Thinking freedom

achieving the impossible collectively

Interview with Michael Neocosmos

How would you define counter-power? How does it relate to emancipatory politics?

I don’t think we should make power the starting point for thinking emancipation, particularly a binary notion of power. Whether you are talking about power or counter-power, you are starting from an idea of people’s interests and identities rather than from an idea of universal emancipation. And you end up talking about states and how we relate to them rather than defining human universality in our own terms.

Of course, power is always involved in the arenas and sites where politics takes place. I am concerned, however, that once we use categories of power, even if it is to think about a different way of addressing power, we end up using words and thinking through categories that are not helpful because they are categories through which the state itself thinks. Given that an egalitarian state is an oxymoron, a clear impossibility, any thought of universal equality must attempt to think outside hegemonic (i.e. state) categories.

Our starting point should be that people think, and that collective thought can begin to propose an emancipatory future.

Our starting point should be that people think, and that collective thought can begin to propose an emancipatory future. Drawing on the work of Alain Badiou, Sylvain Lazarus, Jacques Rancière and others, if we start from the assumption that anyone can think, what do we mean?

We can’t simply assume that people’s thoughts are simply a reflection of their social conditions. We can’t assume, for example, that workers are only interested in levels of pay or working conditions, or that women are only interested in families, households or gender relations. Yet this is the overwhelming focus of thinking from within the social sciences, whether on the left or the right. It is assumed that people do not think outside or beyond the limits structured by their social location or place.

What’s more interesting is that in particular conditions of struggle, people sometimes collectively think beyond their interests, beyond place. They think and act a certain kind of equality, a certain kind of universality.

That is what emancipatory political thought consists of, this is where it is located – otherwise politics is just reacting to interests and identities. It’s fundamental today that we think beyond identities, otherwise we will end up killing each other. Wars, particularly nuclear, ones are a distinct possibility today.

Emancipatory politics

What does emancipatory politics look like?

I think that such a politics is always founded on some idea of universal humanity, of equality, of justice, of dignity – these are the requirements for human emancipation. People don’t necessarily think in those terms, but they have the capacity to do so, and if we don’t recognize this we won’t even see it when it happens.

We will not see it because we expect people’s thinking to conform to our pre-existing theoretical categories. If it does not then we assume that people are simply wrong. We must stop thinking along these lines.

Abahlali base Mjondolo, the Durban-based shack-dwellers’ movement, express this best when they say: ‘A person is a person wherever they may come from’. They base their politics on this idea when they confront xenophobia in South Africa.

Emancipatory thought amplifies what people have in common rather than what differentiates us. It embraces universal justice where everyone must be treated in the same way, treated with dignity, equality. This includes directly addressing the social hierarchies made possible by a social division of labour. There is no excuse for paying me – a university professor – that much more than street cleaner.

This is very different to state thinking – even though the western liberal state adheres to some idea of universal ‘Man’. We all know that this idea of the universal is a false one because it applies only to certain people, while the majority of men, women, children and particularly those of darker skin are excluded, colonized and oppressed. Colonialism, with its attendant racism, exterminations and genocides, was founded on such a flawed universalism. This is now well known.

How is this emancipatory politics manifested?

It must be understood that the idea of universal humanity is rarely placed at the centre of politics. This happens only at particular times. It is not a universal feature of popular rebellions, but the fact remains that there is always a certain pressure towards equality when people themselves decide to rebel collectively against their systematic exclusion from a social system, which today is unfettered neoliberal capitalism.

Whether we look at the African slaves’ fight for freedom in 1791 in what is now Haiti, whether we look at national liberation struggles in many African countries from the 1950s onwards, or when we look at more recent struggles such as in South Africa in the 1980s and even more recently, we can observe elements of universalism, of ideas of universality combined to various extents with particularistic ideas which defend interests.

