Rethinking Ernesto Laclau (III): Lessons for South Africans.

October 7, 2013

Laclau seems like something of an irrelevancy for South Africans. We were rather busy overthrowing apartheid while he was celebrating the collapse of Communism. (The extreme right claims that apartheid was purely and solely an anti-Communist project). Few of us were Trotskyites, and postmodernism never gained much of a political footing (except, again, among the extreme right, who found, like Balkan nationalists, that postmodern identity politics could be employed very well to provide intellectual support for their racism). So the opinions of a postmodern Trotskyite about the collapse of Communism and the ultimate wrongness of Marxism don’t seem to have much impact on us.

However, it’s what Laclau says, and the way that he says it, that matters, because it helps to explain the way people of that ilk think. Most probably, the big issue here is that most people who are actually in Laclau’s court pretend not to be — but in 1990 it was trendy to sound as reactionary as that; nowadays even Zizek pretends to be a leftist (except when he’s backing fascism in the Balkans, of course). Thus when we look at Laclau we can see what may be going on behind the masks of contemporary pseudo-leftists who resemble him.

It’s not, however, a simple matter. There are several “lefts” within South Africa and in many organisations they are blended together. Virtually all of these “lefts” appear to have a grand central legitimating narrative — the pursuit of freedom and equality, in essence. It is the way in which freedom and equality are pursued which distinguishes these “lefts”, although the fact that they all have the same discursive objective — which doesn’t mean that they have the same actual objective — may mean that they can work together. Laclau’s argument against any kind of central authority or any central legitimating narrative might thus seem to distinguish these “lefts” from Laclau’s point of view.

But is this the case? The liberal “left” pursues the goal of freedom for the rich — focussing, via neoliberalism, on the rights of capital, and via constitutionalism, on the absolute authority of the laws which the rich have had drawn up to serve their interests, and the judges whom the rich have trained and hired to serve their interests. Equality in this case means that everybody has the right to spend their wealth with equal freedom, and everybody has equal obligation to obey those laws which apply to them — an equality which happens to mean that the rich are essentially unrestrained by anything and the poor are restricted by vast hedges of prohibitive ordinances. We can thus see here that abstractions on the liberal “left” are used to justify actual, concrete repressive practices, and also to conceal that those practices are repressive. This is perhaps clumsier than Laclau’s position, but it is something which he would, to a large extent, endorse.

It is not surprising that our liberal “left” has echoes of Laclau’s position, given that Laclau is basically a neoliberal in Marxist drag. Another major issue for the liberal “left” is democracy, which Laclau also endorses as the ultimate political goal, and in this case the liberal “left” sees democracy as the right of the people to give power to a small cabal chosen by the liberal “left”, a cabal whose narrow policies, all serving ruling-class interests, are dictated by the liberal “left” and where there is essentially no place for debate or discussion. This might seem unsympathetic to Laclau, who claims to constantly desire debate and discussion — but since Laclau is hostile to all collective political positions aimed at pursuing a clearly-defined goal (these being therefore grand narratives) he would actually be quite comfortable with a totalitarian system provided that it did not overtly require public acts of submission. (Laclau and the neoliberals both approve of public acts of submission to totalitarianism which are made on an ostensibly individual basis, and which are therefore, in liberal terms, free choices.)

The Stalinist tradition informing the Charterist movement might seem anathematic to Laclau. Indeed, it is again ostentatiously a pursuit of grand narratives, and ones which — unlike the liberal ones — bear some relationship to political reality and practice. The ANC’s narrative circles around “a better life for all” courtesy of “growth, employment and redistribution” of wealth and power. COSATU’s narrative circles around “decent work for decent pay” against a backdrop of incoherent distrust of big business and the “neoliberals” who are identified as sell-outs within the ANC. The SACP’s narrative is still less coherent, amounting to the pursuit of socialism through a “national democratic” process and a similar incoherent distrust of big business. All these grand narratives, although they appear to have defined ends and means, are actually so flexible as to be virtually meaningless.

The practice of Stalinism is to take the shortest, crudest road to an immediate political or socio-economic goal — which, interestingly, resembles the “problem-solving” approach which Laclau favours. Under traditional Stalinism, however, the process of perpetually cutting the Gordian knot — whether by squeezing the peasants, massacring the middle class or the landlords, or building gigantic engineering projects with forced labour — is aimed at introducing the prerequisites for a socialist state under continual attack from capitalist powers (which attacks provide additional legitimacy for Stalinist policies). Stalinism’s small-scale problem-solving, therefore, was aimed at trying to attain a far grander objective — the liberation of the global working class. Now that this liberation is no longer a goal, Stalinist practices and problem-solving activities have to be justified on their own terms, and the brutality and repression involved is no longer legitimated by any real grand narrative. Although the language of the Stalinist movement in South Africa remains idealist, the actual practice of the Tripartite Alliance belies this — at best it is the small-scale problem-solving activity of Laclau’s politics, and more often than not, what appears to be small-scale problem-solving is actually intended not to solve problems such as poor service delivery or a lack of infrastructure, but simply to enrich individuals and entrench their control of patronage. This is the core problem with Laclau’s ideological hostility to idealism, that without idealism corruption and greed go unchallenged, and it is being worked out in practice here.

