Beyond the Interregnum: From Paroxysm to Peace

by Thomas W. Fraser –

1. Introduction

Writing from the depths of Turi prison at the height of Italian fascism, the neo-Marxist luminary, Antonio Gramsci, silently penned his now infamous Prison Notebooks, in which he inscribed the following declaration: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”[1] Caught adrift in the devastating wake of World War I, assailed by the dismal spiral of the Great Depression and confronted with the mounting spectre of Nazism, one can readily appreciate the historical salience of Gramsci’s declaration. It bespoke an epoch of crisis, a period of unbearable suspension in which the womb of time seemed to convulse beneath the cumulative weight of history. Reflecting on the present, I am compelled to ask: Are we today not confronted with something eerily reminiscent of Gramsci’s fateful interregnum? Are we too not experiencing a paroxysmal convulsion of time? Writing shortly before his death, Bauman explicitly revived the Gramscian category of interregnum in an attempt to highlight what he identified as the crisis of our time, consisting, as he saw it, of the perverse entrenchment of poverty and inequality, institutional atrophy and decay, widespread conflict and social dislocation as well as ecocidal biospheric degradation.[2] In what follows, I shall strive to probe and extend this train of thought by considering, firstly, a broad outline of our prevailing global predicament, followed by a similar treatment of the local. Once having done so, I shall seek to propose a set of considerations crucial, in my estimation, to the present discussion. Most important, I shall argue, is the need for a renewed subjective orientation capable of engendering strategic unity around a minimal set of shared anti-systemic imperatives. However, this will require a fundamental reinvention both of ourselves and of our habitual patterns of intersubjective being.

2. Interregnal Cartography: From the Global to the Local

In the final chapter of their recently co-authored survey of world-systems history, Chase-Dunn and Lerro outline three broad trajectories for the future of humanity, viz: (i) a renewed round of US hegemony, (ii) global collapse and (iii) the consolidation of a global democratic commonwealth.[3] The first of these would consist, in essence, of the reinstatement of US hegemony under an ‘enlightened conservatism’ less prone to unilateral adventurism and more capable of steering multilateral institutions toward greater concern for global equality and co-belonging. The second would consist, by way of contrast, of a perfect storm comprised of continued US hegemonic decline coupled with mounting hegemonic rivalry, economic destabilization and ecocatastrophe. In this case, the combined momenta of conflict and competition would surely overwhelm any conceivable prospect of strategic cooperation, thus entailing a stark regression into full-blown barbarism of the like forewarned by Luxemburg.[4] That being said, the third scenario would consist of an effervescent coalescence of progressive forces across the globe, thus engendering a ‘New Global Left’ capable of steering the tangled vectors of history toward what Shiva has dubbed an ‘Earth democracy’ founded upon the twin pillars of radical sustainability and democratization.[5] In my estimation, it is this latter trajectory toward which we should aspire. In truth, however, honest scrutiny reveals an indeterminate comingling of all three trajectories, with no single observer able to state with absolute certainty which will ultimately prevail. Alas, the fate of futurity hangs in the balance.

Further complicating matters is the added ingredient of subjective disorientation, which a number of contemporary observers have identified as one of the defining features of our time. According to this line of argument, the progressive onslaught of capitalist modernity has, over the span of centuries, been accompanied by a corresponding erosion of subjective consistency across the globe, dissolving the grounding coordinates of tradition in what Marx and Engels once aptly termed the ‘icy water of egotistical calculation.[6] To paraphrase an oft-quoted refrain: all that is solid has melted into air, all that is holy has been profaned, and humanity itself is finally reduced to a bewildered husk set turbulently adrift amidst raging seas. According to Badiou, the dominant response to this predicament has consisted of a perilous fusion of nihilism and conservatism, the former seeking solace in the momentary ecstasy of hedonic trivia and the latter groping after the seeming stability offered by existing power structures.[7] Politically speaking, this combination has functioned as a potent catalyst of false contradiction, giving rise, on the one hand, to explosive episodes of localised resistance incapable of enduring beyond the ecstatic ephemera of negative revolt,[8] and, on the other, to reactionary formations intent on resurrecting the longed-for promise of an obscure ‘golden age’. [9] In this manner, the all too often fruitless blossoming of new social movements has become lamentably commonplace alongside the simultaneous spread of neo-fascist ethno-nationalisms and populist authoritarianisms across the globe.[10] Coupled with this has been an increasingly narcissistic preoccupation with parochial identity formations as well as a corresponding slew of superficial culture wars.[11] In the meantime, the myriad pathologies borne of this chaotic brew are routinely exploited as the forces of capital spiral ever further into auto-cannibalization,[12] threatening not only humanity but the entire tapestry of life.[13]