In Haiti, Toussaint Louverture – perhaps the most well-known figure associated with that revolution – did not fight in order to replace white racism by black domination. The idea was to fight against the ownership of people as such because this practice was inhuman.

Toussaint Louverture helped successfully lead the only slave uprising (in 1791) that created the first independent post-colonial state which was both free from slavery.
Toussaint Louverture helped successfully lead the only slave uprising (in 1791) that created the first independent post-colonial state free from slavery.

When Frantz Fanon talks about the emancipatory content of ‘national consciousness’ during the liberation struggle in Algeria in the 1950s, he is not talking nationalism, he is stressing the fact that there cannot be freedom for humanity if some peoples are colonized and subjugated by others. It is as simple as that.

When people in South Africa fought for ‘People’s Power’ in the 1980s, they did not exclude foreigners as is often the case today. The idea of political exclusion is one which is foundational to capitalism, as Marx clearly noted.

It is sometimes asserted that politics is concerned with identifying an enemy. Although this is clearly the case, politics also involves creating or forming a political community, a unity of the politically excluded, hence of necessity it must involve some idea of working together under conditions where all, without exception, are entitled to speak and think. As a result, it broaches the idea of universality. In any case, without achieving unity the enemy cannot be adequately confronted anyway!

What can we learn from Africa?

I would prefer to talk of Africans rather than of Africa as such. ‘Africa’ like ‘Europe’ is implicitly identified with its representatives, with power. Africans must obviously be considered as human beings like everyone else, capable of thought and, as Amilcar Cabral argued, people capable of making history.

One of the most important revolutions of the 18th century, the Haitian revolution (which is effaced in the history books in favour of the American and French revolutions), was led by Africans (people born in Africa) and went further in its thinking of the human than the French revolution, because it recognized the universal idea that no-one should own anyone else as property. The French revolutionaries vacillated on this issue while the American ‘founding fathers’ were directly involved in slavery.

It is critical that we break out of the notion of seeing Africans as victims, rather than as agents, of history.

It is critical that we break out of the notion of seeing Africans as victims, rather than as agents, of history. During the colonial period, Africans such as Lumumba were definitely seen as agents of history, but by the late 1970s, they were more often seen as its victims. Africa was portrayed as a continent of famines, crises, poverty and underdevelopment in which non-government organizations (NGOs) and state interventions were needed as saviours. What could be more neo-colonial than this perspective?

You can see this reflected in South Africa in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. While it was very important for reconciling opposing elites, it ended up turning those who had been fighting for freedom into victims and supplicants of the state. This view can also be seen on the left, where it is believed to be sufficient to account for continental problems as a consequence of Africa having been colonized. It ends up reinforcing a narrative that Africans are incapable of making history.

Political agency

How is an emancipatory politics developed and by whom?

If we start from idea that everyone is capable of thought, we must listen to what people are saying when they organize collectively. We need to hear what people are saying, how they are making decisions, what is happening, are some people being excluded, and so forth. People may not be using the language we use. They may not be using the language of class or ethnicity, for example, or even terms like neoliberalism.

Here in South Africa, for example, the concept of neoliberalism is bandied about all over the place (as ‘globalization’ used to be in the 1990s), but for most people the main issue isn’t necessarily the economy, it’s rather their relationship with state and power (the police, local thugs, local politicians, chiefs, and so on).

If what people are saying is that they want our interests recognized the same as others, there may be no emancipatory content. If they are arguing, however, that they want their interests to be recognized because everyone has to be treated in the same manner, that all human beings must be treated the same, then they are saying something else. Those expressions are the possible seeds of alternative emancipatory thinking.

In popular politics, there is a distinction between ideas that reflect interests and social place (we want to be included, we want houses, jobs) and ideas of universality and humanity. Both emerge in combination in particular contexts of mass struggles and exist as a dialectic.

