given climate change and the immense pressure on working class we require urgent concomitant action.


  1. The collective task of developing new perspectives still lies ahead. No one can claim to have all the answers. Therefore, we should avoid sectarianism at all costs. We should welcome a pluralism of views and perspectives within a framework of emancipatory, anti-capitalist politics, as long as the perspectives do not mitigate against the liberation of the oppressed classes. Allow a hundred flowers to bloom and a thousand schools of thought to flourish.


  1. Renewing the left project for a long-revolution will be a massive task. This can be exhausting, so the question would be how to ensure that the rebuilding of an emancipatory project is creative, fun and espouses radical notions of love and happiness.


  1. All of this requires sustained activist development. This includes political education that assists in building a critical mass of conscious, confident, capable and effective layer of activists who can take forward the massive task that lie ahead, toward advancing revolutionary politics today. In our practice, we need to think about what we can do today to shift the balance of forces, in laying the basis for taking struggle further in the next 5, 10 and 15 years. Thereby, opening up the space to do what may seem too radical or impossible now. Echoing Harnecker, an emancipatory politics today has to be about making the impossible, possible.
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