But what of the far left which is largely disempowered and therefore can still be seen as idealist? The bulk of this far left is Trotskyite (incorporating anarchists in this general category) and therefore Laclau is speaking to them more than to anyone else. He wants them to abandon grand narratives (such as Trotsky approved of) and pursue fractured and short-term goals.

Like the Stalinists, South African Trotskyites have eschewed all serious critique of capitalism — although this was relatively easy to do since they did not do this in the past. They have, however, also gradually moved away from their traditional critique of Stalinism towards focussing on attacking the ANC. Such attacks are rarely based on large issues — except in a rhetorical sense, where the ANC is denounced as having sold out to capitalism — sometimes legitimately, within the narrow terms of the accusation, but often these denunciations are false and rooted in the ignorance and prejudice of the audience for the attacks.

The positive side of Trotskyism, however, has been devoted to smaller problem-solving. Providing antiretrovirals, providing housing, securing the rights of shackdwellers and protecting the rights of people to establish illegal electrical connections, and securing the right of newspapers to publish officially secret information, are all comparatively trivial issues in themselves. Not that they are insignificant, nor that they could not be used to build a serious organisation, but this could only be done, and they could only really be made significant, through situating such individual things within a broader socio-economic analysis (which in Trotskyite terms ought to be a Marxist one).

Instead, all these individual activities, each usually pursued by a small clique within the small clique which is South African Trotskyism, have been pursued with scant reference to any broader goal relating to the left. Providing antiretrovirals was partly aimed at damaging the leadership of the ANC and partly at enriching the manufacturers of the drugs. “Providing housing” turns out to mean attacking the actual providers of housing without generating any broad alternative. The rights of shackdwellers turns out to entail the rights of a narrow cabal of shacklords who seek power over the marginalised in society, without any effort to transform the system which leaves people in shacks. (Such an effort would require supporting socialised, state-sponsored housing.) Protecting illegal electrical connections is simply an attempt to exploit the desire of the public to have access to electricity without paying (but meanwhile there is no Trotskyite criticism of the corporatisation of the electricity system and the corruption which has come to pass in recent years). The right of newspapers to publish secret information might benefit foreign secret services, but also empowers newspapers which form portions of massive corporate entities, some of them transnational. This appears to be little more than mischief-making against the government, but it is also couched in terms which inevitably benefit large corporations.

This suggests that where the left abandons its principles and its all-embracing explanatory concepts, as Laclau desires, it does not become a more productive force of dissent. Instead, it becomes an empty vessel which is easily captured by the rich and powerful. Postmodern politics is not liberatory, it is, instead, enslaved. The purpose of postmodern political intellectuals is to conceal that enslavement, or to justify it (Laclau does both). The end product of this kind of politics is the shadow of a political organisation without any substance.  Behind the posturing and rhetoric of the South African left (whether Trotskyite or Stalinist or liberal) is nothing more than the desire for gain of one sort or another — there could be nothing else when there are no actual coherent left-wing goals or any techniques to attain those goals. And, since the right wing has both money and goals and techniques, inevitably the left wing finds itself captivated by the right wing agenda — and is equipped with all manner of sophistries to enable it to do this without acknowledging that it has done so. Hence the left in our era is little more than an appendage of capital.

Today, for instance, Rob Davies, once a trade unionist, now a Minister in charge of servicing corporate capital. Today he was babbling on in response to some leftists who were babbling on about how his policies do not serve the interests of the people (of course they don’t, they aren’t intended to). The leftists did not actually present a coherent critique of Davies’ policies (presumably leftists are no longer capable of such complex actions) but nevertheless Davies was sufficiently stung to start blathering about “outmoded shibboleths” such as socialism, egalitarianism and the right to decent pay for decent work. Like Laclau (and like Tony Blair and every other traitor rotting the left away from within) Davies combined meaningless rhetoric with empty promotion of novelty. The power of the “new” and the condemnation of the “outmoded” means that we need no longer pay any attention to the facts — only to the image.

And this is the branding problem we must cope with.