You can see the contradictions, for example, in the Haitian revolution. It is clear that the reality of white oppression led rebels to kill whites, but it is also clear that Toussaint Louverture doesn’t think simply as a black man but as a bearer of universal enlightenment thought and is happy to enlist Polish soldiers to fight against slaveholders and the French.

Fanon also stressed the involvement of whites in the Algerian revolution. The struggle for freedom is never a narrow identitarian struggle. It may end up like that, of course, but then this means that the emancipatory content of the struggle has been lost and state identitarian politics have become dominant.

Can civil society and social movements develop emancipatory politics?

It’s important to remember when the idea of civil society became widespread. It was in the 1980s, following on from popular democratization efforts in Poland and South Africa. It was based on a neoliberal idea of politics which argued that civil society is the domain of freedom, where different interests can organize themselves.

Civil society is treated as a domain of contestation between interests.  I do not think that in itself it can be a source of emancipatory politics because interests cannot be (in themselves) a source of emancipation. Emancipatory politics have to distance themselves from the idea of interests and identities, as I have already stressed.

In the book, I talk about ‘civil society’ and ‘uncivil society’, as well as ‘traditional society’, as domains of state politics. States in Africa rule in civil society by giving people the right to have rights. Put simply, in South Africa, for example, if police come to the door to search your house, they are supposed to have a court order. In civil society, you have the right to privacy and to freedom from random arrest. But the reality for most people is that the police kick the door down because those people, the poor, the majority of blacks, the unemployed, don’t have the right to rights. They are not ruled within civil society but within uncivil society. In their communities, the police and the state more broadly can act against their rights with impunity.

In the Global South, there is a distinction, as Partha Chatterjee has noted, between rights and entitlement. Rights are very much a middle-class phenomenon. So, civil society ends up being a middle-class domain where the state rules through the right to rights, while the majority are ruled by the state within a domain of uncivil society where the state rules frequently (but not always) through the deployment of violence. And in uncivil society, people respond with violence too. This is what leads to xenophobic violence, because violence is seen as a legitimate way of resolving political issues and problems. People ruled by neo-colonial violence react violently.

Therefore, if we talk about civil society, we are talking about the democratic states’ view of what it considers democracy to be about, about state politics for the powerful, professionals and so on.

The state only recognizes civil society organizations (CSOs), including social movements, if they are concerned with defending interests, not with defending universal humanity. For the state sees itself as possessing a monopoly of the idea of the universal. States cannot tolerate organizations which talk of universality because this challenges state monopoly. States will emphasize that trade unions represent workers, women’s organizations represent women, and so on, in order to divide people and distract them from political systems of domination such as liberal capitalism.

Civil society is frequently seen as composed of NGOs, which are ostensibly concerned with empowering people, but are doing precisely the opposite. They are run by professionals who see themselves as speaking for, as representing, the disempowered. Interestingly, in South Africa during the 1980s, people had empowered themselves long before the arrival of NGOs without any help. After 1990, the NGOs no longer acted as supports to independently organized popular movements. They came with their own ‘empowerment’ agendas. Empowerment programmes are really disempowerment programmes.

Social movements are here, but what’s important is the extent to which they think of questions of universality and move in their thinking beyond ideas of identities, interests, parties and states.

Even social movements which are more universally embraced by the left can be problematic precisely because they are social, in other words they are seen as restricted to particular interests and identities. So, you have a movement of indigenous people, but are these organizations thinking beyond their identity/social interest? And if they are thinking more universally, then they are strictly speaking no longer a ‘social’ movement but instead may be in the process of becoming a mass or popular movement.

If you remain at the level of thinking in terms of ‘social’ movements, then that usually leads to starting to think about the need for a political party to unite this group of social movements. This is supposed to be a ‘higher stage’ but ends up depoliticizing movements in favour of their ‘representatives’ in political parties.  The recent cases of Bolivia, Greece and Spain come particularly to mind. We need to think beyond that. These terms of course represent something real. Social movements are here, but what’s important is the extent to which they think of questions of universality and move in their thinking beyond ideas of identities, interests, parties and states.