To what extent are these dynamics legible within our local milieu? Apart from the points already touched on above, it has become increasingly evident that the negotiated settlement of 94’ has largely failed the vast majority of South Africans. For many, this is the logical outcome of what Saul has dubbed the ‘false decolonisation’ of South Africa, the result of which has been the well-documented cascade of consequences now discernible in retrospect, including the hollowing out of the state through corruption, the corporatization of the public sphere, the weakening of progressive labour movements, the racialized entrenchment of poverty and inequality as well as deepening ecological decay. [14] The cumulative logic of this stream of causation was tragically foregrounded during the Marikana Massacre of 2012, an incident which has forced many to confront, in the words of Satgar, “the hard edge of violence fluxing through our stressed social fabric.”[15] At present, we exist largely within the shadow of this sordid legacy, stuck with a corrupt, incompetent and dysfunctional ruling party notorious for talking left and walking right as well as a national opposition dominated, on the one hand, by a centre-right formation uncomfortably tolerant of colonial apologetics and, on the other, by a faux-radical formation fuelled by historical ressentiment and mired in racially chauvinistic populist authoritarianism. The recent displacement of Zuma and consequent foregrounding of the so-called ‘land question’ within public awareness presents an intriguing juncture fraught with risk and opportunity; however, critical circumspection would appear to suggest that we are simply on track for more of the same, with many of Ramaphosa’s recent declarations signalling continuity with business as usual.[16]

Given the above, how might one situate today’s left? Echoing Lenin, we remain stuck as ever with the defining question of ‘What is to be done?’

3. Thinking beyond the Impasse

Do I pretend to have solutions to the problems outlined above? Not at all. Do I even pretend to understand the full depth and complexity of the crisis itself? Certainly not. To begin with, the portrait outlined above is as reflective of me as it is of those aspects of reality I have sought to describe. I cannot be certain of the precise extent of my own ignorance. I am a fallible observer imbued with a finite and selective grasp of reality. As such, any portrait I produce is inevitably bound to be riddled with all manner of error and distortion. It pains me to judge the world around me because I cannot trust in the soundness of my own judgement to begin with. Even more so, it pains me to recommend pathways for humanity because I cannot anticipate whether such recommendations might inadvertently reproduce the very chaos we seek to avoid. To tell you the truth, I am in a certain sense paralyzed, and this perhaps has to do with the crisis of subjective disorientation alluded to above. Perhaps this is nothing more than an elaborate projection. Perhaps it is part projection and part reality – I cannot be entirely sure. When reflecting upon this dilemma, I am constantly haunted by the old biblical refrain, “if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”[17] In the spirit of introspection, I would therefore like to propose the following: in order to transcend the prevailing impasse, it shall be necessary to formulate a minimal set of shared anti-systemic [18] imperatives capable of forging strategic unity among heterogeneous forces and actors across multiple scales of complexity, from the local to the global; from my perspective, such a set should include, at minimum, the principles of (a) radical sustainability, (b) radical democratization, (c) radical universalism and (d) radical nonviolence. In my thinking, one could in fact regard these as minimal axiomatic preconditions for a future world capable of nurturing a sustainable just peace – anything less will inevitably tend toward chaos and violence.

More fundamentally, however, this kind of transition will also require a simultaneous inner revolution, a radical reinvention both of ourselves and of our habitual patterns of interrelationality, for how else could we possibly work toward a more beautiful world? In this regard, we must be willing to reach into the depths of our souls to discover the wounds inscribed within our own being; we must work consciously and courageously through the traumatic blemishes of our inner fabric in order to escalate our capacity for mindful and compassionate engagement. We must ensure that the intention underlying our desire for change stems not from the inner poisons of greed, hatred and delusion but from the antidotes of generosity, compassion and wisdom. In other words, the transcendence of our current predicament requires a simultaneous transcendence of ourselves, and I feel that this dimension is all too often overlooked in our eager zeal to diagnose and manipulate the outer world – this goes for those on all sides of the political spectrum, ‘left’ and ‘right’ alike. To quote Gandhi, “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.” [19] Consequently, should we wish to transform the world, we should likewise transform those aspects of ourselves symptomatic of the world we wish to transform – inner and outer transformation must go hand in hand, lest we wish to externalize and reproduce the very wounds we seek to heal. In light of this, I contend that the full scope of what we wish to achieve runs far deeper than simple structural intervention in the outer world. On the contrary, the skilled outer hand requires a mature inner gaze – without the former, the latter cannot sculpt its vision, and without the latter, the former is bound to go astray.

