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.