What about class?

Popularly organized classes, such as trade unions for workers, equally represent their own interests. What Marx argued made an egalitarian future possible was that through its own organization, the proletariat could represent the interests of all humanity, of the people as a whole. The idea was that the working class was the agent of history and acted in the interests of the whole of humanity.

Today we must think differently because there is no given social class which will deliver humanity from the barbarism and wars inherent in capitalism. Of course, people organize as classes, and are located in classes, but certainly don’t always act as a class. It’s an old argument in social science, that it takes a specific politics to bring workers together politically and to form them into a class. The bourgeoisie coheres politically around its control of the state, but the working people cannot do so for reasons already stated.

In truth, the working class worldwide has not had a political existence anywhere since the collapse of communist parties, which tried to create a working class as a political agent. Workers still exist but are very divided, and many people are not even working or only exist in precarious conditions, giving rise to the term ‘precariat’. So, what unifies them?

For Marx, unity was brought about by working in production together, and through discipline and learning the capacity for and power of collective action, organizing collectively. But if there is no place for working together, where is the political potential for a unified working class? Politics has to be created in and through practice. We can’t assume that just because workers are being smashed, that they are going to rise up, appealing to a universal freedom from oppression.

South Africa lessons

You write in your book about your experiences in South Africa’s movements guiding your thinking on this.

I come from and my thinking is firmly grounded within the Marxist tradition. I was involved in supporting the underground ANC struggle against apartheid. In the 1980s, South Africa experienced a mass popular movement that attempted to enable people to gain some control over their daily lives.

During this period, roughly 1984 to 1986, politics was thought in a particular way. It wasn’t party politics because all popular parties were banned; these movements were quite spontaneous and took over or attempted to transform many state functions in urban townships: transport, cleaning campaigns, schooling, popular justice, self-defense and so on.

These should not be idealized, as violent excesses did take place, yet at the same time people acquired the capacity to control their lives collectively and open vigorous debates could take place free from state control. Popular inventiveness was enabled and crime virtually banned from many townships. This was known as the movement for ‘people’s power’ – the term originating in the Philippines and the struggles against the Marcos regime.

From 1987 onwards, however, the state locked up many militant activists and removed the leadership from any ability to organize. As a result, nationalist politics became gradually more coercive, less democratically based. The ANC had no organizational presence in the country to speak of although its prestige was enormous and its brand of nationalism was dominant. It was uniquely an organization in exile, hierarchically organized as a political party and thinking in militaristic terms. It engaged in various diplomatic initiatives and in organizing a largely ineffective guerrilla campaign.

From the late 1980s various popular organizations began to regularly visit the ANC headquarters in the Zambian capital, Lusaka. Gradually, rather than being self-empowered and self-organized under their own forms of decision-making, there was a shift to listening to instructions from the ANC in exile.

After 1986, there was a distinct move away from bottom-up to top-down politics, from popular politics to state politics.

In other words, there was a distinct move away from bottom-up to top-down politics, from popular politics to state politics. This came at the same time as the arrival of NGOs and foreign aid organizations that further encouraged this process. People started thinking politics in terms of power: how to fill posts, how to have majority support, how to dominate committees and eventually government.

Democratic decision-making processes had frequently used a system of delegates whereby people were delegated to represent organizations and then come back to report; this system was particularly common in trade unions. This system gradually fell by the wayside as ‘report backs’ were less frequently used and delegates were replaced by representatives. It amounted to a process of depoliticization, represented at its height by Nelson Mandela, who addressed protesters with words such as: ‘Please be patient, give us time to act on your behalf’.

This kind of politics had the effect of systematically demobilizing people, and led politicians to think they represented people, speaking on their behalf and replacing what the people were actually saying with their own ideas.

As Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Durban shack-dwellers’ movement, eventually learnt to say, ‘Don’t speak for us. Speak with us’. This idea must be at the core of all relations between popular movements and those in power.

The process South Africa has gone through to where we are today has never been explained except as betrayal. That’s a simple descriptive statement of what happened; it does not constitute an explanation.

In my work, I wanted to understand how we can construct and sustain a politics that is democratic, popular and which can appeal to everyone. The work of French theorists such as Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière, for example, attempts to think politics in its own terms, not by reducing it to society, to the economy to the development of history or whatever. Through the use of their theoretical insights, and through my study of African movements, this led to the ideas in the book, Thinking Freedom in Africa.

Tell us about some of the emancipatory struggles that inspired you and from which we can learn.

Well, one I have mentioned is Abahlali baseMjondolo. This movement emerged in 2005 as an organization of shack-dwellers to defend poor people against evictions in Durban, fighting the municipal government and local state to remain on what turns out to be prime real-estate land. They had aspects of the law on their side – that prevented them from being forcibly removed – and they used that effectively. But they also moved from fighting for access to housing to getting involved in struggles against xenophobia, organizing solidarity with refugees from the Congo, for example.

Perhaps because they are a multicultural community, they understand problems of ethnic/identity politics, which in South Africa, is frequently represented by institutions such as the chieftaincy that are also established in urban and peri-urban areas. Having to struggle against the ethnic politics of division, they have developed their own unique ideas of universality based on popular African traditions.

They are also unique in how they are structured. They don’t have branches in the typical sense that respond to a central organization.  They have been so far able to withstand the most severe forms of repression, including assassination and murder.

Each branch acts independently and adheres to Abahlali’s general positions such as political independence, fighting to defend land occupations, communal access to resources and so on. Most branches are in the Durban area but they have also begun to have branches in different parts of the country. The central organization, as far as it exists, is there to support struggles of each branch. They have a very sophisticated website that reflects this.

Apart from a short hiatus, in 2012, they have consistently argued that political parties do not represent the interests of the poor, using them only as voting fodder. They have strongly maintained their independence from academics, NGOs and civil society more generally. They have been reasonably successful in maintaining their independence and now have around 30,000 members.

Interestingly, I have been struck by how closely the statement by Abahlali against xenophobic violence in South Africa resembles prior African historical formulations of universal humanity during periods of struggle within completely different contexts.

The idea that ‘every person is a person’ or ‘every life is a life’ expresses in simple terms the universality of humanity and can be drawn upon during emancipatory struggles

For example, as early as 1222, the Mandinka Hunters’ guild from that part of Africa known as the Manden (basically covering parts of today’s Guinea, Mali and Senegal) affirmed that ‘Every human life is a life’. This statement was initially developed in response to the instituting of slavery in the country. It was followed by the statement that ‘the essence of slavery is today extinguished from […] one border to the other of the Manden’. In other words, during the same period as English barons adopted the ‘Magna Carta’ to restrain the powers of King John, Africans were making statements against slavery which emphasized the universality of the human.

Moreover, during the struggle against slavery in Saint Domingue – in other words from 1791 to 1804 and beyond – the African slaves who rebelled against the French and defeated British, Spanish as well as French armies, developed a famous saying which went (in Creole) ‘Tout moun se moun men si pas memn moun’ meaning ‘every person is a person even though they are not the same person’.

The idea that ‘every person is a person’ or ‘every life is a life’ expresses in simple terms the universality of humanity and can be drawn upon during emancipatory struggles. This specific idea of the universal is a unique contribution of African peoples to humanity.

Content not available.
Please allow cookies by clicking Accept on the banner

Interview with Lindela Figlan of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a South African social movement of people who live in informal settlements.

Beyond the state

How today do you express the universal in structures other than the state?

The real question of politics is how you sustain the egalitarian content of mass movements beyond their historical limitations. What I mean here is that all emancipatory political subjectivities are limited in time; they are ‘sequential’ – they arise and then they fade away, usually reverting to state identitarian politics.