4. Conclusion

In conclusion, I have argued that today’s crisis consists of a mix of factors ranging from the spiritual to the socio-ecological. As has been suggested, the fate of futurity hangs in the balance and the ultimate outcome will depend on our capacity to galvanize strategic unity around a minimal set of shared anti-systemic imperatives including, as I have suggested, radical sustainability, democratization, universalism and non-violence. Admittedly, there is nothing particularly striking or original about this line of argument, and although multiple proposals for implementation may be derived from these anti-systemic imperatives, it has not been my primary purpose to formulate such a proposal; instead, my purpose has been more abstract and general in nature. In addition to the preceding, I have likewise argued that the transformation of our outer world shall require a simultaneous transformation of our inner worlds and that the latter is, in a sense, even more fundamental than the former, as it serves as an existential precondition for unfolding our chosen axioms in a manner prefiguratively consistent with the kind of world we seek to realize. In closing, therefore, I would like to say the following: let our politics strive to transform the world for the better, but let it also be imbued with the capacity to love truly, wisely and without boundary.


[1] Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks.

[2] Bauman, “Times of Interregnum.”

[3] Chase-Dunn and Lerro, “The Next Three Futures: Another Round of US Hegemony, Global Collapse, or Global Democracy?”

[4] Luxemburg, “The Crisis of German Social Democracy (The Junius Pamphlet).” 5 Shiva, Earth Democracy.

[5] By ‘subjective consistency’, I refer to the manner in which we as individuals and collectives understand our place and purpose in the world. Consequently, ‘subjective disorientation’ refers to the fragmentation of subjective consistency, that is, a state of individual and collective bewilderment.

[6] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto.

[7] Badiou, The True Life: A Plea for Corrupting the Young.

[8] Think, for instance, of the likes of Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring and even Fees Must Fall, all of which were indeed explosive yet failed to progress beyond the point of negative revolt and, by extension, to assemble positive structures of enduring consequence.

[9] Think, for instance, of Trumpism and the call to ‘Make America Great Again’ as well the often-regressive urge to recover some or other ‘pure’ form of native identity here at home – a pitfall explicitly cautioned against by the likes of Aimé Césaire and Franz Fanon

[10] In this regard, I would insist on highlighting that these stirrings of neo-fascist ethno-nationalism and populist authoritarianism are evident both on the right and the so-called ‘left’. Apart from the more overt instances observable in Europe and the US, I would argue that even here at home, supposedly ‘progressive’ forces such as the EFF often exhibit highly disconcerting tendencies toward populist authoritarianism.

[11] One need only peruse the media, both mainstream and alternative, to derive samples of this. For instance, consider the predominantly vacuous debates currently surrounding figures such as Jordan Peterson. Likewise, consider the increasing polarization of struggle around identitarian axes of determination, with racial and gendered parochialisms often degenerating into dialogues of the deaf.

[12] A stark instantiation of this may be observed in the US, where big-pharma has unscrupulously fuelled an ongoing opioid crisis even as the NRA seeks to exploit rolling waves of moral panic induced by the cultural pathology of mass shootings – all in the name of a quick buck.

[13] Angus, Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System; Satgar, “The Anthropocene and Imperial Ecocide: Prospects for a Just Transition.”

[14] Saul, “The Apartheid Endgame, 1990–1994.”

[15] Satgar, “The Marikana Massacre and the South African State’s Low Intensity War against the People.”

[16] Satgar, “South Africa Must Resist Another Captured President: This Time by the Markets.” 18 Lenin, What Is to Be Done.

[17] “Matthew 15:14.”

[18] Following the logic outlined in Arrighi, Hopkins, and Wallerstein, Anti-Systemic Movements., I intend by ‘anti-systemic’ those movements intent on opposing and resisting the dominant forces and relations of social determination in a given era.

[19] Gandhi, “General Knowledge about Health XXXII: Accidents Snake-Bite.”


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———. “The Anthropocene and Imperial Ecocide: Prospects for a Just Transition.” In The Climate Crisis: South African and Global Ecosocialist Alternatives, edited by Vishwas Satgar, 47–67. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2018.
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