This happens because all emancipatory politics combine, in a dialectic, features of the defence of interests and identities (state thinking) with the politics of universal humanity (emancipatory thinking). That dialectic is always unstable and therefore is limited in time, its ‘sequence’. In order to extend the sequence, the dialectic itself must be extended. This is not at all easy.

An emancipatory politics regularly reaches a point where it finds it difficult to address the political questions it wishes to address, without sacrificing ideas of universality, so most typically the dialectic of thought disappears and politics become state subjectivities. Most typically this occurs as a result of a process of representation; the people no longer speak for themselves through delegates but alienate their will (as Rousseau put it) to representatives who speak for them.

This is what happened in South Africa; it’s also what happened in Tahrir square in Cairo. Rojava, in the Kurdish region of Syria – where people are seeking to establish a self-governed territory based on principles of democratic socialism, gender equality and ecological sustainability – might show a different way of doing things, but it is having to do so under conditions of military siege.

The point is that all thought is limited and limiting because it operates through specific categories and concepts. If we continue to think in old categories to address new questions we will not be able to progress to overcome capitalism or even to sustain life. That is a lesson of history.

People in their own circumstances have to develop their own thinking about this question, but what is central is to be able to listen to what people say when they struggle collectively, when they become agents of their own history. We know, for example, that political organization is crucially important, but it doesn’t have to take the shape of a party, nor does it have to be directed at taking state power.

An organization outside the state has to be maintained, one which refuses to enter the state and play its representational game, while it is able to express politically and to coordinate movements politically

It should be clear that we cannot achieve a different world based on what people have in common (call it whatever you will – it used to be called ‘communism’) via the control of state power. What is critical is that the dialectic of people thinking politics has to be sustained, it can’t be collapsed into questions of representation. An organization outside the state has to be maintained, one which refuses to enter the state and play its representational game, while it is able to express politically and to coordinate movements politically.

I believe that the United Democratic Front (UDF) in South Africa between 1984 and 1986 was such an organization from which we can learn, and my book talks about this experience at some length. The UDF provided a political ‘umbrella’ for a multitude of popular movements that it guided, organized and united politically, thereby ensuring that they operated in unison. At the same time, it did not wish to achieve state power for itself.

In terms of relationships with the state, one has to ask what kind of state we want. I am in agreement with Raquel Guttiérez, who has noted that the Bolivian state under Morales found it difficult if not impossible to be a ‘state of social movements’. A ‘socialist state’ has to be a state which is also not a state.

This was something Marx understood a long time ago. The state has to ‘wither away’ he said (although the formulation is very problematic), there has to be a way that power develops from popular initiatives and creativity, that doesn’t monopolize all politics to itself. The difficulty is that while states are not transformed, popular organizations have to find a way to function independently of the state and not be controlled by state interests. This is what I have tried to suggest in my book.

What would be your message to those involved in struggles for social and environmental justice. How can we think freedom?

There is no formula and I wouldn’t wish to prescribe one. Whatever political attitude one develops towards the state depends entirely on specific conjunctural circumstances. What is imperative is for intellectuals and activists not to substitute themselves for the struggling people. Leadership concerns (among other things) guidance, not control or representation. Freedom is that dialectical process where we all overcome our limitations and restrictions and we realize collectively that we are able to achieve what we previously thought to be impossible.

À propos des auteurs

Michael Neocosmos is Emeritus Professor in Humanities at Rhodes University and Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute.  He is the author of numerous academic articles and books including most recently Thinking Freedom in Africa: toward a theory of emancipatory politics (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2016) that received the Frantz Fanon Outstanding Book Award for 2017.

Michael Neocosmos


If you are enjoying State of Power, please consider making a donation. No amount is too small. Your contribution will ensure our independence and sustain the Transnational Institute into the future.